PRETORIA, August 26 – South African track champ Caster Semenya won a rousing welcome Tuesday from thousands of ordinary supporters up to President Jacob Zuma, who stood firmly by her in the row over her gender tests.Thousands of people sang and danced, blowing trumpets and ululating in the corridors of Johannesburg’s airport to welcome her back from the World Athletics Championships.
The 18-year-old powered to a 1minute 55.45seconds win in the 800 metres — the world’s best this year — in Berlin last week, but shortly before the race the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) announced that she would have to undergo tests to verify her gender.
"We wish to register our displeasure at the manner in which Ms Semenya has been treated," Zuma told reporters, as the athlete sat nearby.
"It is one thing to seek to ascertain whether or not an athlete has an unfair advantage over others, but it is another to publicly humiliate an honest, professional and competent athlete," Zuma said.
He said sports minister Makhenkesi Stofile had written to the IAAF to express the government’s concern.
But Semenya declined to speak about the controversy, instead praising her coach and reveling in her victory.
"I called my coach and my coach told me ‘you can do it, man’," she said. "You lead from start to finish. You can do it, girl," she added, recalling her coach’s comments.
"I took a lead in the last 400 and I killed them. They couldn’t follow the race. It was good, man. I saw gold at the last 200," she said, smiling as she spoke.
Zuma held up the achievements of the girl from a poor, remote village as an inspiration to a nation where millions are struggling against poverty.
"Like many of our people, they have had to contend with a lack of access to resources and opportunities, but have refused to allow poverty to determine their station in life," Zuma said of Semenya and her fellow medalists.
Semenya’s deep voice and boyish features have 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 examinations.
Semenya’s electric performance stunned sports-mad South Africans into an outpouring of national pride after the country’s dismal summer Olympics performance of just one silver medal in Beijing last year.
The gender-testing debate sparked outrage here, with the ruling party and its youth and women’s wings calling the tests "sexist and racist".
Semenya’s return was broadcast live on television, while The Times newspaper ran a wrap-around souvenir poster headlined "Welcome home Caster, our champ" with a life-sized portrait of her.
At the airport, supporters waved home-made placards which read "Our first lady of sport" and "100 percent female woman", cheering her and her gold medal at the World Athletics Championships.
"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 told AFP 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.
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 which 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.