Caster Semenya has stirring words for her critics after winning women's 800m

Gold medalist Caster Semenya stands on the podium during the medal ceremony for the Women's 800 metre race.
GETTY IMAGES

Gold medalist Caster Semenya stands on the podium during the medal ceremony for the Women's 800 metre race.

Caster Semenya smashed out the fastest 800m from a woman in the world this year, flexed her muscles and pretended to brush the dust from her shoulders.

Two hours later, she walked into a press conference and smashed it out of the park.

"It's all about loving one another," said the 25-year-old South African. "It's not about discriminating people. It's not about looking at people [and] how they look, how they speak, how they run.

Semenya leads the field during the Women's 800 metre final.
PATRICK SMITH/GETTY IMAGES

Semenya leads the field during the Women's 800 metre final.

"You know, it's not about being muscular. It's about sports. When you walk out of your apartment, you think about performing. You don't think about how your opponents look. You just want to do better. I think the advice to everybody is to go out and have fun."

READ MORE:
Caster Semenya divides opinion in Rio Olympic debut
Semenya prepares for controversy in Rio

 

And with that, Semenya made as much of a statement as anything she just achieved on the track.

She has been ridiculed, torn apart, her place in world athletics questioned at every turn.

At one stage, her legs were hitched in stirrups and she was examined by a platoon of experts to determine her sex. She's been shoeboxed as "hyperandrogenic" and "intersex" when all she considers herself to be is a woman who runs. 

So many believed she should not have been allowed to compete on this night at the Rio Olympics.

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Many others, including International Association of Athletics Federation president Sebastian Coe, insist she should only compete if she takes hormone-suppressing drugs.

She competed under those conditions in London four years ago and claimed silver. The Court of Arbitration for Sport told the IAAF last year to lift those restrictions, and this year she set times that threatened to bring down Jarmila Kratochvilova's world record set in 1983.

Even this win produced more questions than it answered.

Seymena won in 1:55.28s - the fastest in the world this year and a personal best - with Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi and Margaret Nyairera Wambui of Kenya completing the podium.

Much like Semenya four years ago, when she shot to prominence after winning the 800m world championship, the silver and bronze medallists have been the subject of innuendo and suspicion about whether they are "intersex".

A reporter jumped at the start of the press conference to ask all three athletes if they had been forced to take hormone suppressants at any stage of their careers.

"Thank you for your question," Wambui said. "Let this press conference focus on today. Let's not focus on the medication."

Then Semenya firmly interjected.

"My friend, tonight is all about performance," she said. "We're not here to talk about IAAF, we're not here to talk about some speculations. Tonight is all about performance. This press conference is about the 800m that we saw here today. So, thank you."

It may not have been a topic Semenya wanted to talk about but it's an issue that will never go away.

Forever the politician, Coe continues to have a bet each way.

When asked him for comment about Semenya earlier this week, he quickly rushed away.

The IAAF has already signalled its intention to challenge the CAS ruling from last year that allowed Semenya and other athletes with high testosterone levels to compete in Rio without having to take suppressants.

Coe did talk to the Financial Times this week, saying: "Where to the best of our ability that we can, we have to create … a level playing field. Let me make one other point really clear: she is absolutely entitled to be here. We should not be in the business of demonising athletes.

"[Semenya] is a daughter, she is a sister. We have a moral, but also a contractual, obligation to do this sensitively."

"A daughter, a sister" … It's a soundbite he's rolled out a few times now.

The vanquished from the 800m did not want to talk about it, either, trotting out stage-managed lines about "rules being rules and there's nothing we can do about it".

Poland's Joanna Jozwik giggled her way out of addressing the question.

"I'm sorry I don't want to talk about that," she laughed.

Why's that?

"You should know."

You're a grown woman. You can say what you want.

"You mean Caster?"

Yes.

"Sorry, but this is the topic about what I don't want to speak."

In the hours after her win, there was much confusion about whether the famously media-shy Semenya would speak to the world's press.

It threatened to be a cross-examination, but one reporter ambitiously compared her to Nelson Mandela, prompting several American journalists to burst into laughter.

"I don't know," Semenya said. "Sport is always supposed to unite people. I think we are united. I think that's what we need to keep doing. I mean a lot to my people, they are proud of me. You just need to be a great leader. You just need to set a great example. For me, I cannot focus on individuals. I can only focus on the support of my people. I cannot focus on those things. Maybe, if people can just unite."

Semenya didn't just win the gold medal in the women 800 metres final. She won for every person who has ever been told they are different, they're not normal, that they should be ashamed of who they are.

The person we'd most like to speak to isn't Caster Semenya, but Mother Nature.

Do elevated testosterone levels in a female enhance athletic performance? If so, by how much? Ten per cent? Five seconds? The difference between gold and fourth?

Is it any greater benefit than the two-time 800m men's champion David Rudisha training at high altitude in Kenya? Than Kevin Durant standing at 2.13m tall?

These are questions we will never know the answer to even though the athletics world will no doubt keep asking.

The last question for Semenya on this night was if she was happier now than in 2012. She laughed and then confirmed for the first time her marriage to South African woman Violet Raseboya.

"Of course I'm happy," she smiled. "That's what happens when you get married."

 - theage.com.au

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