Semenya forgets past and dreams of another gold
With gender-test furore behind her, the South African wants to defend 800m title
Whatever question is asked of Caster Semenya, the world 800 metres champion who races here in today's Samsung Diamond League meeting, there is always another one lurking unspoken.
The furore which broke around this young South African before and after she won that title as an 18-year-old in Berlin reverberated throughout – and indeed beyond – the sporting world as it emerged that there had been questions about whether Semenya had a physical condition which might give her an unfair advantage over other women competitors.
She was withdrawn from international competition until 6 July 2010, when the International Association of Athletics Federations, which had initially received widespread criticism when it confirmed the news leaked three hours before Semenya's final in Berlin that she was to be asked to undergo a sex test, cleared her to return to competition.
No details of her gender testing have been released for reasons of her privacy, but she is now clearly operating within the new IAAF rule issued with regard to women's competition in April relating to "hyperandrogenism", a condition involving overproduction of male sex hormones.
Although Semenya ran in Finland and Berlin, returning to the track on which she had set her startling winning time of 1min 55.45sec a year earlier, injuries prevented her competing in the Delhi Commonwealth Games, so this is her first full season back. Her ambition is straightforward, if not simple – to retain her title at the IAAF World Championships starting in Daegu, South Korea next month.
And as she made clear in a relatively relaxed press appearance in the meeting hotel, she doesn't think it will take a time of 1min 55sec to win the title again.
Part of the reason for the relaxation, it has to be said, stemmed from the opening comment of the master of ceremonies alongside the figure in long shorts and dayglo pink T-shirt: "Caster will not respond to any question relating to what happened in 2009."
On the face of it, an odd statement given that this is an athlete who has recently characterised that victory as the best moment in her life. Again, the unspoken obtrudes.
But as she prepared for what will be her first race in Paris, Semenya was happy enough to address the next World Championships – which start in Daegu next month – if not the last.
"Retaining my gold – it's one of my big dreams," she said, her long-fingered hands, with a single gold ring on her left little finger, moving in sympathy with the words. "I need to hang on there, and train hard, so I can win my gold again. That's the main thing of this year."
Her races so far this season, however, have only been a mixture of respectable and inept, with victory at the Eugene Diamond League and third place in the Oslo Diamond League, in 1min 58.88 and 1:58.61 respectively, being followed by a heavy defeat over 1500m in Lausanne, where she was 13th and last, and a mediocre showing in Tuesday's 800m in Rheims, where she was fifth in 2:01.02 – hardly gold medal-winning form.
A vulnerable figure off the track, given what has happened to her, Semenya is now looking vulnerable on it. But she seems to feel she is heading in the right direction.
Asked if she felt she could get back to running in the area of 1min 55sec by the end of the season, she was initially non-committal before revealing what may be a more realistic gameplan.
"Hopefully yes," she said. "At the end of the season it might happen that you get back to the normal standard. We will see. I am planning to go faster than 1.58. If I do it tomorrow I will be happy... Now I just need to focus. There are so much steps that I need to pass first, you know, to get back to that normal standard.
"But even if I'm not back to the top shape I can still retain the title. The 800 – anybody can win it, whether you are super fit or not.
As of now, I'm not thinking of anybody. Like I said, when I do my race, it's only me, so I am focusing on me, running 800, winning gold."
But her rivals, many of them still sceptical about her situation, are finding ways to beat her. Did she really feel she could maintain her hold?
"Many ladies are going fast," she responded. "But mentally" – and here she pointed a finger to her braided hair – "if you are not fit here, that's a problem. So we will see who is going to win the title." Her grin was a broad and confident one.
* Tyson Gay has undergone an arthroscopic procedure on his injured right hip and will not run again this year, his manager said last night. Gay, the world's second fastest man behind Usain Bolt and who was already set to miss next month's World Championships, had the surgery on Tuesday in Colorado.
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