Aug 21, 2009

FAIRLIE, South Africa (AP) — She wore pants instead of a skirt to school, played soccer with the boys and was teased about her masculine looks.

Caster Semenya learned to ignore the taunts. She ran alone across a landscape of high grasses dotted with rocky hills.

She came almost out of nowhere to win the world championship in the 800 meters Wednesday in Berlin, far and away the fastest woman on the track.

Or was she?

Her time of 1 minute, 55.45 seconds was more than 2 seconds ahead of the second-place finisher, but now Semenya's gender is the subject of an international investigation.

Even before Berlin, track officials were taking a closer look at the 18-year-old runner, following her performance last month at an international meet where she improved her personal bests in the 800 and 1,500 meters by huge margins.

Her family is outraged at suggestions that Semenya, who has a muscular build and a deep voice, isn't a woman.

"That's how God made her," Semenya's cousin, Evelyn Sekgala, told The Associated Press. "We brought her up in a way that when people start making fun of her, she shouldn't get upset."

Her father, Jacob, has no doubts.

"She is my little girl. ... I raised her and I have never doubted her gender," he told the Sowetan newspaper. "She is a woman and I can repeat that a million times."

Added her paternal grandmother, Maputhi Sekgala: "What can I do when they call her a man, when she's really not a man?

"It is God who made her look that way," she told the South African daily The Times.

Muriel Mkele, 16, remembers how her sister would run for miles on dirt roads in this dry corner of Africa, usually alone because no one could keep up with her as she breezed past low, thorny trees.

Semenya's former headmaster said he thought for years that she was a boy.

"She was always rough and played with the boys," Eric Modiba, head of the Nthema Secondary School, told South Africa's Beeld newspaper. "She liked soccer and she wore pants to school. She never wore a dress. It was only in grade 11 that I realized she's a girl."

The International Amateur Athletic Federation asked the South African athletic federation to conduct the gender test after Semenya burst onto the scene by posting a world-leading time of 1:56.72 in the 800 at the African junior championships in Bambous, Mauritius, on July 31. Her previous best was 2:00.58.

The test, which takes weeks to complete, requires a physical medical evaluation, and includes reports from a gynecologist, endocrinologist, psychologist, an internal medicine specialist and an expert on gender.


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