Semenya, Pistorius have points to prove at Worlds

Previously banned from competing, both Caster Semenya and double-amputee sprinter Oscar Pistorius have been cleared to run after high-profile legal battles and will showcase their ability at the athletics world championships.

Both South Africans have something to prove next week in Daegu, South Korea, after fighting to be allowed to line up against the world’s top runners.

Semenya, who won the women’s 800 metres at the worlds in Berlin two years ago, hopes to show her victory as a relatively unknown teenager in 2009 was not down to any natural abnormality which gave her an unfair advantage over other women.

Now 20, Semenya returns to the worlds two years after a storm of controversy overshadowed her stunning debut in Berlin.

In those two years, Semenya was forced out of competition for 11 months by the International Association of Athletics Federations following gender tests, threatened to take the governing body to court, was cleared to run by the IAAF without explanation and then missed the 2010 Commonwealth Games with a back injury.

This year she has shown erratic form, fought off reports she was unfit, not training and had fallen out with her coach, and was again hampered by the niggling back problem in the weeks leading up to Daegu.

Semenya departed for the world championships with customary disregard for the media, refusing to do interviews after her national federation had invited reporters to talk to her.

Instead, the media-shy world champion denied reports of problems ahead of her title defense in a statement from her management team.

“The recent media reports that Caster Semenya is not ready to defend her world 800-metre title are untrue. Semenya remains disciplined, focus and excited about representing South Africa at the IAAF World Championships in South Korea,” the statement said, promising Semenya would put up “a strong fight in defense of her title”.

But Semenya has not come close to the blistering pace of 2009 since her return from the enforced layoff. The Pretoria-based athlete only twice ran under two minutes in her buildup and her season’s best 1:58.61 was still way off the 1:55.45 that won her gold two years ago. That form is unlikely to be good enough to retain her title.

Fighting for a spot
Pistorius is attempting to prove he deserves a place against the leading able-bodied athletes after he ran a personal best last month in the 400-metres—on his controversial carbon-fibre blades—to qualify for his first worlds.

The 24-year-old multiple Paralympic champion is not expected to threaten the world’s best 400-metre athletes, but he said just running at the worlds is a dream come true. He took his case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport and won the right in 2008 to be allowed to run in able-bodied events on his blades after he was initially banned by the IAAF.

Pistorius finally achieved the qualifying mark for Daegu with a personal best of 45.07 seconds at a small meet in northern Italy in July on his last attempt. He was confirmed in South Africa’s team as its only athlete in the 400m to make history as the first amputee runner to compete at the able-bodied worlds.

“I have dreamt for such a long time of competing in a major championships and this is a very proud moment in my life,” Pistorius said. “If I manage to make it through the heats, I would be thrilled.”

Pistorius, who will also run in the 4x400m relay, has also had to fight off renewed criticism that his blades offer him an unfair advantage. The former rugby player, who had his legs amputated below the knee when he was 11 months old and only took up athletics in 2004, won’t let the criticism spoil his fairy tale story.

“It was so long ago, I’ve put it behind me,” Pistorius said of the ban and subsequent court process that finally cleared him to run. “I don’t think about it anymore.”

Africa leads the pack when it comes to distance running, and more of the same is expected in Daegu with men’s 800-meter world-record holder David Rudisha of Kenya and Ethiopian distance great Kenenisa Bekele.

Bekele has not competed since January and has struggled with injury since a muscle tear in his right calf in early 2010. There is still doubt over his fitness even though he left for South Korea with Ethiopia’s team.

Not yet 30, Bekele has dominated the 10 000m for nearly a decade and won a 5 000-10 000 double at the 2009 world championships in Berlin.

However, his chances of competing in Daegu were rated this week as “50-50” by the Ethiopian athletics federation, putting him in danger of missing his first world championships since 2001.

If Bekele falters, however, Ethiopian teammates Imane Merga, Ibrahim Jeylan and Sileshi Sihine will be there to keep their country at the top of the podium.

Rudisha, who is only 22, is favoured in the men’s 800m and on course for his first major title after winning in an impressive 1:42.91 in London this month in the last Diamond League meet before the worlds.

Having broken the 13-year-old world mark twice in a week last year, Rudisha lost some momentum at the start of this season with a left foot injury but came back strongly with a world’s best time of 1:42.61 in Monaco in July and then victory in London.

Kenya also has men’s marathon champion Abel Kirui, world title holder Ezekiel Kemboi and on-form Brimin Kiproto in the 3 000m steeplechase, and defending women’s 5 0000m champion Vivian Cheruiyot among a string of medal contenders.

Janeth Jepkosgei, the 2007 world champion, also hopes to take back her title from Semenya in the 800m.

“We are certainly going to perform better than in Berlin in 2009,” Kenya head coach Peter Mathu said. “I cannot predict the number of medals, all I can promise is a basket full of medals.”—Sapa-AP

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