As South African runner Caster Semenya returned home Tuesday to a tumultuous welcome, President Jacob Zuma chastised the International Assn. of Athletics Federations over gender testing of the athlete and declared there was no way she would be stripped of her gold medal in the women’s 800-meter world championship.
Thousands of people came to celebrate the 18-year-old Semenya’s return at O.R. Tambo International Airport and to vent their anger over what they see as her ill treatment. Some men held up posters that declared, “Marry me.”
According to the IAAF, Semenya’s dramatic improvement as a runner contributed to questions about her gender. After the race, defeated rivals alleged that she was a man.
In Britain, the BBC and the Daily Telegraph newspaper have reported that initial tests before her race Aug. 19 at the World Championships in Berlin showed Semenya’s testosterone levels to be unexpectedly high, prompting the decision to carry out gender tests.
The massive outpouring here Tuesday, along with a Facebook fan page with more than 40,000 members, underscored the raw nerve exposed in South Africa by questions about Semenya’s sex. The controversy has been characterized as racist and sexist by some commentators, politicians and activists.
Zuma said Semenya showcased women’s power and achievement, and showed that a determined person could not be stopped. He described her as an honest, professional and competent athlete who had been publicly humiliated.
“Ms. Semenya has also reminded the world of the importance of the rights to human dignity and privacy which should be enjoyed by all human beings,” he said. “In recognition of the supremacy of these rights, we wish to register our displeasure at the manner in which Ms. Semenya has been treated.”
Asked what his reaction would be if Semenya was stripped of her gold medal, Zuma brushed aside the question. “They’re not going to remove the gold medal. She won it,” he said.
The IAAF has said the tests are complex and results will not be available for several weeks.
The welcoming ceremony had the atmosphere of a political rally as ruling African National Congress stalwarts took to the stage and attacked the news media for their coverage of the affair and the IAAF over the gender tests.
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the ex-wife of former President Nelson Mandela, said no one had the right to perform tests on “our little girl” and warned South Africa’s news media to be more patriotic “without insulting one of our own. Use the freedom of press we gave you properly, because we can take it from you.”
Julius Malema, the controversial head of the ANC Youth League, criticized news organizations for questioning Semenya’s gender, which he said undermined all South African women.
“Once again the white-controlled media is wrong. . . . Please stop bothering Caster,” he said.
Malema also wondered why there weren’t more white South Africans in the crowd to greet Semenya and two other medal-winning athletes. (Malema faces a complaint in South Africa’s Equality Court by an activist organization, Sonke Gender Justice, for saying that a woman who accused Zuma of rape in 2006 “had a nice time.”)
Noluthando Mayende-Sibiya, the minister for women, children and people with disabilities, said her department had written to the IAAF to determine why there are doubts about Semenya’s gender.
“Is it because she’s a woman? Is it because she’s African? We want to know why this was done,” Mayende-Sibiya said.
The South African parliamentary committee for sports and recreation announced last week that it would lodge a complaint with the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights that the tests grossly undermined human rights and privacy.
Semenya looked shy at the arrival ceremony and spoke only briefly to reporters after meeting Zuma, saying she had known she could win the race. She described how her coach told her to soundly defeat the competition in the last 200 meters.
“I did what he said but I took the lead in the last 400,” she said. “I celebrated the last 200. It was great.”
The president of Athletics South Africa, Leonard Chuene, said the report that sparked the row over Semenya’s gender originated in South Africa. “I think the story got to the IAAF from this country,” he said at a news conference.