PRETORIA // Caster Semenya, picked out by a bright moon as yet another long training session comes to an end, does not look like an athlete with the cares of the world on her shoulders. Despite a sharp chill in the air and the late afternoon sun fast disappearing, she works through her routines with intensity before finally easing up for some warm-down laps and banter with a handful of other athletes putting in some overtime.
In the next few weeks, if the sport's governing body keep their earlier promises, she will learn the result of an inquiry into her gender that has sidelined her from competition since she skipped to an easy world championship 800m victory in Berlin last August. Apart from briefly breaking her silence to protest that the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) were taking too long to reach their conclusion on such a sensitive matter, the 19-year-old from a tiny village in South Africa's northern Limpopo province has kept her own counsel.
An interview request this week was politely turned down although we were invited to watch her at work - without bringing television or photographic colleagues - and talk about her progress with Michael Seme, her coach. Seme tells us not to expect Semenya's comeback to be a roaring success because the controversial decision to prevent her from running in IAAF or Athletics South Africa events has played havoc with her training form.
"At the moment she is at about 1mins 59secs to two minutes [for the 800], which we hope to get down to 1:57. But the speed won't be there yet," he said. She won the 800m in Berlin in 1:55.45, obliterating a world-class field. "She missed the entire Yellow Pages Series [South African domestic season] and now she is training in winter, when she has to be careful because there is always the danger of muscle pulls. At the moment we are working on her conditioning, getting the muscles strong."
Her muscles have been at the centre of Semenya's problems and the IAAF feared she was taking drugs given her dramatic eight-second improvement over 800m before concentrating on her gender after it became clear that proper diet and training had transformed her performance. These remain frustrating times for Semenya because there is still no clarity as to when she will receive the results of the gender verification tests ordered by the IAAF. Some sources suggest news will come later this month, while others believe her case will still be discussed at the next IAAF council meeting in Kiev on August 7 to 9.
Semenya's camp announced a month ago that she would make her comeback at a European Athletic Association meeting on June 24 in Zaragoza, Spain. Until then, only a few lucky observers can see the runner, who took the sporting world by storm in August, in action. That the cold is bad for training is borne out when one of her fellow athletes goes to ground, clutching her calf, and perhaps explains Semenya's stiff-legged departure a little later.
However, Semenya, who comes from a poor rural background, seems happy, the cows grazing at the university agricultural farm next to the training field perhaps a comforting reminder of home. Seme, intense under a baseball cap, does not say much during training, using different whistle-blows to direct his charges and just calling out their times as they run over and over again. He even interrupts Semenya's warm-down to send her to run in the final "race" with the men, in which she finishes third, little more than a second behind Stephen Mokoka, the national middle-distance champion.
Seme, several centimetres shorter than his star charge, looks briefly satisfied. Semenya's troubles have obviously upset the IAAF-qualified coach popularly known as "Sponge" but his smile returns as he recounts how four of his athletes won races around the country last weekend. Seme and Semenya are in the process of setting up a coaching academy that, according to their website, will "turn dreams into success stories" and "grow to be Africa's best sports developers".
It is a sure bet that both would prefer her future athletic success to be determined here by the training she does between the football and rugby fields, while countless other sports students go about their business. Instead, Semenya's future will be decided in labs and council chambers and it is anyone's guess when she will be able to resume her career at the pinnacle of women's athletics. If ever.