Caster Semenya, the South African middle-distance runner whose blazing speed made headlines when critics raised doubts about her gender, has finally made her long-awaited Olympic debut. The 21-year-old ran an impressive 800-meter event, taking second place in her preliminary heat, which qualified her for the semifinals.
“It was a very important race,” Semenya tells USA Today, saying she still sees room for improvement. “It was a tactical race. I wanted the race to be a fast one. [But] to be a good contender, you have to run under 2 minutes.”
Things are very different today then they were three years ago for Semenya. After winning the world title at age 18 with a stunning time of 1:55.45, track and field’s governing body raised public concerns about whether she was actually a woman. For eleven months, Semenya was sidelined as the global media dissected and debated details about her slender body and deep voice.
In 2010, Semenya was tested and cleared to compete. She has since struggled with back problems, however, and has been looking at the 2012 London Olympics as a chance to show the world that she’s more than just a peculiar footnote in track and field history.
“My dream is to win the Olympics,” she says. “And that’s my plan.”
Selected to carry the flag at the opening ceremonies, the South African sprinter is now fully-backed by her nation and ready to go for the gold. In her debut Olympic race, Semenya finished just behind the 2:00:47 run by U.S. athlete Alysia Johnson Montano. Qualifying for the second automatic spot from the heat, Semenya appeared to still have plenty of gas left in the tank as she crossed the finish line – and experts say that if she can get her time below two minutes, Semenya has an excellent chance of taking home that gold medal she wants so badly.
Most significant, however, may be the fact that the gender questions have been put behind her and now Semenya is looked upon by her peers as just another runner.
“I have confidence in what the [International Association of Athletics Federations] has done to ensure that she’s competing at the right level,” says Canada’s Jessica Smith, who will compete with Semenya in the next round. “I trust in what they’re doing and hopefully, she’s just like any of us.”
“She’s just like any other competitor for us,” adds Smith. “The faster she runs, the faster we have to compete with her.”