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Embattled South African track star Semenya loses sponsors, takes to Facebook for help

Photo by Mike Phillips

Photo by Mike Phillips

JOHANNESBURG -- Even though Caster Semenya can run in major track meets now, she's wondering if she can afford to.

A controversial gender test and the ensuing 11-month layoff from competition have done more than keep the 800-meter world champion off the track. Despite being cleared to race by the IAAF, Semenya can't find a sponsor "because of the negative publicity," says her manager, Tshepo Seema.

Semenya is struggling to pay for her running. She's resorted to a cell phone texting campaign to raise money, and has even accepted help from two young South Africans, who say they "rallied a few friends on Facebook" to help her get financial backing.

Semenya, now 19, became the first black South African woman to win gold at a world championships when she triumphed in Berlin back in August 2009. After undergoing now infamous gender tests, she was welcomed as a national hero on her return to South Africa and dubbed the country's "Golden Girl." Last month, the teenager was named by British magazine New Statesman in a list of 50 people that matter in 2010.

But the world champion still cannot find anyone to endorse her.

"We have been to various companies, motor companies, cell phone companies, restaurant chains, a whole range of companies," Seema told The Associated Press, "but we can't get sponsorship because of the negative publicity in the last couple of months. It's not good for Caster.

"Caster has been cleared to compete as a female athlete, she should get the opportunity for sponsorship. Companies have said there is a lot of uncertainty around Caster. They have said, 'We can't touch her.'"

Semenya's struggles became clear in September when she launched a cell phone text message campaign to raise money, asking for very small donations of five rand (70 cents) to her training fund. Semenya appealed directly to fans as it kicked off.

"I would ... like to make a request to South Africans to support me on various platforms that my team has put together," the normally media-shy Semenya said in a statement, "and my promise to the nation is that through excellence and resilience I will strive to live up to the reputation of being known as the Golden Girl."

Earlier this month, Semenya even met with the Facebook group which intends to sell T-shirts and hold car washes for cash -- an unthinkable situation for a world champion.

"We saw an interview (with Semenya) on TV," said Thobeka Macgai, a 27-year-old media professional who started the Facebook campaign with her brother, Clement. "It was clear she was broke, she had no sponsors and she was on her own. We thought, why not try and assist her? She is South African and she represents us."

Macgai said she met with Semenya and the athlete gave them her approval. However, the group of seven volunteers has yet to raise the money needed to even print T-shirts.

Seema said Semenya was not broke -- "it's not that bad," he said -- but he admitted real problems finding a backer for one of the world's best young athletes. The situation has actually gotten worse since she was cleared to run as a woman by the IAAF, track and field's governing body, in July.

"Because of this negative publicity post the IAAF decision, her brand has been dented," Seema said. "It is a challenge. At her level she shouldn't struggle to get sponsors."

Michael Seme, Semenya's coach, said her athlete receives a salary from the South African government, is provided with running clothes by a sportswear company, and receives help with tuition fees and the use of training facilities from the University of Pretoria. But there are no endorsements.

Semenya's troubled career suffered a new blow when a back injury forced her out of the recent Commonwealth Games, denying her an opportunity to get some much-needed exposure and a shot at another international title. It would have been just a second major competition in her dramatic, short career. She had said Commonwealth gold was her No. 1 goal for 2010.

"We are very disappointed with the injury," Seme said. "We didn't reach our target for the year. I was not happy (that Caster missed the Commonwealth Games) but at the same time you must think about the athlete. Now, we don't want to miss the world championships in 2011, or the Olympics."

Seme said Semenya would not run competitively again until next year. Another prolonged absence is likely to further hamper her hopes of finding financial backing.

Macgai said Semenya appeared "determined to continue" in their meetings but she fears for the future of the teenager who emerged from a remote village in northern South Africa to became one of the world's best-known athletes.

"Many of us Africans are from impoverished backgrounds," Macgai said. "Money can be an issue to prevent us from realizing our dreams. If we don't get behind her, Caster's career could fade. We don't want that to happen to Caster. We don't want to see that happen."