Banned from her signature event, Caster Semenya hasn’t given up on reaching Olympics

·5-min read

Even after her sport’s governing body issued a rule change that essentially bars her from her signature event, Caster Semenya refuses to go quietly.

The two-time Olympic gold medalist in the 800 meters reinvented herself first as a sprinter and now as a distance runner in hopes of finding another path to this summer’s Tokyo Games.

Semenya has traveled to Europe to take her final two cracks at achieving the Olympic qualifying standard in the 5,000 meters. The South African plans to run the 5,000 at a meet in Regensburg, Germany, on Saturday and at a meet in Liege, Belgium, on June 30, agent Jukka Härkönen told Yahoo Sports.

To secure her place in Tokyo, Semenya must quickly make a massive leap forward. Last month, at a meet specially arranged for her in her home country, Semenya won the 5,000 meters in 15:32.15, a time that shattered her old personal best yet was still more than 22 seconds shy of what she needed to qualify.

Härkönen is optimistic that tougher competition in Europe will bring out the best in Semenya and push her to attain the Olympic qualifying mark of 15 minutes, 10 seconds. While the race in Germany doesn’t feature many realistic Olympic contenders, Härkönen expects the field in Belgium to be much stronger.

“Liege will be her first serious race in 5000m,” Härkönen said. “After that, we will know more.”

The International Olympic Committee last year set a deadline of June 29 for athletes to qualify for the Tokyo Games, but Härkönen appears confident that Semenya’s performance in Liege would be considered. Härkönen said he’s certain Athletics South Africa and the local Olympic committee “will understand Caster’s situation.”

“There are not many possibilities to run in Europe and also the COVID rules are very strict,” he added.

South African middle-distance runner and 2016 Olympic gold medallist Caster Semenya competes in the women's 5000m final during the Sizwe Medical Fund Athletics South Africa Senior Track and Field Championships held at the Tuks Athletics Stadium in Pretoria on April 15, 2021. (Photo by Phill Magakoe / AFP) (Photo by PHILL MAGAKOE/AFP via Getty Images)
Caster Semenya competes in the women's 5000m final in Pretoria on April 15, 2021. (Photo by Phill Magakoe / AFP) (Photo by PHILL MAGAKOE/AFP via Getty Images)

Qualifying for the Olympics would surely be more straightforward for Semenya if she could still specialize in the 800. Semenya, 30, laid waste to her competition at that distance for a decade, winning three world championships to go along with her Olympic gold medals from London and Rio de Janeiro.

Because her deep voice, muscular physique and wardrobe of suits and bowties didn’t match western society’s heteronormative expectation of a woman, Semenya’s dominance incited complaints and controversy. Early in her career, she was subjected to invasive gender verification tests to prove she’s a woman. Other competitors who couldn’t beat her argued that she shouldn’t be allowed to compete.

Semenya has long refused to answer questions about her gender, but she is believed to have a medical condition known as hyperandrogenism. Her body naturally produces greater-than-usual levels of testosterone, a hormone that increases muscle mass and oxygen uptake.

The condition has made Semenya the unwilling face of a complex, emotionally charged debate over how sports authorities should treat athletes whose physiology defies preconceived ideas of normalcy. Track and field’s governing body has repeatedly changed its rules over her eligibility to compete.

In 2018, the IAAF introduced a rule that female competitors must undergo surgery or take hormone-suppressing medication if their testosterone level rose above a certain threshold. The rule only applied to the 400, 800 and 1,500 meters, inciting speculation it was specifically implemented to target Semenya.

When Semenya’s attempts to legally challenge the IAAF ruling didn’t immediately pan out, it left her with three options: Subject herself to testosterone-suppressing drugs, switch to an event not impacted by the rule change or quit track and field altogether. Semenya eventually chose the middle option, the equivalent of a wideout switching to linebacker or left tackle a decade into his NFL career.

The hallmark of 800 meters specialists is typically their knack for toeing the aerobic-anaerobic threshold for long periods of time. They need the speed of a sprinter and the strength of a distance runner to cover a half mile in less than two minutes.

South African 800m Olympic champion Caster Semenya (R) competes in the women's 200m final during the Athletics Gauteng North Championships at the LC de Villiers Athletics Stadium in Pretoria on March 13, 2020. - Star South African 800-metre athlete Caster Semenya said on March 13, 2020 she hopes to compete in the 200m at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. The 29-year-old is prohibited from defending her 800m Olympics title because she refuses to adhere to testosterone regulations set by governing body World Athletics. (Photo by Phill Magakoe / AFP) (Photo by PHILL MAGAKOE/AFP via Getty Images)
Before committing to tryinig to qualify for the Olympics in the 5,000 meters, Caster Semenya last year dabbled as a sprinter in the 200. (Photo by Phill Magakoe / AFP) (Photo by PHILL MAGAKOE/AFP via Getty Images)

Semenya dabbled in the 200 pre-pandemic. She was fast but nowhere near world-class.

The 5,000 has been her focus this year. So far it hasn’t suited her as well as middle-distance events did.

“It’s really, really difficult to make that transition,” said NBC Sports distance-running analyst Kara Goucher, who competed in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. “People think she’s so dominant in the 800 that of course she can run under the Olympic standard, but it doesn’t necessarily translate like that. There’s a reason she has gravitated to the 800 her entire career.”

Goucher specialized in the 5,000 and 10,000 at the height of her career. She told Yahoo Sports she could dabble in the 1500 but she’d “never win anything.”

“I couldn’t touch an 800,” she added with a laugh. “I’d get my doors blown off. The reverse is true here.”

Five years ago in Rio, the three medalists in the women’s 800 were Semenya, Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi and Margaret Wambui of Kenya. Wambui and Niyonsaba have since said that they too produce naturally high levels of testosterone and the 2018 IAAF rule change essentially prevents them from running their signature event.

Wambui has struggled to find a new niche and has not raced competitively since July 2019. Niyonsaba earlier this month achieved an Olympic qualifying time in the 5,000.

"A challenge is not a barrier. It's an opportunity to do better. Heading to Tokyo with a great qualifying time," she posted on Twitter.

Over the next few weeks, Semenya is hoping to follow Niyonsaba’s lead. Judging from her social media account, Semenya is also maintaining a positive outlook.

“Trust in the process!!” she tweeted earlier this month. “No matter how slow it is, if you stick to your plans, it will eventually come alright. Forget the noise out there and press mute.”

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