South Africa’s latest athletics superstar has announced her arrival on the world stage. Just 18, Caster Semenya showed herself to have ice running through her veins when destroying a high-class field to reach the final of the women’s 800m at the IAAF World Championships in Berlin on Monday night.
For the country’s other athlete competing on the night, Peter van der Westhuizen (1500m), the news was not as positive as he was unable to reach the final.
Semenya is now the favourite to capture the gold medal of this elite track event at the highest level in her first major championships after qualifying for the final as the fastest from the semi-finals, and the manner in which she achieved her 1min 58.66sec suggests she will go all the way.
Virtually unknown until this year, the teenager will also have benefited from the demise of the Olympic champion, Kenya’s Pamela Jelimo, who pulled up injured in the third semi-final, but a sequence of surprise results in the other finalists.
Despite clocking an eye-watering 1:56.72 in the recent African Junior Championships in Mauritius that elevated her to No1 in the world for the year (and a huge PB and national record), there were those who were cynical about the Limpopo product’s credentials.
In Berlin, at the highest level, she has silenced them.
Semenya’s strength is her strength. Seldom has a two-lap runner made the inside of the track their own in the way she has, in a manner that belies her tender age. On Wednesday night she broke well from lane four, tucked in nicely behind the pace-setter (the re-instated world champion Janeth Jepkosgei following the drama of the weekend fall) and then, at the bell surged clear into a lead she never relinquished.
Semenya was metres clear at the end of the race, looking in supreme condition and having sent a clear message to the world. She was the fastest qualifier for the final and will have the benefit of the best lane for the big race that lies ahead.
The world is now taking notice of a staggeringly-talented South African.
The country’s other athlete on a night that followed Usain Bolt’s heroics from 24 hours earlier was Van der Westhuizen, in the men’s 1500m semi-finals.
He was the sole survivor from a disappointing 1500m challenge but his lack of experience at this level was highlighted as the field made him do all the world for the first 1100m. Van der Westhuizen led until 400m from home when his front-running efforts told and he was swallowed up by the chasers.
Quickly, he fell back into the pack and finished 11th of the 12 semi-finalists, well off his personal best and considerably behind Morocco’s Amine Laalou, who surged clear to win in 3:36.69.