Some 1,000 fans sang, hooted and danced at Johannesburg airport in support of Caster Semenya on Tuesday morning as they waited for the runner, who is undergoing gender testing after her 800-metre win at the world championships, to return home to South Africa.
Semenya was expected to arrive on flight from Germany with other members of the South African team after competing at the world track championships.
The 18-year-old took gold in the 800 metres. Her victory came after world athletics officials said they were conducting gender tests after questions arose about her muscular build and deep voice.
South Africans have embraced her achievement, despite the questions. A homemade poster held by a fan at the airport declared Semenya “our first lady of sport.”
Semenya’s parents were among the crowd gathered at the airport.
Her mother, speaking in Pedi, told journalists she was proud - and South Africans who do not personally know the runner said the same, brushing aside questions about whether she should be able to compete in women’s races.
Semenya is not accused of trying to cheat, but of perhaps unknowingly having a medical condition that blurs her gender and gives her an unfair advantage over other female runners.
Fans organised by women’s rights and political groups, school sports teams, and some who came on their own, ringed the balcony overlooking the arrivals hall. Others danced, sang or blew the plastic horns known as vuvuzelas more commonly seen at football matches.
Yvonne Maake, a 21-year-old holding a mini vuvuzela and wearing a yellow Team South Africa jersey, said she came with her family from nearby Tembisa “to welcome our champion, Caster. We want to show her support and that we love her, so she can be proud.”
Sewela Mabusela, an education specialist from the University of Zululand, was on her way to Belfast, and was glad her trip coincided with Semenya’s return. She balanced on a stack of luggage on a trolley to get a better view.
“I want to see her, I want to hear how she feels,” Mabusela, 40, said. “I want to see interviews with her so she can tell her side of the story about what happened.”
The IAAF, track and field’s governing body, will decide Semenya’s case according to whether her “conditions ... accord no advantage over other females” after consulting a gynaecologist, an endocrinologist, a psychologist, an internal medicine specialist and a gender expert. Her genes and physiology as well as how she sees herself and how she is seen by her community could play a role in their determination.
South Africans have been outraged not just that questions have been raised, but that they have been made public.
On Sunday, Lamine Diack, the IAAF president, said the affair was handled badly.
“I deeply regret that confidentiality was breached in this case and that the IAAF were forced into a position of having to confirm that gender testing was being carried out on this young athlete,” Diack told reporters in Berlin. “It is a regrettable matter and I have requested an internal inquiry to ensure that procedures are tightened up and this never happens again.”