The eyes of the world will be on comeback girl Caster Semenya when she lines up for her first track race in almost a year at the low-key Lappeenranta Games event in Finland on Thursday.
Certainly there’s been an awful amount of water, a lot of it muddy, under the bridge since the heady night in Berlin where she scorched her way to the 800-metre title at the IAAF World Athletics Championships in August last year, clocking a scorching 1min 55.45sec to rock the world.
Since then though she’s been tossed around from pillar to post as the sport’s governing body, medical experts and even national governments entered the mix after questions over her gender.
Last week the IAAF, the sports governing body, finally cleared her to run again, emphasising there would be no further comment on any medical matters surrounding the young Limpopo athlete. Various experts have said that in order for her to be cleared she would either have had to undergo surgery or been put on a course of medication, given the circumstances over the gender issue.
What counts for now though is that she’s going to run again. What to expect? Who knows.
Less than a month ago coach Michael Seme said she was not in shape at all and “in limbo”. Manager Jukka H├ñrk├Ânen said that last week Semenya had a touch of flu.
And then there’s Semenya herself, who “failed” a fitness test the day after being cleared, running 600m splits of 1min 35sec and then 1:38 with a five-minute rest period in-between.
Athletics coach and former middle-distance ace himself, Jean Verster said it was tough to make a call on Caster. “It’s really hard to read anything into that. Technically if you if you’re in sub-2min shape then yes, you should be able to do do 600m splits in 92sec with a five-minute rest period. If you are looking to run around the time she ran in Durban then you would do that in about 88-89 seconds.
“A lot of it will depend on just what she’s been doing in the time since she last ran. If she has been doing all her homework with good basework like endurance, strength, hillwork and gym it would only take around 4-6 weeks to sharpen up. So there are an awful amount of variables. Plus, I hear that she has recently said that athletics is not the be-all and end-all. That makes a big difference. When you’re right up there in the top percent of athletes a lot has to do with the mental aspect. You have to be entirely focused.”
And focus is something Verster knows all about. The Spanish national soccer team based themselves at the North West University sports village and
Verster worked very closely with the World Cup winners. “Their focus was unreal. They were down to earth, very nice guys but it was only ever all about the job at hand, and that was winning the World Cup.”
Another coach, Gavin Doyle, formerly of Cape Town, but who now lives in Sweden after having spent a lengthy spell in Finland, said: “It doesn’t seem as though she’s in shape at all but she will no doubt now attract a great deal of media attention. In terms of her fitness, the test she did recently was more in line with a sub 2:10 over 800m.
“The main drawback of the 800m is the last 100m and doing a 1:38 and 1:35 certainly does not set you up for a sub-2 minute 800m. Her 400m speed would be most interesting and whether she can run 58 seconds and below currently.”
Indeed the world will be watching as Semenya makes her comeback, in this low-key meeting. Of the 18-strong field, no-one comes close to having run the time of Semenya. Ukraine athlete Olga Yekimenko is fastest this year with a 2:03.33 in Prague.
Semenya won’t be the only South African in action with two of Stellenbosch-based coach Mario Smith’s athletes wrapping up their European tour. One of them, Luvo Manyonga, has been in the spotlight himself recently, after his 8.19m national and African long jump record in Germany.
Manyonga will be warming up for next week’s World Junior Championships in Moncton, Canada where he will be one of the gold-medal favourites.
Smith’s other athlete is 400m hurdler Cornel Fredericks, who has also shown some good form, having run 49.19sec in Barcelona recently, just off his personal best of 49.12 earlier in the year.
Semenya’s comeback race will be broadcast live on SuperSport 2 at 7.25pm with coverage beginning at 7pm.