Athletics

Fiercely loyal South Africans await Semenya ruling

Caster Semenya (AP)
Caster Semenya (AP)

Johannesburg  - Fiercely loyal South African fans hope their Olympic champion Caster Semenya gets the all clear on Wednesday when the outcome of a landmark hearing on proposed rules to restrict female athletes' testosterone levels is delivered.

Her battle with the IAAF over the regulations has left some wondering why she has had to go through the mill to prove her athletics bona fides.

"They wanted her to prove that she is a woman first of all, and now that she's proven that, they want to make her less of a woman. How does that even make sense?" sprinter Ashwin Classens asked.

Both on the track and in her legal battles, Caster Semenya inspires passionate devotion in South Africans.

For months, South African politicians, fellow athletes and supporters have reacted with fury as Semenya has been threatened by the new regulations that could scupper her career.

Proposed International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) rules require "hyperandrogenic" athletes -- those with "differences of sexual development" (DSD) -- to lower their testosterone levels if they want to compete with  women.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland is due to deliver its verdict on Wednesday after an initial hearing in February.

South Africa's ministry of sport has been promoting Semenya on social media ahead of the verdict using the hashtag #NaturallySuperior and the slogan "Hands off Caster".

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa recently sent Semenya a powerful message of support, describing her as a "beacon of hope".

"My daughter. This is only to remind you of your greatness; because you constantly remind us that nothing beats the enduring power of the human spirit," he tweeted during the hearing in February.

"You may run alone on the track, but know now that you run with 57 million & more," he added, referencing the population of South Africa.

South African lawmakers from across opposing parties wore black T-shirts during a debate in parliament in February carrying messages of support, including "We say NO to stigmatisation of women in sport" and "We oppose subtle hatred".

In the debate, National Freedom Party lawmaker Nhlanhlakayise Khubisa said "what is happening to Caster is the worst form of racism".

"She is being crucified for being an excelling, resilient, unwavering and unmatched athlete -- our creme de la creme," he said.

The opposition Inkatha Freedom Party called on African athletes to boycott future IAAF events if the "unfair" rules were allowed to stand.

Named one of Time Magazine's 100 most influential people of 2019, the 28 year-old from the country's northern province of Limpopo has been breaking 800 metres records since she was 18 years old.

But the gender controversy has dogged her career.

"Semenya has taught us that sex isn't always binary," Time Magazine said, adding that regardless of the ruling, "Semenya will have already made a singular historical contribution to our understanding of biological sex."

Sports Minister Tokozile Xasa, who flew to Switzerland to be alongside Semenya at the February hearing, labelled the rules "discriminatory" and "racial".

"This is tantamount to modernising barbarism," Xasa said, defending a South African hero who has the rare ability to bridge racial divides in the fractured country.

Other sporting bodies such as Cricket South Africa have also stood behind Semenya and athletes are backing her.

"There's no man that I see in her... I love her," long-jump coach Maria Diamond told AFP.

Liezel Tron, a 17 year-old heptathlon athlete, said Semenya inspired her and others.

"I've seen her run and it is amazing... She deserves to run and compete with all of us."

The IAAF says the rules are essential to preserve a level playing field and ensure that all female athletes can see "a path to success."

Semenya, who has dominated the 800m over the last decade, has remained largely silent through the court battle while her legal team has condemned the IAAF's tactics and policies.

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