August 20, 2009

South African Gold Medal Controversy

Caster Semenya wins the 800m gold by a country mile

Well, Caster Semenya has delivered South Africa’s first medal in a World Championships since 2005, and becomes only the second women to win a title for SA. Her time: 1:55.45., some 2 seconds ahead of former world record holder Jepkosgei of Kenya, is a new PB, her second in a few weeks.

If you tuned in earlier today, you’ll know about the controversy surrounding Semenya. There will be much more written about this, that is for sure. If you have some time, I’d encourage you to go to this post, and then read the comments at the bottom – such a fantastic range of opinions, from the outright upset at the terrible situation Semenya is in, to thought-provoking questions on the matter, to opinions on what should be done. It’s a great read – thank you for your time and consideration, everyone. I wish I could do more justice to your comments!

The 800m final – an unpleasant affair

The general atmosphere of the race was unpleasant – as Conrad put it in his comments to that last post, there really was not a scenario with a positive outcome in all this, and we saw that tonight.

There was almost nothing in the way of congratulations from rivals, race commentary was stilted and ‘strained’, and there are reports of booing from the German crowd. Among athletics websites, there is a general resentment and anger (people take the sport seriously, they feel this makes a mockery of the event), and it is directed mainly against Athletics South Africa, but also against Caster Semenya (which I don’t believe is fair – the governing body, sure, as mentioned, but not the athlete, for I don’t believe she is wilfully cheating).

Added to this, we’ve now started to see the usual mud-flinging, accusations of racism levelled against officials and athletes, discrimination against entire nations (an ASA official effectively accused Australia, as a nation, of conspiring against Semenya…seriously, on live radio).

There have been multiple denials (two separate officials contradicted each other on the same radio station over here today – one said “no test had been perfomed”, the other confirmed the tests), and the President of the South African Olympic Committee, Gideon Sam, has demanded that the IAAF either release results or stop making “malicious” comments. That’s just to give you the perception of what is happening here in SA, where we have reacted as one might expected when a first gold medal in years is challenged…

Having posted earlier this afternoon that things would get nasty, I expected a few days, but it has not taken very long, and it’s already ugly.

A future world record holder?

But all speculation aside, watching the race, and looking at its numbers, let me throw out a prediction:

Caster Semenya will break the world record of 1:53.28 (Kratochvilova) within the next 12 months, if she continues to improve and train effectively. It could even come this year. All she needs is a pace of 55 through the bell, and another 14 seconds through to 500m, and I believe she’d be able to finish in 1:53 or faster.

To take a race out in 26.9 seconds, then press through the next 200m in 29-odd seconds (to hit 400m in 56.83s), take the third 200m in about 29 seconds, and then still kick off the final 170m the way she did, and put two seconds on opposition over the final 200m – that suggests that 1:55 is a sub-max effort. And she did this looking well capable of speeding up if required. It was, had you not known any of the controversy, a quite astonishing performance.

And I honestly will predict that Kratochvilova’s record will fall. Of course, people said that last year, when Jelimo dominated, and that has not come true, so there are no sure things. But Semenya looks well capable of that record.

This is a soap opera and a situation that has few positive outcomes, not for Semenya, not for those she competes against (who are now racing with such doubt and controversy hanging over them too) and not for people who watch the event and cannot make sense of the politics and denials and confusion.

Based on your comments, I have a few thoughts still to express, but that must wait for another time, so join us then! Oh, and there is other athletics too – Usain Bolt goes for number 2 tomorrow, though I’d be surprised if he breaks 19.30s. Then again, who knows…

this article was written by Ross Tucker at Science of Sport

One Comment on “South African Gold Medal Controversy

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