Caster Semenya row:
The decision to subject the gold medal-winning
athlete Caster Semenya to sex tests over claims
she is a man has provoked outrage in
her village and throughout South Africa
Student Debra Morolong chalks defiantly on
a school blackboard. "Caster always
is a winner," she writes.
"I am very proud about Caster cause is
my best friend. Caster is the champion in 2010."
The classroom has cheap wooden desks lining
a bare concrete floor.
Paint is peeling off the graffiti-strewn walls
Caster Semenya was just another pupil in
this impoverished corner of South Africa
until her body propelled her to
international glory – and very public humiliation.
Semenya, 18, stormed to victory last week in
the women's 800 metres at the
world athletics championships in Berlin.
But her rags-to-riches journey had been
called into question even before
the starting gun.
The athlete's muscular build, deep voice,
facial hair and suddenly improved
performances led to a frenzy of speculation
The governing body of world athletics confirmed
that it has ordered Semenya to undergo
a "gender verification test" to prove she did
not have an unfair biological advantage.
British bookmakers offered prices on whether
she will prove to be a man, woman
But although the debate is ostensibly
about sex, many in South Africa believe
it has a racial dimension.
Political leaders have accused
Western "imperialists" of a public lynching,
comparing her case to that
of Saartjie Baartman, an 18th-century
Khosian woman who paraded naked
in Europe for colonialists to prod
her genitals with their umbrellas.
Close friends such as Debra Morolong,
who have known Semenya most of her life,
say that the sex test is futile because
they already know the answer.
"She's a girl," said Morolong, who
was a pupil with Semenya at
Nthema Secondary School in the village
of Fairlie in Limpopo province.
"She wore skirts at primary school
but then she wore trousers or tracksuits."
Semenya has many male friends too.
Ezekiel Laka, 20, who captains
the football team in which she was
the sole female player, said: "Many people
say she's a boy but in fact she's a girl.
I have proof.
When we played football she went somewhere
far away from the boys so she could
change in private.
She tells people, 'I'm a girl'."
The loyalty of Semenya's friends and
neighbours is striking.
South Africa's rural communities are
typically regarded as bastions of social
conservatism divided into traditional
gender roles and expectations of femininity.
But there is no evidence that Semenya,
an androgynous tomboy who played football
and wore trousers, was ostracised
by her peers.
Instead, they are shocked at what they
perceive as the intolerance and
prurience of western commentators.
"They are jealous," said Dorcus Semenya,
the athlete's mother, who led villagers
in jubilant singing and dancing on Friday.
"I say to them, go to hell, you don't know
what you're saying.
They're jealous because they don't want
black people improving their status."
There was little in Semenya's upbringing that
could have prepared her for the
global firestorm now engulfing her self-identity.
Her home village, Masehlong, is an isolated
outpost in the bush, surrounded by
miles of dry and dusty scrubland.
It has recently acquired electricity
but water comes from a communal tap
linked to a borehole.
With unemployment estimated at 80%,
young men sit idle in the afternoon sun
and families depend on subsistence farming,
keeping hens, goats and cows on
their wire-fenced homesteads.
Semenya's father, Jacob, works as
a gardener for a city council.
It is enough to provide for a relatively
comfortable five-room house with TV
and DVD player for Semenya and
her four sisters and one brother.
The modest homestead also has a traditional
round building with a thatched roof and
a scattering of plants coming into blossom.
In a corner sit a pile of concrete blocks.
Sports facilities for the young hopeful were
virtually non-existent, forcing Semenya
to train on uneven dirt tracks.
Eric Modiba, principal at Nthema
Secondary School, where Semenya was
a pupil from 2004 until last year,
said: "The sports facilities here are poor
and the ground she used to practice
on was pathetic.
I used to transport her to
a neighbouring village where
the ground was more standardised."
Modiba runs the 285-pupil school from
his office inside a prefab steel container.
The classrooms are three basic brick buildings
in a sand gravel yard with a water pump,
surrounded by a mesh fence topped
with barbed wire.
The adjacent football pitch has
fallen into disrepair, consisting of
more dirt than grass, while the goalmouths
are made up of rusting posts and
an uneven wood crossbar.
The young Semenya wore dresses
and skirts and played with dolls like other girls.
But at school she became something of
a tomboy and developed a love for football,
softball and wrestling.
When she reached secondary school,
she abandoned skirts in favour of trousers.
Her friend Boitumelo Noshion said: "Sometimes
in the class she's asked about boyfriends
but she's not interested.
But she's mentioned that she wants
to have children one day."
Semenya is now a first-year sports
science student at Pretoria University,
where staff express similar bafflement
at the gender controversy.
She has gone from a virtual unknown to
the world's fastest woman over 800m
this year when she clocked 1:56.72 at
the African junior championships in Mauritius.
She sliced more than a second off
that with her winning time of 1:55.45
in Berlin on Wednesday,
but was so overwhelmed by the global
controversy that she had to
be persuaded to accept her gold medal.
The International Association of
Athletics Federations (IAAF) is standing
its ground, saying it only made the sex test
public after it had already been
reported in the media.
The test, which takes weeks to complete,
requires a physical medical evaluation,
and includes reports from a gynaecologist,
an internal medicine specialist
and an expert on gender.
The IAAF says it was obliged to investigate
after Semenya made improvements of
25 seconds at 1500m and eight seconds
at 800m – the sort of dramatic breakthroughs
that usually arouse suspicion of drug use.
It is not the first time that the gender of
female competitors has been challenged.
The IAAF denies charges of racism,
arguing that its president is a black man.
But 15 years after the end of apartheid,
public discourse in South Africa can
quickly become racially charged.
The governing African National Congress has
vehemently condemned the sex test and
the president of its youth league,
Julius Malema, has lambasted the IAAF
for "this attack on this beautiful woman".
South Africa plans to lodge an official
complaint with the UN high commissioner
for human rights for undermining
Semenya's rights and privacy.
Leonard Chuene, the head of South African
athletics who has stepped down from
the IAAF until the matter is settled,
said: "We are talking about a child here,
whose name has been dragged
through the dirt by an organisation
which should know better.
"If gender tests have to take place,
they should have been done quietly.
It is a taboo subject.
How can a girl live with this stigma?
By going public on the tests,
the IAAF has let down this young child,
and I will fight tooth and nail to protect her."
Describing the speculation about
Semenya's gender as "racist",
he added: "Who are white people
to question the makeup of an African girl?
"I say this is racism, pure and simple.
In Africa, as in any other country,
parents look at new babies and can see
straight away whether to raise them
as a boy or a girl.
We are now being told that it is
not so simple.
But the people who question
these things have no idea how
much shame such a slur
can bring on a family.
"They are doubting the parents of this child
and questioning the way they brought her up.
God has his say on what people are.
He made us all.
A young girl has no input as she enters
the world on what she will look like.
"It is outrageous for people from
other countries to tell us
'We want to take her to a laboratory
because we don't like her nose,
or her figure.'"
Semenya was today being cared for
by specialist counsellors at
South Africa's team hotel in Berlin.
Today the entire team will enjoy an
end-of-competition dinner before
flying back to Johannesburg tomorrow.
Chuene said: "We are caring for this child
because nobody else will.
She came here anonymously and now
she is trembling about the media.
She cannot understand why she is
being treated like this.
In some ways she is very strong.
I have not seen her cry about this.
But in other ways she is very much the child.
She is desperate to get home to her family,
who know her and have raised her.
"She is very upset, but on the surface
she is OK.
The other athletes are treating her as if
nothing has happened.
At the leaving party she will dance
with everyone else.
It is right that we do not let
this dominate her thoughts."
That mood is reflected by villagers
in Limpopo, who are preparing
a enthusiastic celebration for Semenya
when she returns on Tuesday,
partly as a message of defiance
to the watching world.
At 18 years old, Caster Semenya is
quite probably frightened and confused.
Her dignity has been attacked,
her profoundest sense of self laid bare
with potentially damaging psychological
But when she returns home,
she seems assured of a special welcome
from family and friends who have never
sat in judgment on her nature.
They have always accepted her simply
as Caster, the girl who can outrun them all.
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