South Africa stands by Caster Semenya

Caster Semenya
Caster Semenya

South Africa declared new 800-metre world champion Caster Semenya a “golden girl” Thursday, as the nation rallied around her family to fend off doubts that she is a woman.

Front pages in every major newspaper pictured a triumphant Semenya who powered to a 1min 55.45sec win — the world’s best this year — shortly after the athletics governing body announced her gender was to be verified.

“She is my little girl. I raised her and I have never doubted her gender. She is a woman and I can repeat that a million times,” father Jacob Semenya told the popular tabloid Sowetan which dubbed the champion “Our Golden Girl”.

“For the first time South Africans have someone to be proud of and detractors are already shouting wolf. It is unfair. I wish they would leave my daughter alone.”

The South African government and ruling African National Congress (ANC) stepped into the furore, with the party condemning the speculation as serving to portray woman as weak and calling Semenya a role model for young athletes.

“We call on all South Africans to rally behind our golden girl and shrug off negative and unwarranted questions about her gender,” the ANC said.

Semenya’s 80-year-old grandmother Maphuthi Sekgala told The Times that the first year sports science student had long been teased about her boyish looks and for being the only girl in her local soccer team.

“(The controversy) doesn’t bother me that much because I know she’s a woman — I raised her myself,” she said in her rural village in northern Limpopo province.

“She called me after (the heats) and told me that they think she’s a man. What can I do when they call her a man, when she’s really not a man? It is God who made her look that way.”

Among several angry reactions from leftist groups and heated online and radio debate, the Young Communist League called the gender probe chauvinistic, saying it fed into stereotypes of how woman should look and smacked of racism.

“We see this as an insult to Semenya in particular and African women (even in the Diaspora) in general,” it said.

The South African Football Players Union questioned why the IAAF had singled out Semenya.

“It shows that these imperialist countries can’t afford to accept the talent that Africa as a continent has,” it said.

Semenya was a total unknown a few weeks ago — with her birthplace described as remote and rural. The teenager lived with her grandmother while at high school, growing up without electricity or running water.

Semenya’s former high school head told the Afrikaans broadsheet Beeld the top runner had played with boys, enjoyed soccer and wore long trousers to school.

“I first realised that she was a girl in Grade 11,” he said, explaining how Semenya had moved to stand with a girls team after he had divided the boys and girls for a short running race.

The runner’s proud mother Dorcas, said to have a striking resemblance to her daughter, told The Star that she has always been a “disciplined, kind and patient child…very hardworking and serious in what she wanted to become”.

The runner’s coach Michael Seme laughed off the gender allegations, saying the athlete fielded constant questions about whether she was a boy from younger athletes when training.

“Then she has to explain that she can’t help the fact that her voice is so gruff and that she really is a girl. The remarkable thing is that Caster remains completely calm and never loses her dignity when she is questioned about her gender,” Seme told Beeld.

Semenya had been “crudely humiliated” a few times and the closest Seme said he had seen her to anger was earlier this year when some people wanted her barred from using the ladies restroom.

“Then Caster said: ‘Do you want me to pull down my pants that you can see?’ Those same people came to her later and said they were extremely sorry.”

Source: AFP

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