Page last updated at 14:30 GMT, Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Athlete Caster Semenya unbowed by gender row

Semenya says the gender dispute was 'not a big deal'

By Jackie Long
BBC Newsnight, South Africa

In her first major interview since being forced to undergo gender verification tests, South African athlete Caster Semenya has said that she is unaffected by the controversy which has surrounded her in recent years.

"I didn't see it as a big deal, I know people talk, but I don't care."

Caster Semenya winning women's 800m world championship race
The 2009 world championships threw Semenya into the spotlight

"I'm not ashamed of being myself... I know who I am. There's only one person who can judge me. There's only God."

Speaking exclusively to BBC Newsnight, the 20-year-old 800 metres world champion also hit back at speculation she had been forced to undergo treatment before being allowed to compete again.

And she said she wants to concentrate on the future, with her sights firmly set on the 2012 Olympics.

"You need to think about positive things, about the future. So that's how I'm living. You don't have to think about the things that happen in the past. They will destroy you."

Certainly many have wondered how the past two years have not destroyed Semenya, who was just 18 when she first started attracting attention in the world of athletics.

Gossip

A relative unknown in July 2009, she knocked more than seven seconds off her 800m personal best to take gold at the African Junior Championships in a time of 1.56.72 seconds - a national record and the fastest time for women's 800m that year.

It was an extraordinary victory and Semenya knew it:

Semenya on how other athletes underestimated her

"They didn't know that I was dangerous like other athletes. They just knew, this is a useless athlete from South Africa," she explained. "I just ran, so then, wow! African champion!"

But the win only fuelled rising speculation that Semenya was somehow "different".

Gossip on the track about her supposedly manly appearance and her visible physical strength suddenly became the subject of official discussion.

By the time she arrived at the world championships in Berlin the following month, it emerged that the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) had demanded she undergo gender testing.

It also became clear that her own national athletics body, Athletics South Africa, had complied with that demand, beginning the testing on Semenya before she left South Africa but without even telling her.

Focus on running

She went on to take gold in Berlin, and so began the most extraordinary and confusing period of her life.

She was feted back home as South Africa's "golden girl", yet everywhere else faced accusations that she was not actually female.

Caster Semenya surrounded by children
At home Semenya was feted as the 'golden girl' of South African athletics

If it hurt, Semenya is not saying:

"Why should I bother myself by entertaining what people are saying?... I don't care what anyone says as long as I am back on the track," she said.

"It's easy when I'm on the track. I'm not here to talk, I'm here to run. That's how I do my thing. I don't care who says what."

The IAAF tests were expected to take weeks. In the end Semenya was forced to stay out of competition for 11 months.

The details of what the tests found - or did not find - have never been made public.

Hormone therapy denial

And Semenya continues to be the victim of endless speculation, the most current being whether she had any sort of hormone treatment before being allowed to compete again.

When asked about this, it was clear that it is a question that irritates:

"Treatment? Why should I have treatment? What is the reality of this situation?" she demanded.

Semenya's mantra throughout is to always look to the future. For her that means the world championships in South Korea later this year, and beyond that it is clear that the prize she really wants is an Olympic medal at the London 2012 Games.

But for all her insistence that the past has not hurt her, she looks resolute when she says:

"I know my memory doesn't die. I don't forget what has happened to me, but you keep it away."

You can watch Jackie Long's full interview with Caster Semenya on Newsnight on Tuesday 25 January 2011 at 10.30pm on BBC Two, the afterwards on the BBC iPlayer and Newsnight website.



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