CASTER SEMENYA HAS ENJOYED ANOTHER UNBEATEN YEAR OVER 800m AND, DESPITE THE IMMINENT NEW IAAF RULES ON TESTOSTERONE LEVELS, SHE INTENDS TO RACE FOR ANOTHER 10 YEARS
Middle-distance icon tells Stuart Weir about how she intends to take in a further five outdoor world championships
THIS has been a good year for Caster Semenya, demonstrating not only her dominance but her versatility. She won two golds at the Commonwealth Games, two titles at the African Championships, she was Diamond League champion and ended the year by winning at the IAAF Continental Cup. Dominating at 800m with a best of 1:54.25, she also won 1500m at the Commonwealth Games and is African champion at 400m with a PB of 49.62.
Unbeaten at her specialist distance of 800m since September 2015, the 27-yearold is one of the most talked about athletes in the world. She is also one of the most controversial as she has found herself at the centre of the
“WHEN YOU START SCHOOL, THAT IS WHEN YOU DISCOVER YOUR TALENT AND WHERE YOU BELONG. SO AT THE AGE OF SIX I REALISED FOR THE FIRST TIME THAT I COULD DO WELL IN RUNNING”
debate over gender testing and possible medication to reduce testosterone levels. Yet this has not stopped her becoming one of the most popular athletes in South Africa – and indeed around the world – and her sponsor Nike has fanned the flames of her fame recently by featuring her in one of its latest shoe campaigns.
Semenya’s involvement in sport began at an early age. “From the age of four I played soccer and had been running around”, she says. “But when you start school, that is when you discover your talent and where you belong. So at the age of six I realised for the first time that I could do well in running.”
In 2008 she won the 800m at the IAAF World Junior Championships and the following year announced herself to the world when, still only
18, she won the senior world 800m title in Berlin in 1:55.45. She recalls that there was a lot of spotlight on her but her own expectations were much less.
“For me, coming from African juniors to Berlin, that is where reality hit,” she remembers.
“You are running with the best in the world. I had never run with seniors before and certainly not around the world. I was very inexperienced, so my main goal was just to get through the rounds. The final was honestly not in my mind because I didn’t know if I would make the final. Once I was in the final, I knew I had a chance to win.”
She has two Olympic gold medals at 800m, won in 2012 and 2016, but the circumstances of her 2012 victory are complicated by doping demeanors. In the London final the Russian athlete Mariya Savinova finished in first place, only to be stripped of her medal five years later.
In Rio, though, Semenya finished first in 1:55.28 and she says of her Olympic victories: “I will talk more about Rio because in London I finished in second place and it wasn’t the best race of my life as I couldn’t produce what others expected me to produce. But London is part of my life, one of my failures and I learn from it.”
She adds that “2016 was the best year my life”, explaining further: “The main focus was to win gold in the Olympics. At that time we were still running tactical races. We always attacked from the back. So I knew that if I stayed and waited for the right moment I would win the race, so it was no surprise.”
When asked about her dominance in the sport, she is quick to credit her coach. “As an athlete, it’s about the relationship you have with your coach. We believe a lot in rhythm. Our training has been solid and we have been consistent in everything we do. I think that is why I am running better now.
“IN THE LAST TWO YEARS IT
HAS BEEN ABOUT RECTIFYING MISTAKES WE HAVE MADE IN THE PAST EIGHT YEARS. AS AN ATHLETE YOU LEARN. WE’VE FOUND A WAY TO MASTER THE SKILL AND NOW IT’S JUST ABOUT EXECUTING
AND BEING BETTER”
“In the last two years it has been about rectifying mistakes we have made in the past eight years. As an athlete you learn. We’ve found a way to master the skill and now it’s just about executing and being better.”
No one doubts Semenya’s ability as an 800m runner – with three world titles to her name – but, I suggested to her, her versatility and prowess at 400m and 1500m may have surprised some people. “It’s all about knowing how your body responds through training and knowing how to manage your body,” she says. “So it’s about feeling – I feel the rhythm and I execute.
“It is very hard to be good in the middle-distance if you do not balance speed and endurance. That is what we are trying to do. The training is not easy because it requires a lot of things, a lot of load. But at the end of the day if you can put that together you become great at what you do.
“The 1500m is a race I love and I will always concentrate on it but I try by all means to balance speed. When it comes to 1500m it all depends on how we start the season. If we are quick already then it will be the 800m but if we are a little bit delayed it might be more 1500m over 800m, so we make wise decisions based on how fast we are moving in racing. It is a choice based on the pace we run.”
Where does her blistering speed come from? “When I was young, I was a sprinter,” she explains. “The first time I walked on the track, I was a 100m and 200m runner, but because of the lack of facilities and coaching skills I decided to step off sprinting to do middle-distance, because I thought even without a coach I could still train. So I think the speed just came naturally from when I was young and did a lot of sprinting.”
When it comes to the controversy that has dogged her career – from sex verification tests in 2009 to the IAAF’s
2018 rules relating to athletes with differences of sexual development (see panel opposite) – Semenya took to
social media earlier this year to share her point of view. “God made me the way I am and I accept myself,” she said. “I am who I am and I am proud of myself.
“I just want to run naturally, the way I was born. It is not fair that I am told I must change. It is not fair that people question who I am. I am Mokgadi Caster Semenya. I am a woman and I am fast.”
Whatever you think about the issues, no one can question the dignity with which she has conducted herself. “Every human has ups and downs and there are things that you cannot control,” she says. “For me as a human you have to learn how to be a good person, how to be a good human. I had to learn how to respect other people. Over a period of 10 years I became a better person from the experiences that I have had as an athlete, from being a teenager on to now, it has been a great journey.”
She continues: “I have been raised to respect people. It doesn’t matter who respects me and who doesn’t. At the end of the day I had been taught to be a good person, even to those who hate.
“If someone doesn’t like you, it is their problem not yours. I am a Christian. I believe in the Bible. What I read in the Bible, that made me who I am today. I will not let humans’ reaction change me. I can change myself. When I read the Bible I feel peace. That’s how I am. Religious faith helps a lot because you know what is right and wrong.”
Two Olympic and three
World Championship gold medals may seem a good haul, but Semenya tells AW that she is far from finished.
“I still have a long way to go. I still want to run two more Olympics,” she says.
“If you calculate two Olympics that takes you to about five world championships and 10 years, I think. I still want to run until I am 38 or 39. Those are the goals – two more Olympics and perhaps five more world championships.”
We see Semenya as an athlete but what is she like away from the track? “I like my own space. I watch sport. I follow sport a lot. When I’m not running I will be playing with a ball or indoors watching movies.
“I like football, tennis, basketball, golf, formula one, motor sport – catching up with all the sports. I’m an easy person to talk to. I love people. In my spare time I just chill.”
Semenya’s own foundation is also close to her heart and takes up plenty of time, as she explains: “I have my foundation and my own club that I’m running. My main focus now is to develop young up and coming boys and girls. We are focused on improving sports facilities and then trying to get achievement in sport in terms of development.”
As an athletics writer I have always known that Semenya was a great athlete and I had admired how she handled the controversy surrounding her. I found her an easy interviewee and clearly someone who feels thankful for what she has achieved and is keen to give something back to her community.
“AT THE END OF THE DAY I HAVE BEEN TAUGHT TO BE A GOOD PERSON, EVEN TO THOSE WHO HATE”
Melissa Courtney, Jess Judd and Katie Snowden try to keepup with Caster Semenya as the South African sets about completing a golden double at the 2018 Commonwealth Games
Aura of invincibility: Caster Semenya intends to compete in a further two Olympics and five world championships but will the new IAAF rules allow it?
Olympic champion: Caster Semenya has many titles but so far the world record eludes her