JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — No sooner had Caster Semenya won the 800-meter women's race at the World Athletics Championships in Berlin, than questions were asked about whether she is female.
The International Association of Athletics Federations said it is investigating the gender of Semenya.
The IAAF warned that the investigation may take several weeks, but South Africans won't wait that long to render their verdict: For them, Semenya is undoubtedly a woman. South African newspapers have crowned her the nation's "Golden Girl."
Semenya, 18, was a virtual unknown on the international stage but she shot to prominence Wednesday by dominating the final of the 800-meter race at the World Athletics Championships. She stormed to victory in the 800-meter race with a world record time of one minute and 55.45 seconds — a massive 2.45 seconds ahead of silver medalist and defending champion Janeth Jepkosgei. Semenya's impressive time and muscular physique sparked immediate speculation over whether she was really female and brought the world athletics body, the IAAF, to launch an investigation into the star’s gender.
Semenya was banned from speaking to the media following her sensational final race. The interview above by letsrun.com shows Semenya speaking shortly after her victory in the semi-finals.
Semenya is described in the South African press as a powerfully built athlete with a deep voice and a preference growing up for playing soccer with boys. Her family and friends have come out strongly to defend their champion.
"She is my little girl," her father, Jacob Semenya, told The Sowetan. "I raised her and I have never doubted her gender. She is a woman and I can repeat that a million times. 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."
Her grandmother, Maphuthi Sekgala, said that her granddaughter had been teased for her "boyish looks" as a child but that having raised the girl herself she had no questions about her gender.
"What can I do when they call her a man, when she’s really not a man?" Sekhgala told the Times, a South African newspaper. "It is God who made her look that way."
Semenya has also received official support. Noting that this is National Women's Month, South Africa's ruling party, the African National Congress, congratulated Semenya and condemned those questioning her gender.
"Such comments can only serve to portray women as being weak," said the ANC in a statement. "Caster is not the only woman athlete with a masculine build and the International Association of Athletics Federations should know better." The ANC urged "all South Africans to rally behind our golden girl and shrug off negative and unwarranted questions about her gender."
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. Her birthplace is described as remote and rural. The teenager lived with her grandmother while in 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 realized 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, who has 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."
The IAFF investigation may finally put the questions about Semenya's gender to rest.