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August 21, 2009

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South Africans come to the defense of Semenya

FAMILY, coaches and South African officials came to the defense of new world 800-meter champion Caster Semenya yesterday, saying talent and hard training were behind the success of the teenage runner who has been ordered to take a gender test to prove she is a woman.

The 18-year-old Semenya dominated her rivals to win the 800 meters by a big margin on Wednesday despite revelations that she was undergoing a gender verification test because of concerns she does not meet the requirements to compete as a woman.

"She said to me she doesn't see what the big deal is all about," South Africa team manager Phiwe Mlangeni-Tsholetsane said yesterday. "She believes it is God given talent and she will exercise it."

Mlangeni-Tsholetsane said Semenya was thrilled with winning her first world title. "She was over the moon," Mlangeni-Tsholetsane said.

Semenya wasn't the only one wondering what all the fuss was about.

"She is my little girl," her father, Jacob, told the Sowetan newspaper. "I raised her and I have never doubted her gender. She is a woman and I can repeat that a million times."


Semenya's paternal grandmother, Maputhi Sekgala, said the controversy "doesn't bother me that much because I know she's a woman."

"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," Sekgala told the South African daily The Times.

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 Mauritius.

The teenager's stunning improvement in times, along with her muscular build and deep voice, sparked speculation about her gender.

Semenya did not attend the medal winners' news conference after winning Wednesday night's race by a margin of more than two seconds in 1 minute, 55.45 seconds.

She was replaced at the dais by IAAF general secretary Pierre Weiss.

Weiss said the testing was ordered because of "ambiguity, not because we believe she is cheating."

"But today there is no proof and the benefit of doubt must always be in favor of the athlete," Weiss said.

The verification 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, expressed dismay about the entire controversy.

"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."


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