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South Africa Stands Behind Athlete Targeted for Gender Testing

South Africa is defending Caster Semenya, who won the gold medal in the women's 800 meter race at the World Championships held in Berlin last week and is being gender tested by the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAC). Semenya returned to South Africa today to a heroine's welcome: thousands of supporters met her at the airport, including Noluthando Mayende-Sibiya, the country's minister for women, children and disabilities; Winnie Madikizela Mandela, former president Nelson Mandela's ex-wife; and a delegation from the African National Congress' women's league, reported the Mail Online.

The fact that the IAAF is conducting a gender test on Semenya was leaked to the media just prior to the 800 meter race. According to the BBC, the gender test became public only because a related fax was sent to the incorrect person. Though results of the detailed "gender verification" test are not expected for several weeks, IAAF president Lamine Diack has said "It should not even have become an issue if the confidentiality had been respected...There was a leak of confidentiality at some point and this lead to some insensitive reactions," reported the BBC. The IAAF reportedly initiated the test because of previous testing indicating Semenya has elevated testosterone levels and a speedy improvement in performance before she burst onto the national athletic scene.

At a press conference today South African president Jacob Zuma revealed that the country's minister of sport and recreation has written to the IAAF to express disappointment at how Semenya's case has been handled. He said, "It is one thing to seek to ascertain whether or not an athlete has an unfair advantage over others, but it is another to publicly humiliate an honest professional and competent athlete," according to the Guardian UK.

The African National Congress, which is the majority party in South Africa, also said in a statement last week, "We condemn the motives of those who have made it their business to question her gender due to her physique and running style. Such comments can only serve to portray women as being weak. Caster is not the only woman athlete with a masculine build and the International Association of Athletics Federation should know better."

The practice of sex testing began in Eastern Europe in the 1960s. The first time Olympic athletes were tested was at the 1968 Mexico City Games. At the 1996 Games in Atlanta, eight athletes failed the tests but were later cleared. A variety of concerns led the International Olympic Committee to stop requiring the tests in 1999. Several female athletes, including runners Santhi Soundarajan of India and Ewar Kobukkowska of Poland have been stripped of their medals after failing sex tests. Testing is a controversial practice in athletics, in part because chromosomal abnormalities may cause women to fail the tests, even though they may have no competitive advantages.

Media Resources: African National Congress Press Release 8/20/09; Mail Online 8/25/09; Guardian UK 8/25/09; BBC 8/25/09; Feminist Daily Newswire 7/28/08

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