South Africa’s Caster Semenya failed to defend her 2009 IAAF World Championships women’s 800 meters title in the final track event before the close of the Daegu meet in South Korea on Sunday evening, but the smile on her face would have had anyone watching think that she’d just cracked the world record.
A back-to-back season-best performance brought the 20-year old Semenya home in a silver-medal winning podium 1:56.35 finish, and her post-race delight made it plain to see that her victory was not on the track, but an the achievement of personal goals.
“The race was pretty good. Even though I got a silver, I really enjoyed it, better than two years ago,” said the 20-year-old after her stellar finish. “I know I won gold in Berlin, but I am feeling much better today.”
It’s impossible to understand the pressure that this young South African has been subjected to since that historic win on 19 August 2009 in Berlin when the world gasped at her runaway 1:55.45 finish, heralding a season of public inquisition into the most personal of issues.
As she patiently set about re-establishing her athletic rhythm after an extended layoff from professional competition, Semenya repeatedly identified Sunday, 4 September 2011, as the day that she would present her true capacity to the world.
And so she did. Semenya will return home as the only South African woman to clinch a silver medal, and one of two SA women medalists together with Sunette Viljoen, who’s 68.38m javelin personal best once again proved her mettle in the global arena.
Semenya started patiently as she has done all season in anticipation of this headline world athletics meet, coming second to eventual finals winner, Russia’s Mariya Savinova, in an identical finishing time of 2.01.01.
The gifted Polokwane athlete raised a few heartbeats when she effortlessly won her semi-final heat 4 in 1.58.07, yet murmurs persisted as to whether the star could come close to repeating her 2009 glory.
Given the nature of the unashamed global inquisition into her gilt-edged finish in 2009 two years ago, the build-up to the 800m women’s final – the closing track event of the 2011 meet – would have been one of the most intense for the unassuming athlete, and a collapse of confidence would have satisfied many critics of this courageous woman.
As the race set off, her professionalism took centre stage as the start gun set the world’s best 800m finishers off, and Semenya quickly assumed her customary fourth position in a fast opening lap, before taking the lead with her world-renown kick at the 250m mark.
But the day belonged to the spirited gold-medallist Savinova, who became the first Russian woman to win the 800m at the World Championships after she dropped Semenya in the final 10 metres to exuberantly win the decider in the fastest time recorded this season, a world-leading 1.55.87.
Semenya hinted afterwards to the AP about the source of her strength, none other than global icon and South African struggle hero, Nelson Mandela. “I was doing this for him. He said, ‘Just toughen up and face the world.’ I have to go visit him again now. When I get back home, I will go straight to him,” said Semenya.
800 Metres Women Final Results at the IAAF World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, on Sunday 4 September 2011:1. Mariya Savinova Rus 1:55.87 WL 2. Caster Semenya RSA 1:56.35 SB 3. J.J. Busienei Ken 1:57.42 SB 4. Alysia Johnson Montano USA 1:57.48 SB 5. Ekaterina Kostetskaya Rus 1:57.82 6. Maggie Vessey USA 1:58.50 SB 7. Kenia Sinclair Jam 1:58.66 8. Yuliya Rusanova Rus 1:59.74