South African Runner’s Relatives Dismiss Gender Controversy

August 20, 2009 - 2:20 PM
In the poor, rural village where South African runner Caster Semenya grew up, relatives on Thursday brushed off questions about her deep voice and muscular build that have prompted the world governing body for track and field to seek gender tests.

South Africa's Caster Semenya celebrates after winning the gold medal in the final of the Women's 800m during the World Athletics Championships in Berlin on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2009. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Fairlie, South Africa (AP) - In the poor, rural village where South African runner Caster Semenya grew up, relatives on Thursday brushed off questions about her deep voice and muscular build that have prompted the world governing body for track and field to seek gender tests.
 
"That's how God made her," said her cousin, Evelyn Sekgala, who recalls Semenya being teased about her boyish looks while growing up in Fairlie, a village at the end of a dirt road where the biggest traffic jam on Thursday was a herd of goats.
 
The 18-year-old runner's father, Jacob, told the Sowetan newspaper: "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."
 
A teacher first got Semenya interested in running, her cousin said in this village some 300 miles (500 kilometers) north of Johannesburg. The family was pleased she took up an interest in sports, and not in drinking and partying like other teenagers. Her grandmother would give her money to enter races.
 
South Africa team manager Phiwe Mlangeni-Tsholetsane said Semenya was thrilled about winning Wednesday's 800-meter world title.
 
"She said to me she doesn't see what the big deal is all about," Mlangeni-Tsholetsane said. "She believes it is God-given talent and she will exercise it."
 
About three weeks ago, the IAAF asked the South African athletics federation to conduct the gender test after Semenya burst onto the scene by posting a world leading time of 1 minute, 56.72 seconds at the African junior championships in Bambous, Mauritius.
 
The test, which takes weeks to complete, requires a physical medical evaluation, and includes reports from a gynecologist, endocrinologist, psychologist, an internal medicine specialist and an expert on gender.
 
Gideon Sam, the president of South Africa's Olympic governing body, congratulated Semenya on a "truly remarkable achievement."
 
"We condemn the way she was linked with such media speculation and allegation, especially on a day she ran in the final of her first major world event," Sam said. "It's the biggest day of her life."
 
South Africa's governing party, the African National Congress, also defended Semenya, calling on South Africans to "rally behind our golden girl."
 
"We condemn the motives of those who have made it their business to question her gender due to her physique and running style. Such comments can only serve to portray women as being weak," the party said in a statement. "Caster is not the only woman athlete with a masculine build."
 
In an interview with South Africa's Beeld newspaper, Semenya's former headmaster said he didn't realize she was a girl because she wore pants instead of a skirt to school.
 
"She was always rough and played with the boys. She liked soccer and she wore pants to school. She never wore a dress. It was only in grade 11 that I realized she's a girl," Eric Modiba, head of the Nthema Secondary School, told the newspaper.
 
Morris Gilbert, a media consultant for TuksSport, the University of Pretoria's sports department, said the issue of Semenya's gender has not been raised since she began attending the school, where she is a the freshman studying sports science.
 
"We are all very proud of her and of what she's achieved," Gilbert said. "The university stands behind her all the way."
 
He attributed her recent success to hard work and rigorous training.
 
"She trains a lot," Gilbert said. "If you go to the athletics track, you're sure to find her there. I don't think she had really good training before she came to the university. She's from a very poor area."
 
Semenya's cousin says no one in the area has gotten as far as the teen running sensation. At 50, Sekgala has never been farther than Pretoria, South Africa's capital, which is near Johannesburg.
 
Sekgala says it's her dream that Semenya will one day take the whole family overseas to watch her run.
 
"We'd be very happy if that would happen. I wish her well, God should take care of her, and she should go from strength to strength with her talent."
 
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Associated Press Writer Anita Powell in Johannesburg contributed to this report.