Semenya cannot escape gender controversy

Published : Aug 29, 2009 00:00 IST

South Africa’s Caster Semenya crosses the finish line to win the 800m gold.-AP
South Africa’s Caster Semenya crosses the finish line to win the 800m gold.-AP

South Africa’s Caster Semenya crosses the finish line to win the 800m gold.-AP

Caster Semenya's gold medal in the 800m should have been the proudest moment of the South African teenager's life. But for the athlete whose gender has been scrutinised the world over, it came as no surprise that she was advised to shun the media after her title-winning race.

As the cameras settled on the athlete who has lived her whole life as a female, onlookers pored over their TV screens, studying the woman now rumoured to be a man. Controversy has dogged the 18- year-old since she posted a world leading personal best time of 1 minute 56.72 seconds - an eight second improvement on her time last year - to win gold at the African Junior Championships in Mauritius in July. That's just 0.51 seconds slower than Kelly Holmes' career best.

Standing in lane four alongside Britain's diminutive Jenny Meadows - whose bronze medal was inevitably overshadowed by the hysteria - Semenya's notably developed frame was further exaggerated.

As the athletes took off, Semenya led from the start, determined to ignore the media speculation and focus on her race. The gold medal winner never looked threatened and finished well ahead of the pack with a new personal best of 1:55.45.

The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) revealed that Semenya has been the subject of a gender verification process both in her native South Africa, and since she arrived in Berlin. The official investigation could take weeks to draw conclusions with an endocrinologist, a gynaecologist and a psychologist all involved.

Director of Communications, Nick Davies, was unable to say whether any retrospective action could be taken should Semenya be revealed to have issues surrounding her gender. "I can't say that if X happens in the future that we will, for example, retroactively strip results. It's legally very complex. It's a medical issue. It's not an issue of cheating. We're more concerned for the person not to make this something which is humiliating for her and something which is going to affect her in a negative way.

This is why you will appreciate we have to be discreet. She is a human being who was born as a woman and who has grown up all her life as a woman but who is now in a position where this is being questioned."

Davies' Words suggest that the IAAF are dealing with a sensitive case. Such situations are not altogether unusual in sport. Earlier this year, tennis player Sarah Gronert - a 22-year-old German competing on the WTA tour - had her gender questioned when it was revealed that she was born with both male and female genitalia. Gronert had surgery aged 19 and is now legally considered a woman. At the 1936 Olympics, in the same Berlin stadium, Stella Walsh won silver in the 100 yard dash. After her death, an autopsy revealed she possessed male genitalia as well as female characteristics.

Smiling through the media storm, Meadows celebrated her medal - the first of the 27 year-old's career - and new status as the third fastest British woman in history after posting a personal best time of 1:57.93. She was clearly delighted, politely steering clear of controversy, describing the winner as a "great athlete".

Meadows, who looked out of the medals with 40m to go, pushed hard to earn her title and admitted she had been "disappointed" to earn that she had not made silver. She finished just 0.03 of a second behind Janeth Jepkosgei Busienei of Kenya.

"It's an absolute dream come true," said Meadows. "All the young athletes out there should know that I never made it to a junior final, I was always stuck in the relay. People never thought I would make it but here I am in my first major championships final and I'm number three in the world. It proves you should never say never, you should always believe in yourself. If you work hard and keep the faith, good things will happen."

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009

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