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Controversial Star Runner May Be in Hiding

South African sports officials met Saturday to decide how best to help a world champion runner whose gender has been questioned - and how to respond to the circus created by apparent leaks from the international track and field body.

The International Association of Athletics Federations, which ordered gender tests on women's world 800-meter champion Caster Semenya, has refused to confirm or deny Australian media reports that the tests show Semenya has both male and female characteristics. The international body says it is reviewing the results and will issue a final decision in November on whether Semenya will be allowed to continue to compete in women's events.

"She is going to be dominating the debate today," Athletics South Africa President Leonard Chuene told The Associated Press.

Semenya, who is a university student in Pretoria, the capital, dropped out of sight Friday. Her coach, Michael Seme, said she would not take part in a 4,000-meter race at the South African Cross Country Championships in Pretoria on Saturday because she was "not feeling well."

This, as a South African glamour magazine runs a spread showing a feminized Semenya claiming she's comfortable with the way she is.

On "The Early Show Saturday Edition", Yale Professor Emeritus of Pediatrics Dr. Myron Genel explained that people who have male and female characteristics have "birth defects, plain and simple, but they're birth defects in an area that people are very uncomfortable talking about. It's no different than a child born with a hole in their heart. And there can be differences along a long pathway that leads from the chromosomes to the ultimate expression of what we regard as sex."

Genel told co-anchor Chris Wragge that, if that indeed applies to Semenya, it wouldn't give her a competitive advantage any more than "than being six-feet-two ives as woman an advantage playing volleyball, or no more than having a higher percentage of fast-twitch fibers in your muscles."

Genel criticized the way sports authorities have handled the Semenya matter. "Unfortunately," he observed, "this case has caught the attention of the worldwide media and been sensationalized. There have been cases of this sort that have been handled very discreetly in the past. I would say the problem here is the way that this has been handled and is being handled, not necessarily how the decision should be made or would be made from an athletic point of view."

Sports Illustrated writer and longtime track and field expert David Epstein agreed, telling Wragge, "I feel terrible for her. I think most people do. As the doctor said, this isn't an unprecedented case in track and field. Other cases of sexual ambiguity, intersex individuals, have been handled, but much more discreetly. So I don't think anybody's happy with that. ... It's been handled dismally, unfortunately for her."

Will she be able to keep running?

"Nobody knows the answer to that question. At this point, it's become as much political as anything else. You have the South African sports minister who said ... disqualifying her would cause 'a third world war.' That's not really the kind of dialogue that seems conducive to helping her and to coming to a conclusion based on the facts. So, I think there's a huge political component now that has to factor in. The IAAF knows that, so it's really a tough spot, and it would have been nice to see it handled with more discretion."

Chuene said he and other officials would review Saturday, among other issues, his decision to withdraw from the IAAF board, which South Africa accuses of mishandling the Semenya case by violating its own rules that such matters be handled privately. Results of the ASA deliberations will be announced Sunday, Chuene said.

ASA-IAAF relations have been severely strained by the Semenya affair, but Chuene said Saturday, "We don't fight them. We just want to deal with the matter."

Chuene said he withdrew from the IAAF board because "you can't sit there, denying and fighting." But he acknowledged a seat on the board might make it easier to defend Semenya's interests.

Chuene noted the IAAF had distanced itself from the reports in the Sydney Daily Telegraph and the Sydney Morning Herald that have angered everyone from President Jacob Zuma to school children in Semenya's home village in northern South Africa.

Semenya won the 800 in Berlin on Aug. 19 by 2.45 seconds in a world-record 1:55.45. Her dramatic improvement in times, her muscular build and deep voice had sparked the speculation about her gender, and the IAAF announced the day of the 800 finals that tests had been ordered.

On Friday, South African Sports Minister Makhenkesi Stofile called a news conference to express his horror at the question of the 18-year-old's sex being debated publicly, and Zuma told reporters the media had exploited Semenya.

In Ga-Masehlong, the village where Semenya was born, and the neighboring village of Fairlie, where she went to high school, there was anger and confusion. Villagers wondered aloud whether what they had heard on TV could be true, and about the emotional toll it could take on a teenager to see headlines declaring she had both male and female sex organs.

"Caster is a woman. I don't like having to hear people from outside saying otherwise. Here in our village, it doesn't sit well with us," said 18-year-old Mapula Phano, who went to high school with Semenya. "The stuff they have been saying about her could destroy her confidence."

Erina Langa, a neighbor, said she has been impressed by how Semenya has behaved in the last few, difficult weeks.

"She is very, very, very brave," Langa said. "She's like her grandmother, she's a tough lady. Anything that she wants, she can do it. She trusts herself."

Semenya's younger sister was alone Friday at the family home in Ga-Masehlong, curled up on a verandah that just last month was packed with relatives and friends celebrating Semenya's victory in Germany. Asked if she wanted to speak, 16-year-old Mkele hid her face in her arms. A neighbor brushed past, saying only: "I'm not happy."

Visitors at the home of her grandmother, Maputhi Sekgala, in nearby Fairlie, found the gate padlocked. Neighbors said Sekgala had gone to another village for a funeral.

Sekgala has been among Semenya's most exuberant supporters. She broke into a traditional praise poem at an airport news conference when the champion returned from Germany, and spoke on behalf of the family at an Aug. 28 celebration in Ga-Masehlong.

"It can only be jealousy that makes them say that she is a man," Sekgala was quoted Friday in The Times, a Johannesburg daily, as saying. "I raised her as a young girl and I have no doubt that she is a girl. As the family, we don't care who is saying what ... we will always support her athletic talent."

Semenya's father was angry when contacted by the AP on Friday, saying people who say his daughter is not a woman "are sick, they are crazy. Are they God?"