‘We have gold in this country’

2009-08-26 00:00

A TUMULTUOUS welcome awaited Caster Semenya and the South African athletics team when they landed at O.R. Tambo International from the 12th World Athletic Championships in Berlin.

Posters proclaiming “Caster our golden girl”, and “Caster you beaut” were among the many placards awaiting the besieged 18-year-old world 800 metres champion, who has been engulfed in a worldwide controversy over her gender.

Airport staff lined the landing bridge, while customs and arrival hall officials formed a welcoming avenue to fast-track the athletes through passport control and on to arrivals where thousands were waiting outside.

The crowd, including those bused in from Roodeport, Orange Farm and Killarney, were draped from all three levels of the airport concourse, blowing vuvuzelas, clapping and cheering. The athletes emerged to be met by family, friends and dignitaries before being whisked away to a media conference.

This was the first time Semenya experienced a universal celebration of her gold medal since breaking the line in the new South African record time of 1:55,45.

ANC Youth League president Julius Malema, Winne Madikizela-Mandela and president of South African Sport Congress and Olympic Committee (Sascoc) Gideon Sam all welcomed back the athletes and spoke in support of Semenya.

Said the head of Sascoc, “Once in a while, sport has the capacity to bring all the people in the country together — this is such a time. South Africa is proud of our athletes. We are targeting 12 (Olympic) medals in 2012 in London. This is the first step.

“I would thank all the women organisations in the country. Your support of Caster has been fantastic, but I now appeal to the public to first let her clan back home have some time with her, then let her catch up her studies before she begins her preparation for the next big hurdle at 2010 Commonwealth in Delhi.”

Although the top table was dominated by ANC organisations, Athletics South Africa (ASA) president Leonard Chuene made it clear that an open invitation had gone to all leaders in the country.

“The leadership that you see here are those that responded to the call,” said Chuene before announcing that after the conference the athletes would also go to Tshwane to meet President Jacob Zuma.

This is the first time that a returning athletics team, unlike other sports, has had the chance to meet the country’s president.

It is understood that Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille had sent ASA a letter to be passed on to Semenya, and that some Cope leaders were at the airport.

Chuene clarified why he has resigned from the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) council, explaining: “You cannot sit in an organisation that destroys one of your own … that breaks the constitution … that humiliates one of your own. I resigned so I can lead the fight against the organisation from the outside on behalf of South Africa.”

He said the ASA has proof that the initial questioning of Semenya’s gender was instigated by a South African media institution, but that he is not willing to name it because protocol dictates that he first informs the president of South Africa.

Malema said it is not usual to find the youth league at an airport welcome. “You will not see us in sport, but when you question the … gender, it’s political. Then you will find us here. We addressed the parents, who said ‘this is our little girl’, so she will not be subjected to testing … we will not allow women to be undermined in this way.”

He announced the youth league will present Semenya with R60 000 for winning gold in the women’s 800 m, Mbulaeni Mulaudzi R40 000 for taking the men’s 800 m gold and Khotso Mokoena R25 000 for his silver medal for long jump.

It’s understood that some testing was done at the world championships, but that permission was not requested from ASA for this to happen. There is no requirement for the federation’s permission to be sought during the regular drug testing.

“Yes indeed, she is a girl. The only scientist I believe in are the parents of this child,” said Chuene, who dismissed allegations in yesterday’s UK press that Semenya may have been subjected to injections by Dr Ekkart Arbeit, who some people allege was implicated in the systematic doping of East German athletes.

Asked what ASA’s reaction will be if the IAAF tests are positive and they want to strip Semenya of the gold medal, Chuene said: “They wanted to stop her running, she ran; they said she would not get presented with the medal … I personally presented the medal …

“If they try to strip her of that medal – we will cross that bridge … but we have gold in this country, we will give her our gold.”

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