Caster Semenya's last-gasp bid to make the Olympics falls short

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·4 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Caster Semenya of South Africa celebrates after winning the women's 800 metres final during the world athletics championships at the Olympic stadium in Berlin August 19, 2009.   REUTERS/Dominic Ebenbichler (GERMANY SPORT ATHLETICS)
Caster Semenya of South Africa celebrates after winning the women's 800 metres final during the world athletics championships at the Olympic stadium in Berlin August 19, 2009. REUTERS/Dominic Ebenbichler (GERMANY SPORT ATHLETICS)

It wouldn’t have mattered if Caster Semenya had secured the Olympic qualifying standard in the 5,000 meters.

The South African’s hopes of making it to Tokyo were dead before she came to the starting line.

Semenya sought to make a last-gasp bid to qualify for the Olympics on Wednesday night at a meet in Liege, Belgium, but the IOC’s deadline for athletes to qualify for the Tokyo Games passed the previous day. In an email to Yahoo Sports, an Athletics South Africa spokesperson said his organization would not challenge that rule no matter what time Semenya ran.

“There is no such thing as an extension,” Sifiso Cele said. “June 29, 2021 was cast in stone. Whatever happens beyond that date is no longer an Olympic qualifier.”

Semenya’s distant fourth-place finish in Belgium rendered the discussion moot anyway. Her time of 15:50.12 was 18 seconds shy of the personal best she established last month and 40 seconds short of what she needed to qualify for the Olympics.

Semenya tried to reinvent herself as a 5,000 meters runner this season because of a rule change that has effectively barred her from the race that she has dominated. For much of the past decade, the 30-year-old has laid waste to her competition in the 800 meters, winning three world championships and taking Olympic gold medals in London and Rio de Janeiro.

Semenya is believed to have a medical condition known as hyperandrogenism. Her body naturally produces greater-than-usual levels of testosterone, a hormone that increases muscle mass and oxygen uptake.

Because her deep voice, muscular physique and wardrobe of suits and bowties didn’t match western society’s expectation of a woman, Semenya’s success incited complaints and controversy. Early in her career, she was subjected to invasive gender verification tests to prove she’s a woman. Other competitors who couldn’t beat her argued that she shouldn’t be allowed to compete.

In an attempt to ensure fair competition, track and field’s governing body introduced a new rule that appeared to target Semenya. In 2019, World Athletics began requiring female competitors in races ranging from 400 meters to a mile to undergo surgery or take hormone-suppressing medication if their testosterone level rose above a certain threshold.

When Semenya’s attempts to legally challenge the World Athletics ruling didn’t immediately pan out, it left her with two options: Subject herself to testosterone-suppressing medication or switch to an event not impacted by the rule change. Semenya chose the latter, the equivalent of a right fielder trying to learn to play shortstop or catcher late in his career.

Semenya dabbled in the 200 pre-pandemic. She was fast but nowhere near world-class.

The 5,000 has been her focus this year. So far it hasn’t suited her as well as middle-distance events did.

Semenya won South Africa’s national championship in the 5,000, but the competition in her home country wasn’t particularly strong. As a result, Semenya sought permission to come to Europe in June in hopes of achieving the Olympic standard.

Her first race was in Regensburg, Germany, on June 19. Semenya’s time of 15:57.12 was 47 second shy of what she needed.

That left Wednesday’s race in Belgium. Her agent acknowledged earlier this month that it was one day beyond the athlete qualification deadline yet expressed confidence to Yahoo Sports that Athletics South Africa would “understand Caster’s situation.”

“There are not many possibilities to run in Europe and also the COVID rules are very strict,” agent Jukka Härkönen added.

Ultimately, the deadline was the deadline. And ultimately, Semenya never figured out the 5,000 in time for it to matter. On Wednesday, she faded from contention quickly and finished about 45 seconds behind first-place Aberassh Minsewo of Ethiopia and second-place Irene Cheptai of Kenya.

More from Yahoo Sports: