SA Champs – Caster Semenya watches from the stands, Wayde van Niekerk wins 400m heat

SA Champs – Caster Semenya watches from the stands, Wayde van Niekerk wins 400m heat
Wayde van Niekerk of South Africa competing in the Men's 400 metres during the World Athletics Championships on 17 July 2022 in Eugene, United States. (Photo: Andy Astfalck / BSR Agency / Getty Images)

Caster Semenya’s South African Athletics Championships ended even before they began as she did not participate in the 10,000m race she was scheduled to compete in on the opening day. This was in the light of new regulations by World Athletics.

While fellow Olympic gold medallist Wayde van Niekerk breezed comfortably through his 400m heat on the first day of the South African Athletics Championships (SA Champs), two-time Olympic gold winner Caster Semenya watched from the stands.

Semenya’s SA Champs participation had already been hanging in the balance in the days leading up to the three-day national event, which is taking place in Potchefstroom and will culminate on Saturday, 1 April.

This is due to the recent World Athletics decision to apply stricter controls on testosterone levels in athletes with differences of sex development (DSD) — a natural occurrence that has haunted Semenya for the bulk of her career.

A statement released by Athletics South Africa (ASA) on Thursday — one day before the new laws officially come into effect — effectively ended all hopes of the Limpopo-born runner turning out at the national showcase.

“ASA has taken note of the important decisions taken by World Athletics at its council meeting held on 23 March 2023, regarding the eligibility regulations for athletes who are transgender or who have DSD,” read the statement.

“For DSD athletes, the new regulations will require any relevant athletes to reduce their testosterone levels below a limit of 2.5 nanomoles per litre, for a minimum of 24 months, to compete internationally in the female category in any event and not just the events that were restricted (400m to one mile) under the previous regulations,” said ASA.

Semenya was set to compete in the first event of the opening day — the women’s 10,000m. However, when the athletes took to the starting point, Semenya was conspicuously absent.

With the revised regulations coming into play from Friday, 31 March, the former 800m world champion is guaranteed to miss out on her adopted 5,000m race as well, which is scheduled for Saturday.

ASA labelled the new rules as “highly discriminatory”, adding that it would seek legal advice about them.

“Whilst ASA is considering the new regulations and taking legal advice thereon, it is duty-bound to adhere to and implement the new regulations,” said the athletics body.

“As such, it cannot allow any of those affected athletes to participate in any world-ranking competition or international events in contravention of the said regulations. In this regard, ASA is still awaiting the outcome of the legal challenge lodged against the regulations, which is still to be heard and decided upon by the European Court of Human Rights.”

Semenya’s training partner Glenrose Xaba was the winner of the first gold medal at the national event. She held off challenges from Cian Oldknow and Cacisile Sosibo to cross the finish line first.

After the race, she said: “It was so painful not having my training partner running with me.”

Caster Semenya of Team Africa during the Women’s 800 metres during day two of the IAAF Continental Cup at Mestsky Stadium on 9 September 2018 in Ostrava, Czech Republic. (Photo: Lukas Schulze / Getty Images for IAAF)

Return of the champ

Van Niekerk had no such turbulence as he won his heat on day one to qualify for the semifinal of his favoured 400m. The 30-year-old is the world record holder in this event after setting a time of 43.03 seconds at the 2016 Rio Olympics.  

He showed his class and experience on a scorching day in Potchefstroom — hardly breaking a sweat as he cruised home in 45.99 seconds in his first outing in the event (locally) since 2016. He pipped defending national champion Zakithi Nene to first place in their heat. World under-20 champion Lythe Pillay clocked 45.95 in winning his heat. 

The veteran shared that he is enjoying testing himself against the latest South African athletic potential, as he continues to pursue his best form since a serious injury in 2017.

“It was comfortable. A bit of a challenging lane, but I tried to execute [my run] as best as possible,” Van Niekerk, who is chasing a fifth South African title, told SuperSport.  

“It’s nice to be back on the track and competing against the best in South Africa … I was quite homesick. So, it’s really lovely to be back home and competing against the next generation of talent. Hopefully, we can put up a good performance,” he added.

Sprint for gold

Another prominent South African Olympian, Akani Simbine, matched the heat of Potchefstroom as his blistering pace saw him scorch his challengers in a close-run 100m final to defend his national title.

The two-time Olympic finalist held off Benjamin Richardson and Rivaldo Roberts to cross the line in 10.14 seconds. It was not as good as the times of 9.98 and 9.92 he had posted in the heats and semifinals, respectively, but it was enough to see him claim his fifth national title.

After the race, Simbine hinted that he was aiming to improve even further this year.

“I’m happy to defend the title and have a good championship and have some fast runs. We’ve been having good training. The great thing is that we’re not at the important part of training. So, I’m looking forward to going back to training and getting better and faster,” said Simbine to SuperSport.

Carina Horn reigned supreme in the 100m women’s final, crossing the line in 11.52 seconds. Tamzin Thomas was second in 11.58, while Kayla Murray recorded a season-best time of 11.85 to claim bronze. DM


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