Renewed Semenya can cast her troubles behind
WOMEN'S 800 METRES FINAL TONIGHT, 8PM:FOR A woman of still tender years she ran 800 metres with total maturity and absolute confidence, making an unmistakable statement of intent. Anyone wondering what Caster Semenya would show up in London with should get their answer inside the Olympic Stadium this evening.
At the bell in Thursday’s semi-finals, her season up to that point anything but convincing, Semenya looked in trouble, lying fifth; down the backstretch she moved slightly wide, casually lengthened her stride, then entered the straight looking every bit the athlete that dominated the event three years ago – on the track and off it.
That Semenya looks back to her best is both a wonder and wonderful. When she crossed the line on Thursday, glancing down on the clock to see a season’s best of 1:57.67, Semenya raised a satisfied smile: she’ll probably need to run quicker this evening to win the Olympic title, but she’s there and she’s running well.
“That time makes me very confident,” said the 21 year-old. “You have to think about your own race, you have to think of yourself. It’s about putting on the spikes and then just running. But this is my first Olympics, so it’ll be special for me. I was a bit nervous but this crowd makes me feel at home, and reminds me of good memories.”
Exactly what Semenya meant by good memories is difficult to say: in 2009 she improved her 800m best from 2:04.23 to 1:55.45, winning the World Championships in Berlin in the process, and started an unmerciful world-wide gender/physique debate, also known as the either/or debate, that lasted almost a full year.
It took the IAAF, the governing body of the sport, 11 months to decide Semenya, after all, was perfectly fit to run among women. How they could have possibly decided otherwise will never be known, because they never revealed the details of their new gender verification test.
While some of her original supporters stepped away, many more came to her side, none more so than Maria Mutola, from Mozambique, arguably the greatest women’s 800m runner of all-time.
“If the same thing had happened to me during my career I probably would have given up,” Mutola has said. “I heard early on what a natural talent Caster was, and was curious about her for a number of years. We finally met and started working together after what happened in Berlin.”
Mutola stood by her as did her Finnish manager Jukka Härkönen: “If you subjected 100 top athletes to the same thing, 99 would break down, and be unable to compete,” he said. “I never once saw Caster crying about what happened, but she was really depressed.”
If she wins this evening she’ll have to beat reigning Olympic champion Pamela Jelimo, from Kenya, and world champion Mariya Savinova, from Russia,
“What happened in Berlin and afterwards is history to me,” she has said. “We can do something for the future, but we cannot change the history. I really did not want to stop running after what happened in Berlin.
“My head needs to be 100 per cent for me to compete. I can still win with only 70 per cent of my muscles, but my head was still not 100 per cent. I had to start from scratch, and build myself back up piece by piece.”