Caster Semanya; another athlete with a Games to celebrate


Ten weeks ago, I listed three athletes who I hoped would do well at the Games: Mo Farah, Caster Semenya, and Bahaa al-Farra, the Palestinian 400m runner. I thought, between them, they might achieve three finals and one silver. I didn’t think it would be two silvers and a gold.

Al-Farra broke 50 seconds but did not make it through the first round.

Mo, I’ve discussed, and there’s no need to go back over his victories.

Dave Zirin encapsulates what it means to have Caster Semenya at the Games:

“Here is a phenomenal athlete who has had to endure all manner of allegations and innuendo simply because she does not fit the stereotypical body shape of a female runner.”

“This idea of binary gender norms is something that the Olympics—indeed the whole sports world—are going to have to address whether they like it or not. There will be more and more transgender athletes and this arbitrary dichotomy is going to be challenged. The idea that boys play in one place and girls in another is not something inherent to human nature; it is something that has had to be enforced and codified. Of course there will be different divisions of athletes, but why base this on gender? Why not on strength or speed or body mass? It is arbitrary and yet at the same time not arbitrary—it becomes yet another way to divide us and make us feel different from each other.”

Semenya has been roundly slated by the commentators, the suggestion being that she was naive to leave it so late in the 800 metres. Their other idea being that maybe she didn’t want to win Gold – not after the horror she had to endure after winning golds at the World Championship in 2009.

That’s not how I saw the race. Watching her, she seemed far bulkier than any of the other runners, and heavy on her feet. She was fighting hard to stay in contention, and was surprised to discover how much she had left in her legs.

You have to remember that Semenya has been injured for much of the past 12 months and hadn’t broken 2 minutes this year until the Olympic heats. Before the Games began, few serious commentators thought she would get a medal; even reaching the final was a victory for her.

She retains the leg speed to run a very fast 50 metres – she no longer has the right balance to be able to go (as by contrast David Rudisha can) seamlessly from anaerobic to aerobic exercise.

A way of thinking about how she runs is to imagine how Usain Bolt would race the 800 metres; he would just hope desperately to remain in the race until the end – knowing that if he did his last few metres would be devastating. That’s exactly how Semenya ran – not out of innocence nor in fear but in full knowledge of her body, and of fit (or not) she is just now.


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