Rio Olympics 2016: Caster Semenya clinches 800m gold, but easy win stokes complex gender debate
Caster Semenya won the Olympic gold in women's 800 metres, with no one even close to challenging her, but it's a result that would only stoke the complex debate over whether women with higher levels of testosterone than normal should be allowed to compete unchecked
It was predictable. But that didn't make it any less impressive, or any less contentious. Caster Semenya won the Olympic gold in women's 800 metres, with no one even close to challenging her, but it's a result that would only stoke the complex debate over whether women with higher levels of testosterone than normal should be allowed to compete unchecked.
Semenya of South Africa won her first Olympic gold in a personal best of 1 minute, 55.28 seconds, a national record and one of the top 20 times ever in the two-lap race. She said it was about running a race and winning a gold medal, and not about the debate over testosterone and the IAAF's desire to regulate it in some women.
"We're not here to talk about IAAF, we're not here to talk about speculations," Semenya said. "It's not about looking at people, how they look, how they speak, how they run. It's not about being muscular. It's all about sports."
Burundi's Francine Niyonsaba took silver, over a second behind the dominant Semenya, with Kenya's Margaret Wambui collecting the bronze for an all-African podium.
As is her style, Semenya sat back behind leader Niyonsaba until the final 150 meters, then unleashed a powerful burst from out of the curve to pull away down the straightaway, leaving her competitors trailing and fighting for silver.
Such is Semenya's dominance this year — she ran her previous personal best last month — it was exactly how everyone thought it would go.
"The coach told me to be patient, wait for the right moment. Obviously we know we're quicker the last 200. We just have to utilise it," she said.
Since her arrival in track and field in 2009, when she won the world title as an 18-year-old newcomer, Semenya has been the unwilling face of one of the most complicated and sensitive debates for the sport. Do women who have much higher levels of natural testosterone than normal have an advantage over other women in athletics, and if so, is it unfair?
Semenya's breakthrough world title seven years ago pushed the IAAF to introduce rules limiting testosterone in female athletes. Semenya is believed to be one of several female athletes to compete at the Rio Olympics with very high testosterone — caused by a condition called hyperandrogenism.
But under a legal challenge, the IAAF was forced to drop the testosterone-limiting rules last year. Many believe that it left Semenya, and others, free to run with their very high naturally-occurring testosterone levels unchecked. Many also believe it left Semenya, an outstanding athlete, unbeatable.
Semenya, who appeared barely out of breath at the finish, popped a South African flag onto her shoulders and took a leisurely jog around the stadium to celebrate her first major title since her world championships gold in 2009 was completely overshadowed by a sex-test scandal. She also produced her trademark celebration: She pulled her arms up and flexed her bicep muscles, then brushed her hands across her shoulders — the way she brushed off her rivals.
In Rio, Semenya ran the fastest time over two laps by any woman anywhere for eight years. "The race was a little bit quick, the first 400, we were pushing ourselves, it was great," she said. "It was just about being patient and do what you do best."
After silver medals at the 2011 world championships and 2012 Olympics, Semenya was such a heavy favorite to win the 800 title in Rio de Janeiro that some of the other women competing in the earlier qualifying races said that they just couldn't keep up with her, and some even suggested a different category for hyperandrogenic women. Others refused to talk about the testosterone issue.
Canada's Melissa Bishop, who finished fourth and broke a national record, told reporters after the final that she would not answer any questions related to testosterone. "This racing is all going to come down to the last 50 meters, so much opens up down there," Bishop said. "It was to be expected that everybody would be there. I just didn't get there with them."
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