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Semenya left stranded by storm

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Tom Fordyce | 23:07 UK time, Wednesday, 19 August 2009

When Usain Bolt is no longer the main topic of conversation at the World Championships, you know something dramatic must have happened.

There had been whispers circulating about South African 800m prodigy Caster Semenya ever since she ran a spectacular 1 minute 56.72 seconds in a low-key meet on 26 July.

Not only was it the fastest time in the world this year by more than a second, it meant she had improved her personal best by seven seconds in less than nine months. And, she said afterwards, she could have run even quicker had it not been for a strong wind on the back straight.

For once, the tittle-tattle was not the usual sort about performance-enhancing substances. This was more basic and a whole lot nastier: was the 'she' actually a 'he'?

It wasn't just the rapid time. Semenya has a well-muscled physique. She also has a dusting of facial hair. Mix those three things together and ugly rumours spread like wildfire.

What no-one quite expected was the way the story would suddenly develop with the 800m final just hours away.

Earlier in the week, it had been the stuff of bar-room banter. The favourite quote was from Semenya's coach Michael Seme, who had told reporters: "I can give you the telephone numbers of her room-mates in Berlin. They have already seen her naked in the showers and she has nothing to hide."

Semenya left her rivals trailing

Seme also recounted how, when Semenya recently tried to use the women's toilets at a petrol station in Cape Town, the attendants tried to direct her to the gents instead.

"Caster just laughed and asked if they would like her to take off her pants to show them she was a woman," said Seme. "We understand that people will ask questions because she looks like a man. It's a natural reaction and it's only human to be curious."

So far, so amusing - but the atmosphere began to change when Semenya charged through her heat and semi-final in such dominant fashion that she was suddenly the red-hot favourite for gold.

What had been a story known only to athletics aficionados suddenly had legs. Questions started being asked of athletics' ruling body, the IAAF. The jokes started getting more unpleasant. The 'c' word - cheat - rose to the surface.

Cynics recalled the famous case of German high jumper Dora Ratjen, who competed at the Olympics here in Berlin in 1936 but was later revealed to be a chap named Hermann. The comparison was ridiculous - Ratjen was forced to conceal his gender by the Nazi government and had been born and raised a man - and the reaction from the South African team indignant.

'She is a female," insisted general manager Molatelo Malehopo. "We are completely sure about that. We would not have entered her into the female competition if we had any doubts."

Then, with just three hours to go until the final, news broke in Berlin that the IAAF had asked Semenya to take a gender test.

The story fizzed round the Olympiastadion. What did the test involve? When would the results be known? Would Semenya even be allowed to run?

Gradually the prevailing mood shifted. Why was this coming out now? In the case of a doping test, the media are not notified unless both 'A' and 'B' samples have tested positive. Until then there is silence. Yet here a cloud of official suspicion was being allowed to gather before anything had been proved.

Semenya celebrates victory

That any woman would be confronted with such serious accusation in front of a worldwide audience of millions struck many as callous. That it was an 18-year-old from Limpopo province at her first major senior championships seemed cruel in the extreme.

Semenya was on the warm-up track while inside the gossip flew round the adjacent main stadium. "The timing has caught us out," admitted an IAAF spokesman as the eight finalists were called together.

As Semenya emerged onto the track from the pre-race call-room, the photographers' long lenses swung in unison and locked on her face.

She looked implausibly calm under her neat corn-rows. On the blocks she waited for the television camera to come in close on her and then mimed brushing something from her shoulders. That there were two British girls in the final - Jenny Meadows and Marilyn Okoro, both with a chance of a medal - had almost been forgotten.

As if trying to escape the furore, the South African went off at breakneck speed. Reigning champ Janeth Jepkosgei took over for a few brief seconds on the back straight but was left struggling as the teenager took them through the bell in under 57 seconds, a blistering pace.

While the rest of the field went backwards, Semenya went again. Coming into the final straight she had a lead of five metres. At the line it was two and a half seconds, the biggest margin in World Championship history and another big personal best.

Yet while Jepkosgei and Meadows - a brilliant third - went off for laps of honour, Semenya was ushered away by officials, straight past the hordes of waiting journalists.

At the winner's news conference half an hour later, there was no sign of the teenager. "To protect her," explained a weary IAAF secretary general Pierre Weiss.

For the hundreds of reporters waiting, this was not enough. Where were the tests done? "At a special hospital here and in South Africa." When were they finished? "They are ongoing." Why was this not sorted earlier? Semenya had run the 800m at the Commonwealth Youth Games as long ago as last October, albeit in a vastly slower time. "She was unknown three weeks ago. Nobody could have anticipated this. We are fast, but we are not a lion."

What had Weiss heard so far? "Personally," he said, his moustache drooping even lower than normal, "I have no clue what is going on. I rely on and trust our doctors."

One thing was made clear: if the tests, whenever they do come out, subsequently show that Semenya cannot legally compete as a woman, she will be stripped of her medal and the placings revised.

The trouble is, those results could be weeks away. From all accounts they are also incredibly complicated and open to various interpretations. In the meantime, Semenya will be under media siege. The most private aspect of her life will be the subject of intense public scrutiny.

"Running is just a game to me," she had said after her semi-final win. Not any more.

On Thursday she is due to be awarded her medal. No-one could blame her if she asked for it to be posted to her instead.

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