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Caster Semenya: controversial abroad, a hero at home in South Africa

Geoffrey York

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — The Globe and Mail

Published Sunday, Aug. 21, 2016 8:25AM EDT

Last updated Sunday, Aug. 21, 2016 12:37PM EDT

So. African runner Caster Semenya

Dogged by detractors who questioned her womanhood and demanded tests and treatment, South African runner Caster Semenya has rallied her nation behind her and triumphed with a gold medal, eloquently responding to her critics by telling the world that sports is “all about loving one another.”

In a country often divided by race, South Africans of all colours were united in celebration as they watched Ms. Semenya become the first black South African woman in history to win an Olympic gold medal. From politicians to ordinary fans, the country has risen to her defence as the controversy rages.

What you need to know on the last day of the Olympic Games

Her victory in the 800-metre finals was broadcast in the middle of the night in South Africa but the entire nation seemed to set its alarm for 2 a.m. on Saturday night so that it could watch her win the gold. She easily defeated her rivals with a time of 1:55:28 and social media was immediately filled with tweets of elation and pride from every corner of South Africa, where people have been outraged by the assault on her eligibility.

A number of British and U.S. athletes and media commentators have complained that Ms. Semenya has an unfair advantage over her rivals because of an elevated testosterone level. Just two hours before the race on Saturday night, the International Association of Athletics Federations announced that it will return to an arbitration court to challenge a ruling that allowed her to compete.

But the athlete from the rural village of Ga-Masehlong was unflappable. After winning her first Olympic gold, she walked into a press conference and calmly answered her critics. “I think it is all about loving one another,” she said.

“It's not about discriminating against people,” Ms. Semenya said. “It is not about looking at how people look, how they speak, how they run. It's not about being muscular. It is all about sport. When you walk out of your apartment, you think about performing, you do not think about how your opponent looks. So I think the advice from me to everybody is just to go out there and have fun.”

Ms. Semenya was indirectly addressing the detractors who allege that she “looks like a man” and has a deep voice and elevated testosterone levels. Her supporters have argued that many athletes are born with biological advantages of one kind or another, and it would be unfair to require her to undergo surgery or take chemical treatment to reduce her testosterone levels – as some athletics regulators have tried to demand.

At her press conference, Ms. Semenya quoted the South African liberation hero, Nelson Mandela, who said that sports is a way of uniting people.

“I have meant a lot to my people,” she said. “They are proud of me. And that was the main focus. I was doing it for my people, the people who support me.”

In her own tweets, Ms. Semenya has been sharper in her retorts to her detractors. She posted an image saying: “Be happy in front of your haters. It kills them.” Then she added her own words: “You try to give me stress… I give you a heart attack. It's a warning. Try me.”

South Africa's social media has been united in furious defence of Ms. Semenya. One of the most popular hashtags in recent days has been: #HandsOffCaster. Many people said it was discriminatory for athletics organizations to try to penalize Ms. Semenya for a natural condition. One tweeter asked whether the organizations would try to shorten the long legs of champion sprinter Usain Bolt.

The South African media has been filled with articles defending her. Even the nation's editorial cartoonists have been lauding her, with one cartoonist publishing an image of Ms. Semenya running triumphantly past her critics.

Politicians joined in the outpouring of support for her. The youth league of the ruling party, the African National Congress, said Ms. Semenya “must not be victimized.” And the ANC women's league said the runner had been subjected to “inhumane” scrutiny. “She was born a girl and no amount of public humiliation can change her gender,” the women's league said.

Ms. Semenya's victory was part of a historically strong performance by South African athletes at the Olympics. The country now has 10 medals at the Olympics, its best performance in the post-apartheid era, and tied for its best ever.

Another South African runner, Wayde van Niekerk, shocked the world by winning the 400m in a world-record time, beating a 17-year-old mark set by Michael Johnson of the United States.

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Follow Geoffrey York on Twitter: @geoffreyyork

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