There are some things that go together like salt and pepper. There's Batman and Robin, Tom and Jerry, fish and chips. Then there's South African athletes and major controversy.
At the last World Championships, in Berlin two years ago, there was Caster Semenya storming to victory in the women's 800m final, just three hours or so after the International Association of Athletics Federations announced they had asked her to undergo gender verification tests. Cleared to continue competing in women's events by the sport's governing body 13 months ago, the 20-year-old powered her way into another World Championship final yesterday without much comment or even notice as another storm broke over the South African camp.
It started with a tweet from Oscar Pistorius, himself no stranger to controversy and global attention, the double amputee's carbon fibre prosthetics having been outlawed by the IAAF and then reinstated for use in open competition by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. "Haven't been included in the Final for the SA Mens 4x400m," he posted on his Twitter account. "Pretty Guttered [sic]."
On Thursday Pistorius, who reached the semi-finals of the individual 400m on Monday as the first amputee to compete at the World Championships, ran the opening leg for his country in the 4x400m relay heats. The quartet successfully qualified for yesterday's final, finishing third behind the United States and Jamaica in 2min 59.21sec, a national record.
"We'll see who runs in the final," Pistorius said in a trackside interview, when asked to look ahead to yesterday's race. "It depends on the guys in the 400m hurdles final tonight."
When it came to the 400m hurdles final, Louis "LJ" van Zyl ran a storming race, taking the bronze medal behind Britain's Dai Greene and Javier Culson of Puerto Rico. And when it came to the South African team-meeting yesterday morning, Van Zyl was drafted into the starting quartet for the relay final, on the anchor leg. Shane Victor was moved to the lead-off leg, and Pistorius dropped to the role of reserve.
The Paralympian made his feelings clear to the world on Twitter: "Have the 2nd fastest time in SA and ran a 45.3 this week. Was the team management's choice."
As the chosen quartet lined up, Michael Johnson, the 400m world record holder, declared his mystification at the omission of Pistorius. "It doesn't make sense to me at all," Johnson said on Channel 4. "I can't imagine a scenario where you would not want him on your relay."
As the race unfolded, with Pistorius watching from the wings, Van Zyl anchored the South African team to second place behind the United States. Their time, 2:59.87, was 0.66sec slower than the national record achieved with Pistorius in tow the previous day.
Having run in the heats, Pistorius would receive a silver medal, yet Johnson maintained: "You've got to question the selectors – when you've got a guy who's run in the world championship semi-finals and he's faster than every other guy that was on that team for the flat 400."
In fact, Pistorius happens to be the second fastest South African at 400m this year, behind Van Zyl. It was the hurdles specialist who proceeded to explain the reason behind the selection decision, which can be traced back to the IAAF's pre-championship stipulation that Pistorius could only run on the first leg in the relay.
"Oscar is only allowed to run the first leg in the relay and he's not the fastest guy out of the blocks, so we had to make a decision to leave him out," Van Zyl said. "We had an agreement before the first round that the slowest guy in the heat on the splits would not run the final and I would take his place.
"I've run the last leg for the last six years. Unfortunately, Oscar's split was a 46.2, and he was the unlucky one who had to sit it out as a reserve. I think he's going to be very happy with a silver medal."
That happiness was not entirely apparent when Pistorius made his final tweet of the day: "Well done to the SA 4x400m team, they got a Silver. Was really hard watching knowing I deserved to be part of it. Off to bed, nyt [sic] all."
The medals will be presented over the course of a closing weekend during which Semenya stands to win her second World Championship gold in a South African vest. All summer the suspicion has been that the young woman from the Limpopo region has been holding her true form in reserve for the big occasion.
That much appeared to be confirmed yesterday as she surged clear to win her semi-final in 1min 58.07sec. This time, if she proves a class apart again in the final tomorrow, Semenya can expect to bask in the golden glow.
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