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TRACK AND FIELD

Questions raised about gender of winner of women's 800-meter race

At least two who lost to South African teenager Caster Semenya, a surprise winner at World Championships, are convinced she isn't a woman. International governing body launches inquiry.

August 20, 2009|Philip Hersh

BERLIN — A South African teenager's stunning victory in the women's 800-meter race at the World Championships on Wednesday was only a precursor to the shocking circumstances unveiled afterward.

At least two of the seven runners who lost to Caster Semenya said they are convinced she is not a woman, and track and field's international governing body has launched an investigation into the 18-year-old's gender.

Semenya, a muscular 5 feet 7 inches and 140 pounds, was an unknown before she ran a blistering time at the Africa Junior Championships three weeks ago. She did not speak to media after the race. An interview sheet distributed by the International Assn. of Athletics Federations said "no comment available," and Pierre Weiss, the IAAF's general secretary, appeared in her place at a news conference because officials determined Semenya was unprepared to face a barrage of questions.

Weiss said it could take several weeks to get the results of the investigation, which he said included testing of Semenya in both South Africa and Berlin. Without that evidence, the IAAF could not keep Semenya from running here.

"We entered Caster as a woman and we want to keep it that way," South African team manager Phiwe Mlangeni-Tsholetsane told the Associated Press. "Our conscience is clear in terms of Semenya."

The issue of gender testing is so controversial that the International Olympic Committee suspended widespread gender testing in 1999, reserving the right to do psychological, gynecological and chromosome investigations "if there is a valid suspicion," IOC medical director Patrick Schamasch said in an e-mail.

IAAF spokesman Nick Davies said the international federation began to ask questions about Semenya on July 31, when she ran what then was the fastest time in the world this season, 1 minute 56.72 seconds, at the Africa Junior Championships in Mauritius.

She ran even faster Wednesday, winning in 1:55.45, a time bettered by only a dozen women in history. With 150 meters to go, she turned the race into a rout, leaving defending champion Janeth Jepkosgei of Kenya (1:57.90) and Jennifer Meadows of Britain (1:57.93) far back in second and third.

"I've never seen her [Semenya] before today," Meadows said. "She took the race by storm."

Asked whether she thought Semenya was a woman, Jepkosgei said, "We compete with her. She beat us. I don't know.

"I can't comment. It's hard for me."

Sixth-place finisher Elisa Cusma Piccione of Italy had no such reservations.

"There are people who shouldn't compete with us," she told Italian journalists. "She is not a woman, she is a man. We let people win medals, and they don't deserve it."

Fifth-place finisher Mariya Savinova of Russia made similar comments, according to Russian media who interviewed her.

Before this meet, Semenya's only race outside South Africa was the Africa Juniors. At the 2008 World Junior Championships in Poland, she finished seventh of nine in a first-round heat with a time of 2:11.98.

Meadows said she was aware of the speculation about Semenya and presumed the South African had heard it as well. "If none of this is true, I feel very sorry for her," Meadows said.

Elsewhere on the fifth day of the championships, reigning Olympic 110-meter hurdles champion Dawn Harper of the United States stumbled over the second barrier and finished seventh in her final. Teammate Bernard Lagat, 2007 world champion at 1,500 and 5,000 meters, rallied for a bronze medal in the 1,500.

In preliminary rounds, sprint record-holder Usain Bolt of Jamaica easily won his 200-meter semifinal heat, as did American 400-meters runners Jeremy Wariner and LaShawn Merritt. Allyson Felix, Muna Lee and Marshevet Hooker of the U.S. won their first-round races in the women's 200.

However, the Semenya controversy overshadowed much of everything.

Davies said the IAAF's first suspicions about Semenya focused on doping, since she had lowered her personal best by some eight seconds at the race in Mauritius. The concerns about whether she met standards to compete as a female were prompted by still and television images of the teenager.

The IAAF asked South African doctor Harold Adams, a member of its medical commission, to make a report about Semenya after the July 31 race.

"We just acted in a way we thought was sensible," Davies said. "If we would have sat back and done nothing, it would have been very strange of us as well."

There have been controversies about gender in track and field for several decades.

An autopsy after her 1980 death found that Stella Walsh, who won the 1932 Olympic gold medal in the 100 meters for Poland, had male genitals and mixed male and female chromosomes. She retained her gold medal and a silver she won in 1936.

At least two women have been banned from track and field since 1967 because they failed chromosome tests, although one was reinstated. An Indian distance runner lost a 2006 Asian Games silver medal after failing a gender test.

As recently as the 1987 Mediterranean Games in Syria, only a visual inspection was used for gender verification. By that time, mouth swabs to reveal chromosomes were the accepted method, but questions about their accuracy led to the IOC ban on using them exclusively to determine gender.

Semenya is to receive her gold medal tonight.

--

phersh@tribune.com

twitter.com/olyphil

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