Ciara Everard’s race against time ends in Rio tears and pride

‘It’s a very sensitive topic’ - Irish 800m runner’s view on Caster Semenya debate

It would be hard to stage a more contrasting image of these Olympics, Ciara Everard tearfully assessing her elimination from the women's 800m, just moments after Caster Semenya had walked by looking so imperious and utterly undaunted.

It would be hard to find a more contrasting journey either: Everard hadn’t race all summer due to a foot injury, and for her, Rio had been a race against time; Semenya hadn’t been beaten all summer, running 1:55.33, her startling return to her 2009 form at least partly contributed to the suspension of the IAAF ruling on hyperandrogenism, or high levels of testosterone deemed to give her an advantage over the rest of the women.

Everard had actually run in the opening heat inside the Olympic Stadium, the Irish woman staying in contact with the leaders before fading to eighth and last on the second lap, clocking 2:07.91; Semenya then came out and won the second heat in 1:59.31, the South African one of 16 women to run sub-two minutes, suggesting this may well be one of the fastest - if not most controversial races - of these Games.

With that Semenya promptly exited the stadium, preferring to do all her talking, at least for now, on the track.


Everard didn’t find it easier to talk either: asked, inevitably, about the presence of Semenya (and, it seems, two other women with hyperandrogenism) she spoke graciously and somewhat sympathetically, unlike some other competitors in the event.

“It’s a very sensitive topic,” said Everard. “As far as I know, she’s not breaking any rules at the moment. I really don’t know enough about it to offer a proper and educated opinion. I’m sure that’s a matter for the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) and those to focus on, and I just focus on my own race.

“It probably is something that needs to be revised, after this, but that will be up to them to sort it out.”

Asked what she felt was the mood of some the other women in the event, given Semenya’s sudden return to form, Everard again played the diplomatic card: “I don’t think the consensus on it has been very positive, so maybe they will look to revise it, but again I just concentrate on my own performance, because that’s all I can do.”

That decision to suspend the IAAF ruling on hyperandrogenism, after an appeal to CAS in July of last year, is currently under review: in the meantime opinions appear to differ, not everyone accepting that Semenya does have an unfair advantage.

“Some people are complaining about it,” added Everard, “and I think everyone can see on Twitter and places like that what people have been complaining about it, from what I’ve seen. But again it’s a very sensitive issue and something that needs to be dealt with very sensitively.”

As for her own race, the 26 year-old Kilkenny athlete was a little more forthright - accepting her lack of race preparation was far from ideal. She sustained a stress reaction in her foot, shortly after returning from training in South Africa in May, resulting in a 10-week layoff, and another three weeks of cross training.

“Obviously I know I’ve had very limited preparation, coming in here, but still I didn’t expect them to pull away like that. I’d stayed as positive as I could coming in, we did everything we possibly could, to get as best prepared, but it’s been a very difficult road, and I don’t think that’s actually a reflection of where I’m at.

“Everyone is just going to see the performance today, me at the back of the field, and think ‘’what have I done... how have I progressed...’ but in my mind mentally I feel I’ve come on a huge amount like this year, and I still feel the best years are to come.

"Originally with the injury I thought I was out completely, and so many times I watched this dream slip away, even a month out, I didn't think I'd be back in time. So I can't explain how much of a battle it was to get healthy, that was a huge challenge in itself, just coming here. And I'm so grateful to the medical team, and my coach James Nolan, who had a massive task to get me back in time.

“We throw everything at it, these were the cards we were dealt, and I just tried to play my hand as best as possible. I feel I made the classic mistake of pushing too hard in Olympic year, and just broke down.

“But In terms of proving fitness, I followed everything single thing they said, to the letter, from the get go of the injury. I know some people might say that maybe I shouldn’t have been allowed come, but from my end, I know I did everything I could to get here. We weighed up the pros and cons, James and I, and really felt we’d done enough work to come here. But it was always going to be a risk, the lack of race practice.

"But I think when it's the Olympic Games, and you've got yourself race healthy, it's a risk I had to take. And I think other athletes in my position would probably do the same."

Francine Niyonsaba from Burundi, meanwhile, regarded by many as the second favourite, produced a trouble-free run in heat eight to ease to victory in 1:59.84, while looking equally imperious in heat three was Kenya's Margaret Wambui.

Semenya may not have it all her own way after all.

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics