Wesley Botton
Chief sports writer
3 minute read
29 Apr 2019
12:45 pm

Making a statement is in Semenya’s DNA

Wesley Botton

Perhaps the IAAF should have been watching more closely before they took her on.

South Africa's runner Caster Semenya, current 800-meter Olympic gold medalist and world champion, arrives for the first day of her hearing at the international Court of Arbitration for Sport, CAS, in Lausanne, Switzerland, Monday, Feb. 18, 2019. Picture: Laurent Gillieron / Keystone via AP

Every time Caster Semenya has expanded her competitive range, questions have been raised about her ability to extend herself any further along the spectrum of distances.

And every time she has proved her critics wrong.

Having cemented her place as the fastest woman in the world in her favoured 800m event – a distance at which she may still have a crack at the world record – Semenya began to juggle the 400m and 1 500m events in recent years.

But over the metric mile she initially looked heavy and sluggish, and she towered over her opponents in an event which generally attracts wispy women with compact frames who float across the track.

But she silenced her doubters when she became the first South African woman to run under four minutes, and when she won gold at the Commonwealth Games.

When she first turned out in the 400m sprint, her wobbly start was worth a chuckle.

But nobody was laughing when she became the first South African woman to shatter the 50-second barrier, or when she stormed around the track to win the African title.

Semenya and her coach, Samuel Sepeng, are meticulous in their approach and when they set a goal they nearly always achieve it.

And when they don’t, they come close.

So when Semenya started talking about a step up to the 5 000m distance, it seemed foolish to doubt her once again.

But her large frame again threatened to count against her, with the power and strength she relies on in the 400m and 800m offering little value in a race that lasts 12-and-a-half-laps.

Nevertheless, her performance in Germiston this week suggests otherwise and Semenya has offered a glimpse at her significant potential in the 5 000m event.

Turning out against longer distance specialists Dominique Scott-Efurd – an Olympic finalist over 10 000m – as well as Kesa Molotsane and Glenrose Xaba, Semenya did not look out of place.

Instead she stamped her usual authority on the contest and took control, and at times she seemed frustrated by what for her must have felt like a pedestrian pace.

But she paced herself well and had enough left in the tank to launch a thunderous kick at the bell which dropped the last of her experienced compatriots.

It would have been one thing if Semenya had won the nationaltitle against an under-strength field, but she did it against the best 5 000m runners the country has to offer.

And while her focus is likely to be fixed on shorter distances if that option remains available, an imminent decision by the Court of Arbitration for Sport could block her from participating in every event from 400m to the mile.

Should she win her case against controversial gender rules, she’s likely to scratch the 5 000m from her programme, as she has enough on her plate as it is.

But if she loses her court battle, Semenya has already fired a warning at the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), suggesting they could ultimately pay for making the bizarre decision not to include every race
distance in a rule which would restrict athletes with higher than normal levels of natural testosterone.

Semenya’s winning time of 16:04.97 this week was not spectacular by any means, but she was running at altitude in a tactical race, and there is no doubt that she can go a lot quicker.

It was an explosive statement aimed at global athletics officials, with the middle-distance star quietly threatening to remain competitive on the international circuit, regardless of whether she wins her case or not.

Fuelled by determination and self belief, and driven by her immense natural talent, Semenya seems capable of just about anything.

Laugh at her poor start and she’ll break records to shut you up.

Those who have followed her career have learned by now not to question her ability, no matter how outrageous her goals may be.

Perhaps the IAAF should have been watching more closely before they took her on.

She likes to prove people wrong.

Wesley Botton.

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