GA-MASEHLONG, South Africa – Villagers welcomed home world track champion Caster Semenya on Friday, refusing to let questions about her gender dampen their celebration amid the mudwalled, thatch-roofed homes of this poor village in northern South Africa.
The tensions of the previous 10 days seemed to melt away for the 18-year-old as she broke into a dance alongside a house in Ga-Masehlong, where many live without electricity or indoor plumbing. Children from her hometown mobbed her.
Hours before Semenya won the 800-meter women's world championship in Germany on Aug. 19, international track officials announced that gender tests had been initiated, and results are still awaited. Semenya's muscular build, husky voice and stunning times had led some to question whether she should be competing in women's events.
Relatives and neighbors in Ga-Masehlong marveled at what she has achieved since leaving this village, located about 180 miles north of Johannesburg
Attlee Maponyane, president of the provincial track and field authority, looked at the flat scrubland surrounded Ga-Masehlong and marveled: "Did you see where Caster trained?"
As a brass band struck up a tune, children from the primary school Semenya once attended raced down a dirt road to join in the celebrations in a tent set up in her father's packed-dirt yard.
Julia Ngoepe, 12, said she wanted to be a champion one day too.
"First, I have to go to school, and run a lot, so that I can be like her."
Authorities pulled out all the stops in welcoming their star home.
About 300 students formed a blue-uniformed honor guard when Semenya arrived in a van escorted by police cars, their sirens nearly drowned out by the band and the cheering children.
Semenya, dressed in a black T-shirt and jacket and dark jeans, emerged from the van holding her grandmother's hand. Two hours of speeches and songs followed. At one point, her seven-month-old niece Gauta was passed to her, and she sat at the head table cuddling the child on her lap.
Local entrepreneurs gave her a laptop and promised to help fund her education. Municipal officials say a nearby stadium will be renamed for her.
Children stopped playing to listen as their hero made brief remarks toward the end of the ceremony.
"I don't know what to say," Semenya said. "But I'm very happy. Thank you."
Motalane Monakedi, mayor of the region that includes Ga-Maselong, said he hoped the "gifts and the love" would inspire Semenya to even greater success.
"We need to celebrate her achievements, especially as she is one of our own," he said. "She grew up in these villages where she had to walk many kilometers to fetch wood and to fetch water. Still, she managed to rise against these odds. Nothing can stop you if you are determined — and you work very, very hard."