Caster Semenya started to run almost as soon as she could walk. She played soccer with the boys in her rural village. At school races, she’d lap the other girls -- sometimes twice or more.
Even then, according to friends quoted by South African news reports, girls teased her about looking like a boy.
Semenya shrugged it off and kept on running.
But after she exploded onto the athletic stage Wednesday in the World Championships in Berlin, beating her nearest rival in the women’s 800-meter race by a whopping 2.45 seconds, the question was back: Is she really a she?
An Italian rival, Elisa Cusma Piccione, called her a man. Russian runner Mariya Savinova agreed. “Just look at her,” she told journalists in Berlin.
Semenya, 18, smiled broadly as she accepted her gold medal to strong applause Thursday in Berlin. She has said little in public so far, but her mother, Dorcas, 50, is fierce in her defense. “She’s a girl. I’m the mother of that girl. I’m the one that knows about Caster. If they want to know about Caster, tell them to come to me.”
Other black South Africans find something more sinister in the controversy erupting around Semenya: another example of demeaning Western attitudes toward black Africans, particularly women.
The International Assn. of Athletic Federations has asked the 5-foot-7, 140-pound athlete to undergo a battery of complex gender tests, and it could take months to get the results. If found to be male, Semenya could be disqualified from competing and stripped of her medals.
Semenya, who comes from a poor rural background in Limpopo province in northern South Africa, has grappled with the consequences of looking boyish all her life.
She grew up with four sisters and a brother in the dusty village of Fairlie, about 40 miles from the nearest town. Being a girl in an African village meant girls’ chores: fetching water, washing dishes, cleaning the house. But in her free time, she ran off to play soccer with the boys.
The newspaper Beeld quoted high school principal Eric Modiba as saying that Semenya always wore pants instead of skirts, played rough-and-tumble with the boys and that he didn’t realize she was a girl until she was in the 11th grade.
Friends and family say Semenya went for long runs in the countryside, often alone. If the teasing hurt her, she kept the pain hidden, said her grandmother Maputhi Sekgala.
Her mother watched Wednesday’s world championship race on television, shedding tears of joy when Semenya streaked to victory.
“I am very happy,” she said in a phone interview with The Times. “I feel I am in the . . . " She trailed off, searching for words. “I don’t know what to say, that’s what.”
She refused to let the questions about her daughter’s gender dilute the moment of triumph.
“They’re jealous of my daughter,” she said. “It’s the first girl in the black people doing such things. That’s why they say those things.”
Nick Davies, spokesman for the IAAF, said it was clear that whatever the results of the gender tests, “clearly it was not her fault.”
“It’s a medical issue. You’re talking about someone’s life. She was born, christened and grew up a woman,” he said in an interview with the BBC. The aim of the tests, he said, was to discover whether anything gave her an unfair advantage.
The tests may be particularly intrusive for a teenager from a rural family who burst onto the international scene only last month, winning a race at the African Junior Championships in Mauritius.
Hennie Kriel, manager of the University of Pretoria athletics club where Semenya trains, said she joined the club in January. When she arrived, she was not a world-class runner, he said, but she worked hard and developed quickly. She trains on the same track as double-leg-amputee Oscar Pistorius, whose effort to make South Africa’s Olympic team last year created its own controversy.
Kriel said he met Semenya and her coach after she started training in January and that the issue of gender was discussed. He was satisfied that she is a woman.
“I discussed that with her and her coach and Athletics South Africa. We were all happy that things were fine,” he said in a phone interview.
South Africans have rallied around Semenya, angered by Western judgments over the appearance of an African woman. For many black South Africans, the questions about her gender and identity are culturally inappropriate and demeaning. Many feel the issue has been handled insensitively.
Both South Africa’s ruling ANC party and the Young Communist League of South Africa have backed the runner.
“It feeds into the commercial stereotypes of how a woman should look, their facial and physical appearance, as perpetuated by backward Eurocentric definition of beauty.
“It is this culture which has forced many African women to starve themselves with the objective of reaching the model ramps of Paris and Milan to become the face of this or that product or magazine,” the league said.
Athletics South Africa President Leonard Chuene, speaking by phone from Berlin, said Semenya was an inspiration to rural girls, some of the most powerless and disadvantaged people in the country, yet she was being raked over the coals with questions on her gender.
“I’m angry. I’m fuming. This girl has been castigated from day one, based on what?” Chuene said. “There’s no scientific evidence. You can’t say somebody’s child is not a girl. You denounce my child as a boy when she’s a girl? If you did that to my child, I’d shoot you.”