JOHANNESBURG: Seeing her most intimate details reported and debated in the global media robbed Caster Semenya of the chance to really celebrate winning her first World Championship at the age of 18.
After claiming the world 800-meter title in a stunningly fast time at her first major international meet in 2009, she was subjected to invasive and embarrassing gender tests because of her muscular build and rapid improvement in times.
The teenage girl from a tiny village in rural northern South Africa recoiled amid the testing and the resultant whirlwind of speculation over whether or not she was female. The turmoil easily could have killed her resolve, and forced her into premature retirement.
But Caster Semenya is running again and, for her, that’s what matters most.
After all the public scrutiny, an 11-month IAAF-enforced break from competition, niggling injury and a dip in form, worries if she could afford to keep competing and a split with her former coach, Semenya is back on track for her original goals: winning races and medals.
Still just 21, and already with a gold and a silver from the last two World Championships, Semenya heads into the London Games as one of South Africa’s best medal chances.
“The plan is to win the Olympics, that’s all,” Semenya said immediately after qualifying for London. “I have to win a gold, that’s what I want. The Olympics is a big step. Everybody wants to win the Olympics.”
She believes she’s on course to achieve a rare world and Olympic double in London. And with former world and Olympic 800 champion Maria Mutola as her coach, Semenya has an ideal mentor.
There remain unseen scars from her earlier ordeal. Semenya still comes with a brooding distrust of the media – understandable considering the rampant public debate over something as intimately personal as her gender. It led to some unsavory presumptions.
She rarely gives interviews. Perhaps no other athlete wants as much to let their running do the talking.
“I feel comfortable ... running is what I always wanted to do. Every day. So, yes, I think I’m OK. I’m coping,” she said, avoiding referring directly to past controversies as a group of reporters crowded around her after a race at the University of Pretoria eager to get some rare public comments.
“I feel OK because I’m able to run good races again, faster. Qualifying for the Olympics is a step forward. Everything is OK. I feel OK. I’m very happy.”
Semenya’s rise to international attention began the month before the 2009 World Championships in Berlin.
She announced herself at the African Junior Championships by winning the 800 in a national record of 1 minute, 56.72 seconds – her first recorded time under the two-minute barrier.
The time was the best in the world to that point of the year and quickly raised the interest of the IAAF. Overall, she had carved around seven seconds off her personal best in less than a year.
“The 18-year-old Semenya is guaranteed special attention at the World Championships in Berlin,” a glowing IAAF report noted at the time. The writer couldn’t have been more correct, but for another reason.
Three weeks later, and apparently just hours after undergoing gender tests, Semenya clocked 1:55.45 to win the World Championships final. She dominated the race completely despite her inexperience, leaving the world’s best women in her wake. The speculation started immediately.
Her closely cropped hair and her clenched-fists celebration, with shoulder and biceps muscles bulging, sent the rumor mill into overdrive as news of the gender tests leaked. The words intersex and hermaphrodite emerged in the coverage as Semenya’s story hit front pages.
She was sidelined from competition while the IAAF examined results of her tests and even prevented from competing by officials after turning up at a meet in Stellenbosch, in southwestern South Africa. Her frustration was evident.
“I have been subjected to unwarranted and invasive scrutiny of the most intimate and private details of my being,” Semenya said in comments released by her legal advisers at the time, adding she had “begrudgingly” submitted to the IAAF’s “process” despite reservations about its “correctness and moral integrity.”
While it was suggested that a natural condition that produced excess testosterone contributed to Semenya’s dominant win over more experienced runners and gave her an advantage over other female athletes, the IAAF didn’t release any details of the investigation that eventually cleared her to return in July 2010.
The IAAF said Semenya’s case was and would remain confidential, but the sport’s governing body did confirm that a panel of medical experts had determined she could compete as a woman.
It’s believed her case was one of the reasons why the IAAF introduced new regulations last year to deal with female athletes who produce higher than usual levels of testosterone – and so are able to build more muscle and have better endurance.
However, importantly for Semenya’s Olympic hopes and her competitive future, her raw potential was again in evidence at last year’s World Championships at Daegu, South Korea.
In many ways, 2012 is the first “normal” year of Semenya’s drama-filled senior athletics career. The first year when it’s just about running – all she’s ever really wanted to do.