The South African has had another unbeaten year over 800m and, despite the imminent new IAAF rules on testosterone levels, she intends to race for another 10 years
This has been a good year for Caster Semenya, demonstrating not only her dominance but her versatility.
She won two golds at the Commonwealth Games, two titles at the African Championships, she was Diamond League champion and ended the year by winning at the IAAF Continental Cup. Dominating at 800m with a best of 1:54.25, she also won 1500m at the Commonwealth Games and is African champion at 400m with a PB of 49.62.
Unbeaten at her specialist distance of 800m since September 2015, the 27-year-old is one of the most talked about athletes in the world. She is also one of the most controversial as she has found herself at the centre of the debate over gender testing and possible medication to reduce testosterone levels.
Yet this has not stopped her becoming one of the most popular athletes in South Africa – and indeed around the world – and her sponsor Nike has fanned the flames of her fame recently by featuring her in one of its latest shoe campaigns.
Semenya’s involvement in sport began early. “From the age of four I played soccer and had been running around”, she says. “But when you start school, that is when you discover your talent and where you belong. So at the age of six I realised for the first time that I could do well in running.”
In 2008 she won the 800m at the IAAF World Junior Championships and the following year announced herself to the world when, still only 18, she won the senior world 800m title in Berlin in 1:55.45.
“When you start school, that is when you discover your talent and where you belong. So at the age of six I realised for the first time that I could do well in running”
No one doubts Semenya’s ability as an 800m runner – with two Olympic and three world titles to her name – but, I suggested to her, her versatility and prowess at 400m and 1500m may have surprised some people.
“It’s all about knowing how your body responds through training and knowing how to manage your body,” she says. “So it’s about feeling – I feel the rhythm and I execute.
“It is very hard to be good in the middle-distance if you do not balance speed and endurance. That is what we are trying to do. The training is not easy because it requires a lot of things, a lot of load. But at the end of the day if you can put that together you become great at what you do.
“The 1500m is a race I love and I will always concentrate on it but I try by all means to balance speed. When it comes to 1500m it all depends on how we start the season. If we are quick already then it will be the 800m but if we are a little bit delayed it might be more 1500m over 800m, so we make wise decisions based on how fast we are moving in racing. It is a choice based on the pace we run.”
Where does her blistering speed come from? “When I was young, I was a sprinter,” she explains. “The first time I walked on the track, I was a 100m and 200m runner, but because of the lack of facilities and coaching skills I decided to step off sprinting to do middle-distance, because I thought even without a coach I could still train. So I think the speed just came naturally from when I was young and did a lot of sprinting.”
When it comes to the controversy that has dogged her career – from sex verification tests in 2009 to the IAAF’s rules relating to athletes with differences of sexual development – Semenya took to social media earlier this year to share her point of view.
“God made me the way I am and I accept myself,” she said. “I am who I am and I am proud of myself.
“I just want to run naturally, the way I was born. It is not fair that I am told I must change. It is not fair that people question who I am. I am Mokgadi Caster Semenya. I am a woman and I am fast.”
Whatever you think about the issues, no one can question the dignity with which Semenya has conducted herself.
“Every human has ups and downs and there are things that you cannot control,” she says. “For me as a human you have to learn how to be a good person, how to be a good human. I had to learn how to respect other people. Over a period of 10 years I became a better person from the experiences that I have had as an athlete, from being a teenager on to now, it has been a great journey.”
“I still have a long way to go. I still want to run two more Olympics”
She continues: “I have been raised to respect people. It doesn’t matter who respects me and who doesn’t. At the end of the day I had been taught to be a good person, even to those who hate.
“If someone doesn’t like you, it is their problem not yours. I am a Christian. I believe in the Bible. What I read in the Bible, that made me who I am today. I will not let humans’ reaction change me. I can change myself. When I read the Bible I feel peace. That’s how I am. Religious faith helps a lot because you know what is right and wrong.”
Two Olympic and three world gold medals may seem a good haul, but Semenya tells AW that she is far from finished.
“I still have a long way to go. I still want to run two more Olympics,” she says.
“If you calculate two Olympics that takes you to about five world championships and 10 years, I think. I still want to run until I am 38 or 39. Those are the goals – two more Olympics and perhaps five more world championships.”
» Stuart Weir’s full five-page feature on Caster Semenya was published in the October 4 edition of AW magazine, which is available digitally here