Page last updated at 15:32 GMT, Tuesday, 25 August 2009 16:32 UK

South Africans restore Semenya's pride

Crowds outside the airport in Johannesburg
Many in the crowd were still smarting over the treatment of Ms Semenya

By Pumza Fihlani
BBC News, Johannesburg

The OR Tambo International Airport was abuzz. More than 1,000 people packed the airport's arrival hall waiting for the 18-year-old that South Africans have dubbed the "golden girl".

New 800m world champion Caster Semenya and her team were scheduled to land just before 0900 local time, but some people had gathered inside the hall three hours earlier, desperate to get a glimpse of the rural girl who has suddenly become a South African icon.

Young and old, black and white danced alongside each other in a show of unity for Ms Semenya, who many believe has been singled out for racist treatment.

She should have taken her pants off, maybe that would have made them happy
Claudia Gentle
Semenya fan

This has been denied by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF).

The crowds danced and cheered loudly - anxiously awaiting the arrival of "the first lady of sport".

"You go girl," "Caster 100% female," "Welcome home Caster, our champion," read some of the placards.

Even those who were not part of the welcome parade seemed drawn in by the festivities, many standing to watch the cheerful crowd.

Political foes united

The hustle of security guards and local police ushering in Ms Semenya was the cue for the crowd to go wild.

The hall instantly filled with cheers and screams; while vuvuzelas [plastic horns] hooted in every corner, the sound of drums filled the dome-like hall.

Semenya fan with sign

Ms Semenya appeared tired - but no doubt relieved to be back home.

Among the crowd were people from her home province, Limpopo. They had travelled for hundreds of kilometres to be part of the celebration.

Her ordeal seems to have brought together the most unlikely combination - members of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and opposition Democratic Alliance danced and cheered with the rest. If only for a day.

Ms Semenya and the other medal-winners were then whisked away to a nearby parking bay where more crowds had gathered.

The area had been cordoned off and a podium readied for the star of the moment. Ms Semenya was unknown three weeks ago, but her ordeal has transformed her into a celebrity.

She stood flanked by her team mates, local celebrities and politicians - who included Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the ex-wife of the country's first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela.

Dignity restored

But most inspiring were the ordinary citizens who had braved the winter weather to be part of Ms Semenya's special welcome.

"Semenya has shown that she is our champion. We are here to take her home," said Mgoyi Ledwaba, one of Ms Semenya's supporters.

Although the day was one of joy and laughter, others still expressed anger at the IAAF's order for Ms Semenya to take a gender test.

"I think it is disgusting that they are questioning her gender. She should have taken her pants off, maybe that would have made them happy," said Claudia Gentle, from Johannesburg.

Back on the stage, Ms Semenya danced with her team-mates and an ANC youth league delegation which included its president, Julius Malema.

While she seemed overwhelmed by all the attention, she briefly smiled at the crowds who now cheered "Caster, Caster".

If, as some say, Ms Semenya has been humiliated in front of the world, then the welcome she received should go a long way in restoring her dignity.

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