Semenya, a synonym of nonchalance

South African runner maintains her calm despite the heated gender controversy

Caster SemenyaCaster SemenyaShe won the gold in 1:55.45, leading time in the world this year, bettering her own 1:56.72 set at the African junior championships last month, and went on a customary victory lap. Nothing is amiss, nothing wrong, the muscular South African with a manly appearance seemed to suggest.

But the ruling body of the world track and field, the International Association of Athletics Federations, is going ahead with a medical test to quash the doubts raised in various quarters about her gender.

IAAF spokesperson Nick Davies said the investigation started after Semenya’s stunning breakthrough at the African Junior Championships last month when she ran a 1:56.72. She was equally stunning in her win here on Wednesday, winning by more than two seconds from defending champion Janeth Jepkosgei of Kenya.

After the race, the IAAF shielded Semenya from the prying eyes of the media, preventing her from attending the mandatory press conference for the medallists. Instead, IAAF general secretary Pierre Weiss addressed the media along with Jepkosgei and bronze medallist Jennifer Meadows of Britain.

“She is young, she is only 18 and she is inexperienced. You’ll be asking questions that you have the right to ask but she may not be able to answer those. We need to protect her, she is not prepared for a situation like this,” said Weiss while stating that his body could not have acted quicker to prevent such an embarrassing situation. “She was unknown three weeks ago. Nobody could anticipate this one. Sorry, we are fast but we are not lion.”

He said the IAAF will redistribute the medals if it were proved that Semenya is not a female. “An investigation is on to find out the real facts. It could take days or even weeks for the verdict. As of today, we don’t have any proof to suggest that the person in question is a male. The benefit of doubt should go to the athlete, that’s why we have allowed her to compete here,” he said.

Gender issue in sport has a long and complicated history, with the most famous cases in Olympics involving German high jumper Dora Ratjen and American Stella Walsh. Ratjen won the women's high jump gold at the 1936 Olympics but it was revealed later that Ratjen was a man and was forced to compete as a woman by the Nazis.

Walsh, of Polish origin, won the 100m gold in 1932 and silver in 1936 but after her death in 1980, it was revealed she had male genitalia. The most recent case is that of S Santhi, the Indian athlete who was stripped of her 800M silver at the 2006 Asian Games in Doha after gender verification.

Gender tests started at the Olympic Games in 1968 in response to long-standing complaint that many male athletes were taking part in the women’s section.

But after many questions were raised about the tests, including its reliability, they were halted by the Internatioanal Olympic Committee prior to the 2000 Sydney Olympics. The IAAF stopped mandatory testing in 1991 but continued it on specific complaints.

According to Weiss, the investigation on Semenya was being conducted both in South Africa and Berlin. Semenya, who has faced questions in her country as well regarding her gender, had initially refused to undergo the test, Davies said. The 18-year-old was to the receive her gold medal later on Thursday at the Olympic Stadium.

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