ADRIAN EPHRAIM: Caster's final act of defiance? Think again
Stoic, unbending and defiant. Caster Semenya was the picture of fortitude as she stormed to victory in Doha on Friday night.
For 1 minute, 54.98 seconds Semenya conducted an act of defiance that silenced the cacophony of legal opinions and scientific scrutiny dogging her these past two days - and 10 years.
For years Semenya’s beloved world of athletics has tried to turn its back on her - until Wednesday when it completely shut her out. Her struggle to keep running now enters a new phase, but in Doha, on this day in early May, she owned the track.
Wearing her familiar black and silver state-of-the-art running suit, Semenya stood at the starting line, on the outskirts in lane 8, with hands at her hips, hair slicked back. She stood still and tall, with no expression on her face. She cast her eyes around her until her name boomed around the Khalifa Stadium. “Caster Semenya!”
And with those words, South Africa’s icon for the ages raised an open fist towards the sky; a gesture synonymous with South Africans and struggle, but also reminiscent of American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s black power salute on the podium at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. Victory as an act of defiance brings a certain poetic justice to the aggrieved.
As the Doha crowd raised its voice Semenya nodded her head in approval and thanked them with a steely glance; her eyes betraying her intention, her desire to win at all costs.
Even in the aftermath of the stinging ruling by Court of Arbitration for Sport, Semenya had nothing to prove. She has done it all. She is the fastest female athlete in the 800m at the moment. Of that, there is little doubt. But as of 8 May next week (when South Africans go to the polls to affirm their new dawn) Semenya’s career may see the sun set on it unless she can comply with the IAAF’s new DSD regulations.
The race starter muffled instructions to the 800m athletes, and the storm that has swirled around Semenya this week ground to an eerie … quiet, standstill. Bang!
Semenya engaged her leg muscles, pumped her toned arms and swallowed up the first few metres of track. Her familiar gallop had already begun to take shape as she glided forward. From the start, it was Beninois athlete Noélie Yarigo who set the pace.
She stretched her gazelle-like legs in front of the field, quickly completing the first 100 metres. Semenya meanwhile slipstreamed behind Yarigo's left shoulder, tracking her like a jet pilot with her eyes fixed ahead. A comfortable pace set in as Francine Niyonsaba, Lynsey Sharp and Ajee Wilson jostled for position behind Semenya.
Semenya was at ease; focused and content on the face of it, and barely breaking a sweat. But how clear was her mind? How much emotion was she suppressing inside, knowing that this could be the end of her glittering career? How must she feel knowing that the sport she loves, refuses to love her back, and in fact wants to see the back of her?
Coming down the straight, in front of the grandstand, Semenya’s posture was proud as ever – shoulders back, chest out and her head in perfect alignment with the two. Semenya is built to run, and at 56 secs for the first 400m lap, she had some more running to do.
With 300m to go, Yarigo’s pace-setting exercise had expired and she dropped out, leaving Semenya to take the lead with a substantial gap open on the rest of the field. The IAAF would like us to believe that gaps like this should be closed between athletes like Semenya and the rest of female athletes. It would have us believe that Semenya should run with the pack and be less exceptional. More like Sharp, one of Semenya’s fiercest critics.
Semenya relaxes her facial muscles when she runs, leaving her bottom jaw loose. Her head barely moves, but she pumps her muscular arms. Her eyes are the picture of concentration, even as the crowd raised the volume once again. There was no one in her immediate vicinity on the track. They were more than 25 metres behind. No one was able to touch her or come close. This was Semenya’s race – and she was alone. But when she crossed that finish line and stopped the clock at 1:54:98, she was ours again. Ours to celebrate and fixate on.
Semenya accepted her winner’s bouquet and promptly tossed it into the crowd. This was work, her work. She was unemotional. She was taking care of business. Her closest challenger, Niyonsaba finished nearly a full three seconds behind her. Sharp finished a miserable ninth – almost eight seconds behind Semenya.
On cue, the plaudits rained down once again. The world reacted - positively. Maybe they were goodbye cheers. Some may have been cheers of “thank you”. Almost all were cheers of encouragement as Semenya delivered the first act of defiance in a campaign against the IAAF that may last months and even years.
She paused for photographs. There were more pictures than usual of course, and she smiled through it all; gracious and dignified as always.
Semenya answered her tormenters on the track in the most emphatic, brutal and dominant of ways, but afterward, she found the words to rise above it all.
“Actions speak louder than words. When you're a great champion you always deliver,” she told BBC. “With me, life has been simple. I'm just here to deliver for the people who love and support me. I'm enjoying each and every moment of my life maybe because I have the love I need from my people."
And because of this love from her people, she will rise again.
Adrian Ephraim is deputy news and sports editor at Eyewitness News. He’s a writer and digital media expert with nearly 20 years in journalism. Follow him on Twitter: @AdrianEphraim