The South African’s emphatic victory in Berlin raised questions about her gender and started a verification process that still clouds her achievement.
She had emerged from obscurity to win gold in one minute 55.45 seconds, the fastest time of the year and a remarkable improvement on the times she had been clocking only months earlier.
The strength and power of the unknown 18-year-old as she destroyed the field down the final stretch prompted the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) to order an investigation into possible drug use and ask for a gender test.
The inquiry set off a long-running controversy, marked by media leaks, accusations and insults that enraged her home country and severely affected a shy girl from a rural village.
Semenya’s sexuality became the subject of widespread debate and kept her off the track for almost a year before the IAAF cleared her to run again. South Africa’s sports minister threatened “a third world war” if the world athletics governing body tried to ban her.
The results of the gender tests have never been published. But Australia’s Daily Telegraph reported in late 2009 that they showed that, while she had female genitalia, she was also born with undescended testes which provided her with three times the amount of testosterone present in an average female.
Fellow runners branded her a man and said it was unfair they had to compete against her.
“God made me that way I am and I accept myself,” she countered in a rare interview. A statement through her lawyers added: “I’ve been subjected to unwarranted and invasive scrutiny of the most intimate and private details of my being.”
Just what to do about female athletes whose chromosomal abnormalities offer them an advantage was an issue the Semenya controversy put squarely on athletics’ agenda.
The IAAF have since abandoned its previous gender verification policy and last year introduced new regulations on the excessive production of testosterone. Women who have levels within the male range now face a review of their eligibility.
The impact on the young South African still stimulates passionate debate and the fact Semenya has yet to come close to emulating, never mind bettering, her run in Berlin is cited as evidence of the trauma she has been through.
Her comeback was initially blighted by injury but she won silver at last year’s world championships in Daegu, behind Russia’s Mariya Savinova.
Now 21, Semenya is much more engaging with the media and the public, and said recently she is targeting gold in London and a world record. Jarmila Kratochvilova’s mark of 1:53.28 set in 1983 is the longest-standing women’s world record.
Last year Semenya took on the 2000 Sydney Olympics 800 metres gold medallist and three times world champion Maria Mutola as her new coach.
“Sooner or later, we will smash it. I cannot wait for it,” Semenya told reporters last month. DM
Photo: Caster Semenya of South Africa prepares to take part in the women’s 800 m Yellow Pages third series Olympics qualifier competition in Pretoria April 20, 2012. Semenya qualified for the 2012 London Olympics. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko
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