Team South Africa: Caster Semenya

17 May 2012

It might come as a surprise to some, but Caster Semenya, a medal prospect in the women’s 800 metres at the London Olympic Games, is just 21 years old. She blasted into the public consciousness back in 2009, when she won the 800 metres at the IAAF World Championships at the age of 18.

It was an eye-opening victory for Semenya, who decimated her opposition and won going away by 20 metres over the second-placed finisher, Janeth Jepkosgei, in a time of 1:55.45.

Yet even before that race, a messy and poorly handled investigation into the muscular young South African had begun when, three hours before the final, the news broke that the IAAF wanted her to undergo a gender test.

Cleared

It took almost a year for the International Association of Athletics Federations to clear Semenya, but it certainly set her development as a top athlete back. After a late start to 2010, her best time of 1:58.16 came in Milan in September.

Despite that strong performance, she struggled to find the kind of form that made her a world champion, but showed excellent temperament on one of the sport’s biggest stages at the IAAF World Championships in Daegu, South Korea in 2011, lifting her game to excel against the world’s best 800 metres athletes once again.

Semenya recorded her best time of the year in the semi-finals, 1:58.07, to win her race and qualify for the final.

Top performance

With medals on the line, she bettered her performance in the final, clocking a fast 1:56.35, which was good for second place behind fast-finishing Russian Maria Savinova.

Those two World Championships performances suggest that Semenya has the invaluable quality of BMT – big match temperament – which allows her to perform her best under extreme pressure.

She booked her spot at the London Olympics in April when she ran a time of 1:59.58 seconds in Pretoria. Incredibly, that sub two-minute clocking was the first time a woman had cracked the two-minute barrier in South Africa since Zelda Pretorius ran 1:58.35 in 1991.

‘A weight off my shoulders’

After achieving the qualifying standard for a second time (her first was at the world Championships in Daegu), Semenya told reporters: “It’s a weight off my shoulders and I’m very happy with my time. I possibly can go quicker. Tonight was just my third race of the season.”

She also shared her goals with the media, saying: “I have to win a gold medal at the Olympics. That’s what I want.

“My dream is to win the Olympics, and that’s my plan. I feel OK, because now I can run good races again, run faster. Qualifying for the Olympics, it’s a good step forward.”

Semenya, who is coached by Mozambiquan 800 metres legend Maria Mutola, a former Olympic and world champion, will compete overseas in May and June in a bid to improve her season’s best time to under 1:57.00.

If she finds that kind of form, she will be a strong gold medal candidate in London.

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