x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Olympics: Caster Semenya just timed it wrong

Osman Samiuddin disagrees with the assumption in some quarters that the South African athlete deliberately finished second in the women's 800 metres final.

People must realise Caster Semenya, right, came second to Mariya Savinova, the top-ranked world and European 800 metres champion, at the Olympics - and not just to anybody - writes our columnist. Dylan Martinez / Reuters
People must realise Caster Semenya, right, came second to Mariya Savinova, the top-ranked world and European 800 metres champion, at the Olympics - and not just to anybody - writes our columnist. Dylan Martinez / Reuters

I had not seen Caster Semenya run before the 800 metre final at the London Olympics. I blame that on her story expanding far beyond sport.

Because I had never seen her run, I decided to watch only her throughout the final.

She ended with silver behind Mariya Savinova and I'll remember that more than anything else from London (no comment on the quality of the Games, merely on my viewing patterns).

Before the race Semenya received the loudest cheers, easily more than the reigning Olympic champion, the Kenyan Pamela Jelimo, more than Savinova.

The television commentator introduced her as "the controversial South African", as predictable sadly as it was unjust: Justin Gatlin is, athletically, controversial. Semenya? I'm more comfortable with athletically unique.

She began unremarkably (most middle distance races have unremarkable starts) and at around 250 metres she fell to last place. There came a wonderfully revealing shot from front on, her head titled slightly to her right, assessing impassively the form and mood of the race ahead.

It was not effortless, but it was running as perceived in an indifferent style.

(Later, a quote I read from her coach Michael Seme to the New Yorker when asked how Semenya was coping in 2009, struck me about this passage of the race: "Sometimes you can look at somebody thinking he is OK. But you find out in his heart, maybe it is complaining. I can't see what's happening in her heart.")

After the first lap Semenya was 1.38 seconds behind the leader. As she drifted further, the commentator said her performance was "extraordinary", but in a shocking bad way.

Finally, one minute 22 seconds in, 260 metres to go, Semenya stopped being last. She went past one, two, before in the home straight she gobbled up the rest, except Savinova.

Through that stretch, when she went past so many in such short distance, her burst looked like fancy camera trickery, as if she was superimposed from a modern race onto an older one. Savinova had also loitered around the rear but never looked as forlorn as Semenya and impressive though her kick was, it was a more gradual one.

Savinova managed her race better, but my first thoughts were that Semenya's gambit was this close to being the most audacious rope-a-dope running strategy ever. She mistimed it, but just a touch: such are, I thought, the infinitesimal vagaries of top-flight athletics.

At least that was one way of looking at it.

There was another way people chose to look at this race because there will always be another way people look at Semenya.

Not long after, the question was asked: did Semenya tank it, because winning gold would reopen the question of her gender (and remind us once again that we can be pretty bad at dealing with what we don't understand)?

Those who ask are better placed to do so, but it is inherently difficult to sit comfortably with this immediate cynicism, not only because it robs Savinova of her due. Semenya did not finish behind just anyone, she did so behind the top-ranked world and European champion.

But isn't the 800 metres also, by nature, one of the trickiest to manage tactically and so, easier to get wrong?

It isn't exactly a sprint, it isn't really endurance, but it is both, so how do you pace it?

The excellent Science of Sport blog once analysed 800-metre world records, concluding that the best strategy is to run the second lap two or three seconds slower than the first.

Kenya's David Rudisha chose to lead the men's race in London from start to blazing end.

But Kelly Holmes, 800 metres gold medallist in Athens, preferred being third after the first lap.

Both Semenya and Savinova have left it late before, a strategy conceived on an edge but built surely on spectacular levels of self-belief.

At the 2011 World Championships in Daegu in South Korea, for example, the pair were fifth and sixth after 400 metres; Semenya burst earlier than she did here, was leading into the final stretch before Savinova, with a late, late kick, pipped her.

In relinquishing the lead, rather than not grabbing it, similar questions were asked of Semenya then.

It is not as if playing possum has never worked. Google "Dave Wottle 72 Olympic final": the golf cap-wearing American was nowhere after 500 metres before cranking out what remains the most sensational kick finish ever. Unless Semenya had managed it in London, and she was only just over a second away.


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