Caster Semenya easily won the 800-meter gold medal at the world championships Wednesday, her dominating run coming on the same day the IAAF said she was undergoing a gender test.
Semenya took the lead at the halfway mark and opened a commanding lead in the last 400 meters to win by a massive 2.45 seconds in a world-leading 1 minute, 55.45 seconds. Defending champion Janeth Jepkosgei was second and Jennifer Meadows of Britain was third in 1:57.93.
After crossing the line, Semenya dusted her shoulders with her hands. She did not speak to reporters after the race or attend a news conference.
About three weeks ago, the international federation asked South African track and field authorities to conduct the verification test. Semenya had burst onto the scene by posting a world-leading time of 1:56.72 at the African junior championships in Maruitius.
Ideally, any dispute surrounding an athlete is dealt with before a major competition. But Semenya’s stunning rise from unknown teenage runner to the favorite in the 800 happened almost overnight. That meant the gender test— which takes several weeks—could not be completed in time.
Before the race, IAAF spokesman Nick Davies stressed this is a “medical issue, not an issue of cheating.” He said the “extremely complex” testing has begun. The process requires a physical medical evaluation and includes reports from a gynecologist, endocrinologist, psychologist, internal medicine specialist and gender expert.
South Africa team manager Phiwe Mlangeni-Tsholetsane would not confirm or deny that Semenya was having such a test.
“We entered Caster as a woman and we want to keep it that way,” Mlangeni-Tsholetsane said. “Our conscience is clear in terms of Caster. We have no reservations at all about that.”
Although medals will be awarded for the 800, the race remains under a cloud until the investigation is closed, and Semenya could be stripped of the gold depending on the test results, IAAF general secretary Pierre Weiss said.
“But today there is no proof and the benefit of doubt must always be in favor of the athlete,” Weiss said.
Semenya’s father, Jacob Semenya, pleaded: “I wish they would leave my daughter alone.”
“She is my little girl. I raised her and I have never doubted her gender. She is a woman and I can repeat that a million times,” Semenya told the Sowetan newspaper.
Semenya’s paternal grandmother, Maputhi Sekgala, also spoke in defense of Semenya.
“The controversy doesn’t bother me that much because I know she’s a woman— I raised her myself,” Sekgala told The Times, another South African newspaper.
“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,” Sekgala said.
Gideon Sam, the president of the SASCOC—South Africa’s Olympic governing body—congratulated Semenya on a “truly remarkable achievement,” the South African Press Association reported.
“We condemn the way she was linked with such media speculation and allegation, especially on a day she ran in the final of her first major world event. It’s the biggest day of her life,” Sam said.
Morris Gilbert, a media consultant for TuksSport, the University of Pretoria’s sports department, said the issue of Semenya’s gender has not been raised since the 18-year-old freshman began attending the university.
“It’s the first time in South African sport that we have had a gender issue,” he said.
He said the university would not get involved in the recent controversy over her gender.
“We are all very proud of her and of what she’s achieved,” he said. “The university stands behind her all the way.”
He attributed her recent success to hard work and rigorous training.
“She trains a lot,” he said. “If you go to the athletics track, you’re sure to find her there. I don’t think she had really good training before she came to the university. She’s from a very poor area.”
He added: “We had a look this morning, of all the fastest times in the world, she’s only ranked 21. So there are a lot of women who run faster.”
Semenya is majoring in sports science, he said.
Semenya’s rivals said they tried not to dwell on the issue before the race.
“I’ve heard a lot of speculation, but all I could do was just keep a level head and go about my business,” Meadows said. “If none of it’s true, I feel very sorry for her.”
One thing not in doubt was Semenya’s outstanding run.
“Nobody else in the world can do that sort of time at the moment,” Meadows said. “She obviously took the race by storm.”