Caster Semenya had to settle for a silver medal at the Olympic Games in London four years ago. In the aftermath, there were reports suggesting that the two-lap specialist had put in a meek challenge for the ultimate prize so as to prevent further scrutiny and the questions that have tinged each of her performances since the gender-testing debacle in 2009.
This time around, though, Semenya is a firm favourite to stand at the top of the podium after tomorrow morning’s race. She’s scheduled to race at 2.15am. The athlete’s social media accounts suggest she’s ready for whatever is thrown at her.
“Without question she must be mentally tough. Most people would struggle to deal with being in the spotlight, let alone being scrutinised for such sensitive things while in the spotlight,” renowned sports scientist Dr Ross Tucker told Saturday Citizen yesterday.
“That’s a huge burden to bear and she must have extraordinary strength to have gone through it at 18 in 2009, and now again.” Is Semenya fully over the barrage of criticism that surfaced when she first made an impression as a teenager?
“I don’t know that you could say she has brushed it off. I don’t think that’s true either. I think you can be both – incredibly mentally tough, and still have some carryover or effects of it.”
Tucker added: “In the months after the 2009 fiasco, there were reports that she’d really become angry, withdrawn. Totally understandable. She seems now, at least from the reports I’ve read, to have found some kind of approach that keeps her focused on the sport and her studies, maybe found some stability and a better place.
“But that doesn’t mean she’s moved on as though nothing ever happened. You can’t. Any traumatic event changes people and this must rank among the greatest of those. It’s the reason the 2009 thing was such a screw-up, to be blunt. It exposed her to a level of scrutiny that nobody deserves.”
But South Africans have rallied behind one of their stars, with #HandsOffCaster trending on social media throughout the week in the build-up to the 800m final – an initiative that Tucker feels will no doubt have lit the fire.
“I’ve no doubt that Semenya has been tagged, probably hundreds or thousands of times, and since we know she’s been on Twitter, she is without doubt aware,” said Tucker. “And I’m sure she will be taking huge confidence from that.”
That her colleagues, more recently the effort from Sunette Viljoen to become the first female medallist for Team South Africa in the javelin event, have achieved, also bodes well.
“It’s far easier to imitate than to invent. So when another athlete does well, people take encouragement from it. I don’t think Semenya needed that – our athletes could have come last in every event and she’d still win this gold, so I think it’s kind of moot here. But there’s no doubt that when a team succeeds, its individuals will do better because of a shared belief,” said Tucker.
“I suppose it could work the other way, too, for some people – if their team-mates win, they start to feel the weight of expectation and it gets to be too much for them. I’m sure more than a few athletes have cracked under the weight of that expectation. Again, however, there’s no sign that is going to happen here.”