Caster Semenya (Getty Images)
Rio de Janeiro - It was just after 11:00 on Wednesday in the Olympic Stadium. As has become a familiar sight in Rio, the morning’s programme was sparsely attended.
But, those in the stadium were witnessing probably the most anticipated athletics heat in the history of the Olympic Games.
According to the SASCOC website, Caster Semenya had arrived in Rio five days early but had been keeping a low profile in the athletes’ village, away from the media scrums that wanted to feast on her. Another way to put it was she was focusing on what lay ahead: the track, not the circus.
The South African’s inclusion at the 2016 Games had dominated the build-up, with questions being raised as to whether she should be allowed to compete given the complicated status of her gender. The short answer is the important one, for now. It’s ‘yes’. She had been cleared by the Court of Arbitration for Sport to run as a woman. Case closed, until it is re-opened.
Semenya is the overwhelming favourite to win the 800m gold medal when the final is run on Sunday. It might even go down as her second Olympic gold, despite taking the silver in the same event at London 2012. Last November the World Anti-Doping Agency recommended that gold medallist Mariya Savinova of Russia be suspended for doping violations. This could yet see Semenya upgraded from silver.
Now 25, Semenya looks at peace with the world, and more importantly with herself and those who are close to her. Gone is the inner rage and hostility that consumed her in the wake of her despicable treatment following the 2009 World Championships where she won gold.
Semenya’s office is the track and be damned with anything not relating to that. Judge her by her performances and leave the side glances and whispers behind the back of the hand to those who waste their energy on the negatives.
On Wednesday, Semenya did what she had to do. She won an 800m heat and then returned to the athletes’ village. She provided a couple of soundbites, but didn’t stop to formally talk to the media. That was to be expected, given the circus that has been following her.
Sitting on the block signalling lane four as she waited to be called up by the starter, one can only guess what was going through her mind. She certainly looked focused, a frown crossing her brow as the stadium announcer called out the names of the athletes in the lanes to her outside.
When it was her turn to be introduced she put her hand through her hair, which had been stylishly tied, and raised her right arm in acknowledgement. She then give a wink to the television camera. It was showtime.
The race itself was undramatic, as much as heats of this nature are. She settled comfortably going down the back straight for the first time and watched patiently as Kazakhstan’s Margarita Mukasheva tried to lead the field a merry dance. Mukasheva was being the rabbit and went through 400 in 58.23 seconds and was still leading at the 600m mark in 1min 29.40, which is when Semenya put her foot on the accelerator. She glided around the field and hit the front in a matter of strides and then simply - for that’s how she made it look - brought the field home in 1:59.31. That was, tellingly, 1.40 seconds faster than the time she recorded in her first heat in London four years ago, and she got faster as the competition progressed there.
This was her 11th successive victory in this year and just as easy as the others have been. Immediately, the analysts were looking at the record books. Her best this year is 1:55.33 - it’s also the fastest by anyone since 2008 - and the Olympic record (from Moscow 1980) sits at 1:53.53, with the 33-year-old world record at 1:53.28.
Afterwards, Semenya, not even breathing hard enough to blow out a candle, dismissed early talk of chasing records. ‘I’m not focused on the records, I’m just focused more on enjoying my championship. Times don’t matter in championships. What matters is a gold medal, silver or bronze so we don’t worry about times at the moment.’
She said that the 32 degrees Celsius temperature had made it ‘pretty hot outside’.
‘It was not easy. I was just trying to hang on and try to feel my body first so I can feel comfortable. I tried to just get into the top two over the last 200m and maybe try and win so that I can be safe for the semi-finals. I’m just trying to run my own race so I can do better. So far we’re good.’ Most will say, very good.
And with that she was whisked away to the comforts of the athletes village.
The next time we will see Semenya is on Thursday night (local time, 02:31 on Friday, SA time). She competes in the third of three semi-finals, where the top two finishers in each semi-final plus the two fastest ‘losing’ times will progress to the final.
Semenya will be a good couple of seconds better at night. Expect her to pull a 1:56-something out the bag as she books her place in the final.