S. African Runner's Performance Spurs Sex Test

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It will take weeks to complete gender testing of Caster Semenya, a South African runner who won the 800 meters by a huge margin in the recent world championships. But her family and South African track officials vehemently deny that she is not a woman.


This week, a South African runner had what should've been a red letter day for any athlete. Caster Semenya outran her competition in the women's 800 meters by more than two seconds at the world championships. But her victory is clouded by questions about her gender. An investigation has been launched. Skeptics say her deep voice and her appearance indicate that she is a man. South African politicians and her family insist that she is a woman.

NPR's Allison Keyes has the story.

ALLISON KEYES: The organization that governs the championship says it will take weeks to get results of tests currently underway to verify Semenya's gender after what it calls remarkable improvements in her performance in recent months. Her time in the race: 1 minute 55.45 seconds was more than 8 seconds faster than her time last October when she won the Commonwealth Youth Games.

(Soundbite of announcer)

Unidentified Man: Semenya is away and gone. Look behind - has got the gold medal sewn up in the back. All of the controversy put behind her.

KEYES: Despite the announcer's enthusiasm, that performance did anything but end the controversy. The 18-year-old Semenya didn't appear at a press conference following the race. In her place was Pierre Weiss, general secretary of the International Association of Athletics Federation. He acknowledged the storm of questions about her gender.

Mr. PIERRE WEISS (General Secretary, International Association of Athletics Federation): There is doubt about the fact that this person is a lady, is a woman. But today there is no proof and the benefit of doubt must always be in favor of the athletes.

KEYES: In a statement today, IAAF spokesman Nick Davies said that the gender testing does not suggest any suspicion of deliberate misconduct, but is aimed at assessing the possibility of a potential medical condition that would give Semenya an unfair advantage over her competitors.

Though Davies goes on to note that further speculation may only be harmful to the athlete and her family, it seems to some the damage is already done. The Internet is rife with comments on both sides of the issue and it's also a hot topic in Semenya's homeland. South African resident Pierre Vinter(ph) in Johannesburg echoes many of the blogs.

Mr. PIERRE VINTER: I understand the kind of worry about it. Well, if she is a she, she does look very manly. But Johannesburg resident Samantha Moniyela(ph) thinks the critics are wrong.

Ms. SAMANTHA MONIYELA: They should just go by her word. I mean, she wouldn't ethically do something that was against the rules.

KEYES: Gold medal sprinter Michael Johnson told the BBC he thinks the IAAF did Semenya a disservice by speaking about the testing before she ran her final.

Mr. MICHAEL JOHNSON (Olympic Gold Medal Sprinter): I would've much preferred to have heard about this as a rumor and something that we didn't know if it's going to happen or not, so therefore, we're not now debating it and talking about it and potentially embarrassing this athlete for the rest of her life.

KEYES: Sports federations including the IAAF used to perform chromosome tests, but stopped years ago partly because such screening isn't conclusive. Exams involving a mouth swab to determine if a person had two X chromosomes and is therefore female, didn't allow for the fact that some people with X and Y chromosomes do not therefore become male. There were also cases of people who were genetically male, but developed female characteristics.

Current IAAF gender verification policy involves a medical evaluation before a panel, including a gynecologist, endocrinologist, psychologist, internal medicine specialist and an expert on gender.

Alison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.

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