Warm welcome home for champ Semenya

Thousands of people welcomed athlete Caster Semenya on her return to Johannesburg on Tuesday, despite a controversy over her gender that marred her victory at the World Athletics Championships.

Semenya smiled broadly as she entered OR Tambo International Airport along with her teammates, while people sang and danced in the corridors and fans hung over railings and crowded around windows to catch a glimpse of her.

Supporters waved home-made placards that read “Our first lady of sport” and “100 percent female woman”.

South Africans have rallied behind Semenya in a national show of support sparked by an announcement last week by the governing body of athletics that she would have to undergo a battery of tests to verify her gender.

The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) made the announcement shortly before the 18-year-old powered to a one minute 55,45 second win in the 800m—the world’s best this year—in Berlin.

Her arrival was broadcast live on television, while police made special traffic arrangements around the airport to accommodate the crowds.

Women wearing brightly coloured traditional dress typical of her region in rural Limpopo blew horns and waved South African flags as she entered the airport.

Semenya arrived along with fellow gold medallist Mbulaeni Mulaudzi, long jump silver medallist Khotso Mokoena, and the rest of the team, who will later meet President Jacob Zuma in Pretoria, where the athletes will parade through the streets.

The gender-testing debate has sparked outrage in South Africa, with the African National Congress and its youth and women’s wings calling the tests “sexist and racist”.

“Caster is a girl ... I am not worried about that too much. Caster is like my child.
I know where she comes from. For myself, I know Caster is a girl,” her uncle, Ben Semenya, said at the airport.

“I think it was unfair,” said Amo Moroka, a physician who was among the crowd.

“On the date of her final, that is when they decided to test her. There were midwives and parents that raised her. They are undermining South Africa as a country,” the doctor said.

Semenya’s return was given top coverage by local media, with the Times running a wraparound souvenir poster headlined “Welcome home Caster, our champ”, with a life-sized portrait of the 18-year-old.

“We in South Africa have no doubts,” the newspaper said in its editorial.

“It is the ghoulish, white-coated scientists of the IAAF who would do well to look into their hearts and ask whether the overwhelming evidence of Caster’s life as a girl in South Africa does not count as science.”

The gold medallist’s deep voice has raised questions about her gender her entire life, according to her family.

But the IAAF says it was her rapid speed gains this year that prompted the gender test, which will take weeks to complete and include physical, medical, and psychological exams.

The furore has seen countless debates over often grey areas of gender, chromosomes and hormones, and what makes a woman a woman, in a debacle that has overshadowed one of the best performances by a South African athlete in recent years.

“At the end of the day she is our hero. She is our African girl and we do not need to question that,” said Michael Masdmola from Limpopo, cheering at the airport.—AFP

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