South Africa versus the world: The Caster Semenya affair

She has become a heroine in her homeland – and a political pawn for the ANC

Daniel Howden,Africa Correspondent
Wednesday 26 August 2009 00:00 BST

With plastic horns blaring, a surging crowd dressed in yellow and green and printed placards filling the airport, travellers arriving at Johannesburg airport yesterday might have thought the World Cup had started early. But the raucous and indignant crowd were there for a political rally of sorts, the homecoming parade for an 18-year-old world champion whose victory has been overshadowed by questions over her gender.

Any hopes that Caster Semenya had of a quiet return to her old life were blown away as her new status as a national heroine was shouted to the rooftops.

The newspapers that declared her "Our First Lady of Sport" or "Our Golden Girl" had become printed placards and were being handed out in their hundreds outside as people defied the cold for a glimpse of an overnight sensation.

The apparently shy 18-year-old who was "too traumatised" to speak to reporters, according to officials, but had to contend with thousands of supporters flooding the airport flourishing banners and creating a crush trying to catch a glimpse of her. Dressed in her national team tracksuit and flanked by South Africa's two other medallists, the shocked-looking 800m champion was hustled through the tumult to a stage outside. Waiting was Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the arch populist of the ruling African National Congress who wasted little time in calling her "my grandchild".

"We are here to tell the whole world how proud we are of our little girl," the ex-wife of Nelson Mandela told the cheering fans. "They can write what they like – we are proud of her."

The athlete's obvious discomfort in the spotlight did little to dissuade others from turning the homecoming into a stage-managed political carnival. Even as she was at home yesterday, news broke that preliminary tests indicated her testosterone levels were three times higher than ordinarily present in a woman. Hormone tests vary widely and scientists have warned that conclusive results could take weeks rather than days to emerge.

South Africa's President, Jacob Zuma, was in defiant mode at the presidential guest house in Pretoria. "Msholozi" as he's popularly known sounded a warning to anyone at the IAAF thinking of stripping Semenya of her medal. "They're not going to remove the gold medal. She won it. So that question does not arise."

The ANC has been quick to pick up on popular anger at the perceived humiliation of the young South African by international athletic authorities. Yesterday the party bused in hundreds of members from its women's league to give a volume boost to proceedings at the airport.

Speaking at the athlete's reception, President Zuma pressed genuine anger at track and field authorities: "It is one thing to seek to ascertain whether or not an athlete has an unfair advantage over others, but it is another to publicly humiliate an honest professional and competent athlete."

With the ANC suffering from domestic travails ranging from industrial disputes to township protests, some analysts believe the "us and them" gender controversy has proved a welcome distraction.

The gold medallist who has shied away from press conferences since her impressive World Championship win was clearly uncomfortable in the hubbub. In the arrivals hall she had to have her arm lifted to salute the crowd by one of her fellow South African medal winners. Outside on a platform in the car park she could be seen rubbing her face and exhaling nervously. The athlete managed a thumbs up wave from the stage and said a quick: "Hi everybody" before joining briefly in a dance.

Her mother, Dorcas, had no such inhibitions and was up on stage wearing a traditional headdress. "She has lifted our hearts. We feel powerful because of her," she said. The feisty Dorcas has rebutted any accusations over her daughter's gender as only a mother could, reminding questioners that the runner comes from her womb and that "there is nothing I don't know about her".

The controversy that has erupted since news of the gender test broke during the Athletics World Championship in Berlin has provoked an angry response in South Africa. Questions over her deep voice, masculine appearance and dramatically improved performances have been met in the rainbow nation with accusations of imperialist or racist attitudes.

"For a long time in this country we let people set the agenda for us," said Leonard Chuene, the head of Athletics South Africa, who has resigned his seat on the IAAF board in protest at Semenya's treatment.

"We are not going to allow Europeans to describe and defeat our children."

The athlete who set the fastest time in the world this year while winning the women's 800m at a canter, is not being accused of cheating, she is being tested to establish whether she has a medical condition that blurs her gender and gives her an unfair advantage.

It is now understood that the IAAF had been monitoring the South African athlete prior to the Berlin Games after her incredible improvements in performance. The track and field authorities had asked the South Africans to withdraw her before the race but news of the gender test leaked out by accident because a fax was sent to the wrong person.

Semenya has so far declined to speak about the suspicions and when she did eventually say something yesterday she stuck to narrating her triumph on the track and not the furore that has followed her off it. She revealed the last words of her coach before the final, when he told her "'(In the) last 200, kill them'. I did what he said, but I took a lead in the last 400. I celebrated the last 200. It was great."

ANC MP Mandla Mandela, the grandson of Nelson Mandela, said many of his compatriots saw evidence of racism in her treatment. "As an African athlete she has been the victim of prejudice. What I'm saying is that an athlete from the US or the EU would have been treated differently."

Expressing his sympathy for her situation, he added: "Today she must be questioning herself as a woman."

The controversy has caused deep embarrassment for the IAAF, whose president Lamine Diack confirmed that an internal inquiry into the handling of the affair was underway.

The view from South Africa

Schmeagle in Daily Dispatch Just because she is built like a man and looks a little like a man now they are discriminating against her. I think they should leave her alone.

Zam in Daily Dispatch I don't get the fuss – it's easy to prove, just let them get on with it. Athletics SA was asked to do it and they didn't. As a result, it became international news – unfair on her.

Mpho Moerane in Daily Dispatch I have the same situation at home... I am a woman and my partner just happens to be a woman as well, although to look at her many people refer to her as sir (if you understand what I mean). It's not her fault she was made to look like a man but in actual fact was a woman with all woman parts and all the monthly happenings. People are just people and want to be accepted regardless of what they look like.

Zongz in Daily Dispatch Utter nonsense and discrimination, I can't rule out racism, because these whites can't stand to see a black beating them... let them conduct these tests, we are proud of Semenya and we fully support her.

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