South Africans rally for Caster

By Celean Jacobson
Updated: August 25, 2009

JOHANNESBURG — Mobbed by a singing, dancing and horn-blowing crowd of supporters at Johannesburg’s airport, South African runner Caster Semenya looked overwhelmed and a little terrified.

The gold-medal-winning teenager at the center of an international controversy over her gender cried “Mama! Mama!” and reached out for her mother as police tried to clear a path through the throngs at the welcoming ceremony in the arrival area.

South Africans rallied around their 800-meter world champion as she returned home Tuesday from Berlin, and even President Jacob Zuma vowed that he would not permit her gold medal to be taken away, no matter what gender tests say.

The International Amateur Athletic Federation has initiated the tests on Semenya, who stunned the world championships last week by her decisive win but whose muscular build and deep voice sparked questions about whether she is a woman.

There was no doubt among the thousands of supporters who greeted the 18-year-old at the airport with posters reading: “Caster You Go Girl!” “Our First Lady of Sport,” and “Caster You Beaut.”

The crowd cheered wildly as she tentatively made her way onto a small stage in a parking lot, but slowly she relaxed, gave a thumbs-up and, breaking into a broad grin, said: “Hi, everybody!”

Clad in the team’s yellow and green team tracksuit with her gold medal dangling from her neck, Semenya even tried a few dance moves.

“She has lifted our hearts,” said Semenya’s mother, Dorcus, wearing a traditional headdress. “We feel powerful because of her.”

She then attended a parade through the capital Pretoria and met with Zuma, displaying the remarkable poise that helped her easily win the 800 hours after world track officials went public with her gender tests.

When asked what he would do if the IAAF revoked the medal, Zuma said: “They’re not going to remove the gold medal. She won it. So that question does not arise.”

The president advised Semenya: “Continue to walk tall.”

“We are proud of you. We love you. These events should not distract us from celebrating your outstanding achievement on the track.”

Semenya strode confidently to the podium and for the first time described the race that won her the gold and the world’s attention.

She said that before the 800-meter final, her coach told her that in the last 200 meters, “‘Kill them.’ I did what he said, but I took a lead in the last 400. I celebrated the last 200.

“It was great,” she said as her teammates stood to applaud.

Semenya, who grew up in deep poverty in South Africa’s rural hinterland, seemed shy and tomboyish but completely at ease with herself.

It was only during a news conference after her arrival — when politicians and sports officials went on a tirade against the IAAF, the media and the West in general — that Semenya seemed to wish she was elsewhere. Semenya never spoke at the news conference and showed little emotion as politicians and sports officials spoke of the humiliation she has suffered.

Leonard Chuene, president of Athletics South Africa, said Semenya was too traumatized to speak at the news conference. “She’s only 18. I’m traumatized myself,” he said.

At one point, her grandmother, in the traditional wide-skirted outfit of their Pedi tribe, pushed through the thicket of TV cameras to ululate praise. That drew a smile from Semenya.

A full-throated laugh from Semenya came at a question about whether she had received hormone injections from Ekkart Arbeit, head coach of the South African team. Arbeit was accused of steroid abuse when he coached in East Germany in the 1970s and 1980s. Chuene said Arbeit had had no direct contact with Semenya.

The Daily Telegraph in London reported that tests done before the world championships indicated that Semenya had three times the normal female level of testosterone in her body, although that does not necessarily mean she was doping. Chuene refused to comment on the report.

“I stand firm. Yes, indeed, she’s a girl,” Chuene said. “We are not going to allow Europeans to describe and define our children.”

Also at Semenya’s side was Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, ex-wife of former President Nelson Mandela, who hit out at the athlete’s detractors.

“To the world out there, who conducted those pseudo-tests to test our gender, they can stuff their insult,” she said. “This is our little girl, and nobody is going to perform any tests on her. We have defeated difficult situations in the history of this country. Don’t touch us.”

South Africans of all races have rallied behind Semenya and many say the allegations against her are motivated by envy and show racial discrimination against Africans.

“There are those that are just jealous. She must ignore them,” said Paisley Sebata, a former schoolmate of Semenya who made a three-hour journey to the airport. “She has showed that South Africa has talent.”

Zuma said South Africa’s minister of sport and recreation has written to the IAAF to express “our disappointment and the manner in which the body has dealt with the matter,” he said.

“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.”

The IAAF, track and field’s governing body, will decide Semenya’s case according to whether her “conditions … accord no advantage over other females” after consulting a gynecologist, an endocrinologist, a psychologist, an internal medicine specialist and a gender expert. The test takes weeks to complete.

NOTE: AP writer Donna Bryson in Pretoria contributed to this report.