Caster Semenya seals Olympic 800m victory with ease
South African runs fastest time in eight years without strain and with plenty in reserve
800m Silver medallist Burundi’s Francine Niyonsaba (left), gold medallist South Africa’s Caster Semenya, and bronze medallist Kenya’s Margaret Nyairera Wambui. Photograph: Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images
Three African women making the medal podium of an Olympic 800 metres is a rare and beautiful sight, and Caster Semenya was boldly determined not to let anything take away from the moment.
The 25-year-old South African won the gold medal, as widely predicted, with some considerable ease – her winning time of 1:55.28, the fastest in eight years, was run entirely without strain, with plenty more clearly in reserve.
Behind her – not quite by the considerable margin many assumed – Francine Niyonsaba grabbed silver, becoming Burundi’s first ever female Olympic athletics medallist, while the bronze went to the 20-year-old emerging Kenyan Margaret Wambui, who out-fought Melissa Bishop of Canada in a tight homestretch battle.
Only later, in the post-race press conference, the issue of Semenya’s return to form this season was raised – and that some people consider it 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 majority of women.
Indeed the issue was put to all three women, and whether they have been subjected to any testing of testosterone levels, or if they had been enforced to take medication to reduce it in the past, and if so how they felt about it.
Semenya certainly didn’t dodge the question, but rather confronted it straight on.
“Excuse me, my friend,” she said. “I think tonight is all about performance. We are not here to talk about IAAF, not here to talk about some speculations.
“I think that tonight is all about performance. I think this press conference is all about the 800m that we ran today. So, thank you.”
Wambui’s response was similar: “Thank you for the question,” said the Kenyan woman, “but let us focus on the performance of today, let’s not focus on the medication.”
That wasn’t quite that, however: a little earlier, during the rounds of interviews when coming through the mixed zone, Semenya said that “sport can unite the world”: she was asked to expand on that, exactly what she meant.
“I think it’s all about loving one another, you know. It’s not about discriminating people. It’s not about looking at people, you know, how they look, how they speak, how they run. It’s not about being more muscular.
“It’s all about sports. When you walk out of your apartment, you think about performing. You do not think about how your opponents looks. You just want to do better. So I think the advice is to be for everybody just to go out there and have fun. As much as you have fun in training. As much as you want to achieve. So, that’s all I can say.”
There no was denying the ease of her victory, improving on the silver medal won in 2012, where she had far more timidly, from the back: here, Semenya staying to the front from the start, hitting 400m in 57.59 running shoulder-to-shoulder with the much more diminutive Niyonsaba, before pressing gently on the accelerator around the final bend to win pulling away.
She was well short of the world record of 1:53.28, which has stood since 1983 to Jarmila Kratochvilova of the former Czechoslovakia and the old darker days of doping, although had Semenya even considered it?
“To be honest we did not focus on breaking the world record. We focused more on being the best that we can be, producing a good performance. The field is fantastic, great runners, so the best you can do is stay in control, pace yourself well, and then utilise it when you can do better.
“Well if you look at the field, the field was fantastic, so it was just about pacing myself well. I know I’m strong in the last 200m, and just had to wait until that moment. The coach told me to go out there and had fun, and fortunately my last 200m was stronger, but the ladies are strong, did a fantastic job, so well done to them. So yeah, it was just great.”
She was also asked what the sweep of medals would mean to African women as a whole – or indeed the rest of the world looking on: “We all know that we Africans just win medals in middle and long distance, and walking in their footsteps makes me feel proud, you know. It’s always great to perform, make the podium, and yeah, gold, silver, and bronze, will also encourage other nations, Asia, America to do better. So you just have to pull up your socks, and go out there with heart. Competition is great, I love the competition, so everybody is just great.”
Her coach, Jean Verster puts her return to 2009 form down to simple lifestyle factors; a sort of older, happier Semenya. Last December, for example, she married long-term partner Violet Raseboya, South Africa having legalised same-sex marriage in 2006.
“Of course,” said Semenya, when asked if she was indeed happier, “that’s what happens when you get married.”