Glam rocker Lou Reed’s lyrics from his 1970s hit song Walk on the wild side have come to mind as I watched the tormenting of a young woman athlete whose story is more sensational than that of new sports hero Usain Bolt.
Holly came from Miami f.l.a.
Hitch-hiked her way across the U.S.A.
Plucked her eyebrows on the way
Shaved her leg and then he was a she
South Africa’s champion athlete Caster Semenya has come to learn what it’s like to walk on the wild side of merciless media attention at the tender age of 18.
After winning the 800 metres gold medal at the Athletics World Championships in Berlin, on Wednesday, a sneaky German Tv journalist managed to grab Semenya back stage. He said to the startled athlete, who had just run the gauntlet of a track-side paparazzi media scrum without saying a word: “Your career has boosted and with that has come rumours. I heard one that you were born a man. What do you have to say about stuff like that?”
Cane-rowed boyish-looking Semenya snapped back, in a husky voice: “Eh, eh. I have no idea about that thing. I don’t know who has said it. I don’t give a damn about it.”
She then turned on her heels and walked off to end the tetchy encounter which lasted just 15 seconds.
I was an athletics writer when anabolic steroid-fuelled Amazonian Eastern Europeans ruled the roost in women’s events. I saw Czech Jarmila Kratochvílová, who still holds the 800 metres world record of 1.53.28, win gold at the first athletics world championships 26 years ago in Helsinki. Questions were asked about whether or not she was a man or woman. But the controversy blew over and she kept her 400m and 800m medals.
Women athletes were subjected to crude physical examinations to determine their gender from the 1960s to 1991. Then rigorous dope testing took over. But that was way after ingenious Communist bloc scientists had diverted their energy from making nuclear weapons to producing bionic athletes who conquered the sporting world.
Sport and illegal drugs can combine to make women become men. Andreas Krieger (nee Heidi Krieger) was one of the much-mocked East German shot put stars of the 1980s. In Krieger's case chemical cocktails pushed her so far into becoming a man that the sex change operation 12 years ago merely confirmed the process.
Back to Caster Semenya. BBC Tv presenter Hazel Irvine said: “From what we know, she is from a very, very remote village in South Africa. She lived with her grandma, going to school, in a shack with no running water or electricity. Her first time out of Africa. How bewildering a situation must that be for her?”
Semenya was virtually unknown until last month, when she set a new record of 1:56.72 for the 800m in the African Junior Championships. That victory also meant she had improved her personal best by seven seconds in less than nine months - and she began to attract huge attention. She sliced more than a second off that with her winning time of 1:55.45 at the Berlin world championships.
The athlete, who comes from the rural village of Fairlie in South Africa's Limpopo province, has shrugged off speculation over her gender.
Her father Jacob Semenya told the Sowetan newspaper: "She is my little girl. I raised her and I have never doubted her gender. She is a woman and I can repeat that a million times."
He attacked his daughter's critics, saying: "For the first time South Africans have someone to be proud of and detractors are already shouting wolf. It is unfair. I wish they would leave my daughter alone."
Experts say that even if Semenya had partial male genitalia, she might still be predominantly a woman. Equally, she might be mostly a man, who had had male genitalia removed, but it would be impossible to determine this by taking a quick look, or even a blood test, or even necessarily having known her from birth.
South Africa has rallied behind her. Some commentators there have questioned the motives of Western critics of Semenya. The ANC youth league see it as the cynical targeting of a young Black woman and this showed that "imperialist countries can't afford to accept the talent that Africa as a continent has".
Olympic heptathlon gold medalist Denise Lewis told BBC Tv viewers: “Of course I don’t want people to cheat the system. But, in this case, we have a girl who possibly has a hormone imbalance and that is not unheard of, that young girls of her age have just been born with conflicting hormones.”
She added: “But this society we live in is so led by what is visually acceptable. Stereotypes. I just think this is so, so wrong. She (Semenya) raced in the world juniors last year. She hasn’t just landed at these championships. If the IAAF (the sport’s governing body) had been suspicious they could have dealt with it much sooner.”
Former 1,500m world champion Steve Cram said intriguingly: "On the male-female gender line if you like we all sit in different places."
He went on to say that the IAAF action "has not been the best timed".
Eight times sprint world champion Michael Johnson was more scathing of the IAAF whom he blamed for creating a media frenzy by issuing a public statement about an investigation they had launched hours before Semenya’s 800 metres final.
He said: “This is a discussion that should have been kept out of the media. We do not know how this is going to turn out. If it does turn out that there has been no mistake made and that everything is legitimate and above board and there’s no problem at all then this young woman’s life has been completely turned upside down. She’s been humiliated and embarrassed for no reason.”
Two times hurdles world champion Colin Jackson, himself no stranger to claims that he is gay, went further. He said: “I hope that she (Semenya) has the heart and desire to stay in this sport that seems to have treated her so badly when she has been so successful. Who is going to say sorry to her because every single newspaper in the world – you see her on the front page with these sorts of questions asked of her.”
Pierre Weiss, general secretary of the IAAF, said, bluntly: “If, at the end of the gender testing, it is proven that the athlete is not female we will withdraw the medal. But today there is no proof and the benefit of the doubt must be in favour of the athlete.”
Leonard Chuene, president of South African athletics, disputed claims that the IAAF had raised the matter with his country. He said: “I will continue to defend Sem even if I am kicked out of Berlin. But I will not let that girl be humiliated because she has not committed any crime whatsoever."
He added: "Her crime was to be born the way she is and people were not happy and on that basis she has been isolated. She has been treated like a leper; like she has a disease that will affect other people.”
* IAAF president Lamine Diack issued an apology on Sunday. He said: "I deeply regret that confidentiality was breached in this case and the IAAF was forced into a position of confirming that gender testing was being carried out on this young athlete. It's a very regrettable matter."
Steve Cram told BBC viewers he had spoken with IAAF sources who had indicated that it was highly unlikely Semenya would have her medal taken away.