Earlier in the day, I.A.A.F. officials had confirmed that Semenya, a muscular 18-year-old from South Africa competing in her first senior championship, was undergoing sex-determination testing to confirm her eligibility to race as a woman.
According to Weiss, track and field officials had not had time to resolve the issue before this meet because Semenya had emerged at the world-class level only in the past month. Weiss said that I.A.A.F. officials and South African track and field officials had agreed that it would be too much to ask of an inexperienced teenager to field questions about the gender issue from the news media.
But Weiss stressed that the testing had been initiated because of “ambiguity, not because we believe she is cheating.”
It was an unprecedented scene at a major sports event, one that eclipsed the night’s other finals, including Yusuf Saad Kamel’s victory for Bahrain in the men’s 1,500 meters withBernard Lagat of the United States taking the bronze medal.
But despite the controversy, Semenya had no apparent difficulty handling the pressure of her first major final. She broke free of her much more experienced competitors on the final lap and won by the huge margin of more than two seconds, finishing in 1 minute 55.45 seconds. (That was still more than two seconds slower than the world record.)
The silver medal went to Janeth Jepkosgei, the defending world champion from Kenya, who finished well back in 1:57.90. The bronze went to Jennifer Meadows of Britain in 1:57.93.
Weiss said that the medal ceremony for the 800 would take place as scheduled on Thursday evening in the stadium but that if the investigation proves Semenya is not a woman, she would be stripped of the gold and the other medalists elevated. The investigation could take weeks, he said.
“But today there is no proof and the benefit of the doubt must always be in favor of the athlete,” he said. “Which is why we had no reason, nothing in our hands, to forbid the athlete to compete today.”
Not all of the finalists agreed. “These kind of people should not run with us,” Elisa Cusma of Italy, who finished sixth, said in a postrace interview with Italian journalists. “For me, she’s not a woman. She’s a man.”
Mariya Savinova, a Russian who finished fifth, told Russian journalists that she did not believe Semenya would be able to pass a test. “Just look at her,” Savinova said.
But sex-determination testing is a complex process that has often not been handled effectively by sports organizations.
“It turns out genes, hormones and genitals are pretty complicated,” Alice Dreger, a professor of medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University, said in a telephone interview. “There isn’t really one simple way to sort out males and females. Sports require that we do, but biology doesn’t care. Biology does not fit neatly into simple categories, so they do these tests. And part of the reason I’ve criticized the tests is that a lot of times, the officials don’t say specifically how they’re testing and why they’re using that test. It should be subject to scientific review.”
Sex-determination testing was once obligatory for female athletes at the Olympics because of persistent allegations that some competitors were not really women. Sanctions are very rare. One case came at the 2006 Asian Games, where a middle-distance runner, Santhi Soundarajan of India, was stripped of a silver medal after failing a verification test.
The sex-determination testing was phased out in 1999 because of concerns about inequities. The testing is now reserved for specific cases in Olympic sports.
Nick Davies, a spokesman for the I.A.A.F., said that Semenya, who is listed at 5 feet 7 and 140 pounds in her I.A.A.F. biography, first came to his organization’s attention this year by slicing more than seven seconds off her best time of 2008 in the 800.
That is a huge drop in a relatively short race, but after running 2:04.23 and winning the 2008 Commonwealth Youth Games, she ran 2:00.58 in a local South African meet on March 9 and burst to prominence by winning the African Junior Championships on July 31 in Bambous, Mauritius, in 1:56.72. That was the fastest time of the year, senior level included.
Davies said that potential doping was the first concern when a dramatic drop in time occurs, but in Semenya’s case, he said the I.A.A.F. had moved on to examining other possibilities.
“We just acted in a way we thought was sensible,” Davies said. “If we would have sat back and done nothing, it would have been very strange of us as well.”
He said the I.A.A.F. had decided to confirm the existence of the investigation only when asked about it in Berlin by reporters. “The choice is that you lie, which we don’t like to do,” said Davies, acknowledging that it was unfortunate that Semenya’s privacy had been violated.
Weiss said there had not been enough time to reach a conclusion. “She was unknown three weeks ago,” he told reporters. “Nobody could anticipate this one. Sorry. We are fast, but we are not a lion.”
He said the I.A.A.F. would have “preferred not to have the controversy” at its marquee event, but not at the price of depriving a potentially eligible athlete like Semenya from competing.
“If none of it’s true, I feel very sorry for her,” said Meadows, the British athlete who sat next to Weiss during the medalists’ news conference.
Weiss said that the two-pronged investigation was being conducted in South Africa and in Berlin in hospitals that specialize in sex-testing issues. He said that Dr. Harold Adams, a South African on the I.A.A.F. medical commission, was helping to coordinate the work in South Africa.
Davies emphasized that the testing is extensive, beginning with a visual evaluation by a physician. “There is chromosome testing, gynecological investigation, all manner of things, organs, X-rays, scans,” he said. “It’s very, very comprehensive.”
Dreger, the Northwestern professor, said the doctors could examine genes, gonads, genitalia, hormone levels and medical history.
“But at the end of the day, they are going to have to make a social decision on what counts as male and female, and they will wrap it up as if it is simply a scientific decision,” Dreger said. “And the science actually tells us sex is messy. Or as I like to say, ‘Humans like categories neat, but nature is a slob.’ ”
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