Athletics

Caster Semenya in a race to save her career

The runner will challenge the IAAF's rules on testing

17 February 2019 - 00:07 By DAVID ISAACSON


It took Caster Semenya barely a second to spot the two SA journalists after her 800m race in Beijing.
She had just entered the mixed zone, a gauntlet of media personnel that all athletes have to travel after competing. In this case it was the 2015 world championships.
The moment Semenya made eye contact with us her face brightened as she radiated a smile that registered satisfaction with her performance.
She had ended a modest third in her heat in 1min 59.59sec, but it was the first occasion in nearly two years that she'd dipped under two minutes.
For her detractors, this was further proof that her naturally higher levels of testosterone gave her an unfair advantage.
The Beijing meeting was the first time since winning gold at the 2009 world championships that Semenya was running without being forced to take medication to lower her testosterone.
Being beaten into silver at the 2011 world championships and 2012 Olympics showed she wasn't so potent when on the medication, her critics theorised, though it later transpired that her conqueror in both races, Russia's Mariya Savinova, was a doper.
Just before Beijing 2015 the International Association of Athletics Federations' (IAAF) rule forcing Semenya to take medication had been suspended by the Court of Arbitration for Sport [CAS] in Switzerland after a case brought by Indian sprinter Dutee Chand.
THE FASTEST, TESTOSTERONE OR NOT
Chand's 100m and 200m personal bests were hardly impressive, being even slower than the SA women's national records.
The IAAF eventually scrapped restrictions in Chand's events, but applied them in all the races Semenya runs, from 400m to the mile, as well as a few other events.
This is the battle Semenya takes to the CAS this week, effectively fighting to save her career. The testosterone level the IAAF now wants her to have is lower than what it demanded from 2010 to 2015.
Does she get an unfair advantage over her competitors? It almost seems irrelevant by now.
In 2009 her 1:55.45 winning time was 2.1% quicker than her nearest rival with "normal" levels of testosterone.
As Semenya got faster since 2015, that gap has actually narrowed, to 1.5% in 2016 (over Canadian Melissa Bishop) and 1.29% in 2017 (Ajeé Wilson of the US).
Semenya was just 18 when her personal medical information was leaked by the IAAF in what must rank as one of the worst cases of body shaming. It wasn't the first time they'd done that to women athletes who didn't fit their gender delineation.
Simply because of her different appearance, Semenya also faced antagonistic rivals and fans, especially in the early days.
But Semenya has gutsed it out, even winning acceptance. When she unsuccessfully went for the 800m world record last year in Monaco - the seat of the IAAF - she had the fans on their feet cheering her on.
At Beijing 2015, journalists asked Semenya her thoughts on Chand's case against the IAAF. She politely declined to comment.
As for her struggle from 2013 to 2015, largely the result of a lingering injury, not once did Semenya complain about the effects of the medication she had to take.
That smile she flashed in Beijing demonstrated her love for the sport. Her success is forged in hard work, physical and strategic.
Her lawyers will argue from tomorrow she should compete unfettered as a woman.
No matter what, she's already proven, in the way she's carried herself calmly and determinedly over the years, that she is a lady.

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