Gender row athlete Caster Semenya wanted to boycott medal ceremony
Shy Semenya persuaded to accept gold medal
International scrutiny takes toll on teenager
The teenage athlete at the centre of global speculation about her sex wanted to boycott her medal ceremony in protest, an official said today.
The international scrutiny is apparently taking its toll on the shy 18-year-old South African, who grew up in a small village. Leonard Chuene, president of Athletics South Africa, said: "She is not rejoicing. She [didn't] want the medal."
He told the country's Times newspaper: "She said she did not want to go on the podium, but I told her she must. I [was] trying to help her, saying, 'You are not wrong. We love you. The country loves you'."
Semenya changed her mind at the last moment and smiled as she accepted the gold medal, presented by Chuene. But he said she was regretting taking part in the competition in Berlin. "She told me: 'No one has ever said I was not a girl, but here I am not. I am not a boy. Why did you bring me here? You should have left me in my village at home.'"
Chuene expressed outrage at the gender test and the way it had been handled. He said Semenya had been "humiliated" and treated like a "leper".
Psychologists warned of the damaging implications of gender suddenly being questioned. Professor Malcolm Collins, of the UCT/MRC research unit for exercise science and sports medicine, told The Star newspaper: "You can destroy someone's life like this." To grow up believing you are one sex, only to discover you are another, would be "terrifying", he added. "But none of these tests is foolproof, not one of them, and you can cause a lot of damage to the athlete."
Semenya's father, Jacob, told the Times: "We won't accept her having to undergo those tests, and we agree – she should [have] rather rejected the medal. We won't allow our daughter to be disgraced."
Her mother, Dorcus, showed the Guardian a birth certificate saying she is female. Her grandmother, Maphuti Sekgala, 80, said she had helped raise the girl to believe in herself and ignore sniping from others. Sitting in the yard of a simple homestead accessible by a dirt road, she said: "Some people teased her and said, 'This is a man.' I told her don't worry, it's part of life. I told her not to feel pain about it, because she's a girl. She won't be too upset because she knows she's a girl. She has nothing to worry about."
Family and friends in the athlete's home village in northern Limpopo province expressed sympathy for the local sporting heroine. They said that although she wore trousers and played football with boys, Semenya had never faced the humiliating attention she was now experiencing.
Eric Modiba, the principal of her old school, Nthema secondary school in Fairlie, said: "This may demoralise her because I used to accompany her to competitions and it was very rare for people to tease her. She never got angry when she heard them.
"She's a human being and the whole country is angry on her behalf. This girl has been in a lot of competitions, so why such noise today? But I think she's a grown up and, the way I know her, I think she's going to take it cool."
Other villagers, most of whom live off subsistence farming and have only recently acquired electricity, expressed indignation at the doubts over Semenya's sex and promised to celebrate her success when she returned. Groups supporting her have formed on Facebook and the African National Congress has urged South Africans to rally round "our golden girl".
The International Association of Athletics Federation ordered Semenya to take the tests after she made remarkable improvements in her performances in recent months.
The IAAF stresses it does not suspect her of deliberately cheating but questions whether she may have a rare medical condition that gives her an unfair advantage. Nick Davis, an IAAF spokesman, said: "The process was started after Semenya made her startling breakthroughs – a 25-second improvement at 1500m and eight seconds at 800m, just some weeks ago."The ANC's Women's League last night attacked Semenya's critics. It said: "We view these chauvinistic reports and rumours of a 'sex verification process' as a vicious attack on the dignity of Caster Semenya and all women athletes because they suggest that women can only perform to a certain level and that those who exceed this level should be men.
"These deplorable chauvinistic reports and gender stereotypes undermine the iconic resolve and determination of women's quest for equality in all facets of life, including sport."
It urged its members to turn out in support of Semenya when she returns to South Africa on Tuesday morning.