IAAF: Semenya decision in November

Updated: September 16, 2009, 9:40 AM ET
Associated Press

This story has been corrected. Read below

PRETORIA, South Africa -- Caster Semenya had heard the taunts and whispers -- that she was different from other girls. Now the most intimate details of her anatomy are headline news, and there is worry about how the 18-year-old runner from a poor South African village will handle it all.

Two Australian newspapers reported Friday that gender tests show the world champion athlete has no ovaries or uterus and internal testes that produce large amounts of testosterone. The international sports federation that ordered the tests wouldn't confirm the reports.

The International Association of Athletics Federations, which ordered the gender tests, refused to confirm or deny the reports. In a statement, the IAAF said it is reviewing the test results and will issue a final decision in November.

[+] EnlargeCaster Semenya
Oliver Morin/AFP/Getty ImagesCaster Semenya's convincing win in the women's 800 meters at worlds last month was overshadowed by questions about her gender.

South African Sports Minister Makhenkesi Stofile expressed horror at the handling of the affair and insisted Caster is female.

"We think her human rights have been violated and her privacy invaded," Stofile said, adding that Semenya should be given legal advice and counseling.

Semenya dropped out of sight Friday. The South African Press Association quoted her coach, Michael Seme, as saying she would not take part in a 4,000-meter race at the South African Cross Country Championships in Pretoria on Saturday because she was "not feeling well." Seme had said earlier in the week that she would run.

Semenya won the 800-meter race at the world championships in Berlin on Aug. 19 by 2.45 seconds in 1 minute, 55.45 seconds, a world best for the season. Even before that, though, her dramatic improvement in times, muscular build and deep voice had prompted speculation about her gender.

The international federation had asked South African track and field authorities to conduct the gender verification test after she posted a world-leading time of 1:56.72 at the African junior championships in July.

Some people may have the physical characteristics of both genders, a chromosomal disorder, or simply have ambiguous features. The condition is generally referred to as a sexual development disorder, and sometimes intersexuality. An older term for someone with both male and female organs is hermaphrodite.

Dr. John Park, a pediatric urologist at the University of Michigan, said a likely scenario is a condition called androgen insensitivity syndrome. The person is genetically male but doesn't develop external male genitals and appears to be female, or the person can have both male and female physical characteristics.

The disorder is found at birth in the case of abnormal genitals. But often it isn't diagnosed until puberty, Park said. The teen doesn't menstruate because there is no uterus.

In those cases, at birth "they look completely like a girl. There is no ambiguity whatsoever," Park said.

I don't think we should play around with people's lives and their privacy.

-- South African President Jacob Zuma

Semenya's father, Jacob, expressed anger when contacted by The Associated Press on Friday, saying people who insinuate his daughter is not a woman "are sick. They are crazy."

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, a lawmaker and former wife of Nelson Mandela, urged South Africans to support the young athlete.

"The poor innocent child is a victim of all this, and it is not of her making," Madikizela-Mandela told The Star newspaper. "I think it is the responsibility of South Africa to rally behind this child and tell the rest of the world that she remains the hero she is, and no one will take that away from her."

International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge said the case could have serious psychological repercussions.

"This is something that touches the very soul of the individual," Rogge told the AP in a telephone interview. "The psychological but also social consequences are really tremendous. This is something that preferably should be handled discreetly if you have the time to do that."

Before the latest development, Semenya told reporters she is happy the way she is. She seemed to take the controversy in stride when she appeared on the cover of a South African magazine earlier this week wearing makeup, jewelry and a dress.

"She's born a female, raised as a female through puberty. Whatever is found, with the exception of deliberate substance abuse, she's going to have to be allowed to compete as a female," said Dr. Myron Genel, a professor emeritus of pediatrics at Yale University who was part of a special panel of experts the IAAF convened on the subject.

Women like Semenya who are born and raised as females before the onset of puberty "should be allowed to compete in women's events, period, end of discussion," Genel said. He said there's a separate issue for people who change gender after puberty.

Some disorders are noticeable at birth. Others aren't noticed until a girl doesn't develop periods or pubic hair during puberty, Genel said. Others don't get noticed until a woman tries unsuccessfully to conceive.

Among athletes the issue is even more confusing because many female athletes due to their training and lack of fat don't menstruate and thus don't realize that they have a sexual development disorder, according to Genel and Dr. Joe Leigh Simpson, past president of the American College of Medical Genetics and a member of IAAF panel.

There is a wide variety of these types of genetic gender disorders. Individually they are rare, but put all together they are not uncommon, Genel and Simpson said.

"There's a whole range of disorders there," Genel said. "The unfortunate thing about this particular case is that it's being played out in the bright lights of the international media."

South Africans, who have embraced Semenya as "our golden girl," took offense at the way the case has been handled.

"It shouldn't have been made public because the girl is 18 years old. ... How is she going to handle that? She may think of killing herself. She has lived her whole life as a woman and now she is told she is a bit of both," said Richard Redman, 25, a film student in Johannesburg.

"I pity her because of the way she found out," said Fiona Dube, a 22-year-old waitress. "I think her privacy has been invaded. Now the whole world knows. It is not like she chose to be that way."

The IAAF has said Semenya probably would keep her medal because the case was not a doping matter.

Even South African President Jacob Zuma weighed in, saying the media have exploited Semenya.

"I don't think we should play around with people's lives and their privacy," Zuma said. He said that the reports violate principles of respect and privacy and that doctor and patient confidentiality should be upheld.

In the northern South African village of Ga-Masehlong, where Semenya was raised, 18-year-old Mapula Phano said he is upset, as are many of the runner's former neighbors.

"Caster is a woman. I don't like having to hear people from outside saying otherwise. Here in our village it doesn't sit well with us," Phano said. "The stuff they have been saying about her could destroy her confidence."

Erina Langa, a neighbor of Semenya's grandmother, said she has been impressed by how Semenya has behaved in the last few, difficult weeks.

"She is very, very, very brave," Langa said. "She's like her grandmother, she's a tough lady. Anything that she wants, she can do it. She trusts herself."

In a Sept. 11 story on ESPN.com, The Associated Press incorrectly described Caster Semenya's winning time in the 800-meter women's race at the world championships in Berlin. Her time of 1 minute, 55.45 seconds was a world best for the season, not a world record.


Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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