Semenya sensational in Berlin

20 August 2009

South Africa’s Caster Semenya shrugged off a controversy over her gender to win the 800 metres for women with a commanding performance at the IAAF World Championships in Berlin on Wednesday – becoming South Africa’s first ever athletics world champion in the middle distances.

In the medal-deciding race, Semenya led after a fast first lap of 56.83 seconds, and when she put the hammer down on the second lap, no one could stay with her. The 18-year-old went on to a superb victory in one minute 55.45 seconds, a personal best and the fastest time in the world this season.

Won going away

So dominant was Semenya that she won going away by about 20 metres, finishing 2.45 seconds clear of defending champion Janeth Jepkosgei, who picked up second in 1:57.90, which was her season’s best time.

Jennifer Meadows of Great Britain claimed the bronze medal in 1:57.93, a personal best, but nobody came close to challenging the muscular South African.

Leading up to the race, there was some controversy surrounding Semenya’s gender, with some suggesting that she is not a woman.

Women ‘not supposed to run so fast!’

An interesting point of view, suggested by East Coast Radio DJ Daryl Illbury on Thursday morning, was that Semenya was not being questioned because of the way she looks, but rather because, as he put it, women are “not supposed to run so fast”! Illbury, by the way, was firmly in the 800 metres star’s corner.

In interviews with her family members on other radio stations, her grandmother scoffed at suggestions that Semenya is anything but a woman, saying she had raised her and she knew what her gender was. She said jokes had always been made about Semenya being the only girl in a boys’ football team when she was growing up.

World record

The women’s 800 metres world record of 1:53.28, established by Czech athlete Jarmila Kratochvilova in 1983, is one of the oldest records in the book.

Although nothing has ever been proven, a lot of doubts have been expressed about the legitimacy of Kratochvilova’s record, because of her muscular build at the time, and the fact that she came out of one of the then Eastern Bloc countries, which were notorious for their use of doping.

Semenya, at 18 years of age, has her best years ahead of her, and could still improve dramatically. She could be the woman to better the long-standing world record, given her relative youth and potential; it was only last month that she recorded a time of 1:56.72 at the African Youth Championships to catch the world’s attention. In the final in Berlin, she smashed that time.


Gideon Sam, president of the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (Sascoc), praised Semenya for her achievement, saying it was made all the more remarkable by the fact that she had to deal with the distraction of media allegations around her gender on the day of the race.

“We have every faith in Athletics South Africa and the team they selected to attend the World Championships in Berlin,” Sam said in a statement on Thursday.

“We are proud of the fact we send ‘clean teams’ to global events, and we would take strong action against a federation if this didn’t prove to be the case.

“We condemn the way she was linked with such media speculation and allegation, especially on a day she ran in the final of her first major world event.”

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