Caster Semenya calls Toby Sutcliffe “Dad”. Sutcliffe, the brains behind the High Performance Centre (HPC) at the University of Pretoria (Tuks), was scandalised to hear about recent Australian media reports alleging that Semenya was under armed guard in Rio before her 800m semifinal heat on Friday morning.
“I don’t think that’s right,” said Sutcliffe, who returned from the Olympics midweek.
“I also don’t think these reports about her being whisked away after Saturday night’s final are true. She has been waiting for this moment for years – why shouldn’t she linger to enjoy it?”
Sutcliffe first encountered Semenya a few years ago. He’s texted her daily, frequently being invited to lunch. He also attended Semenya’s 21st birthday party and the two consider themselves close friends.
“Her training with Maria Mutola [the former Mozambican 800m athlete] wasn’t as successful as it might have been because it was in part a weights- and gym-based programme,” Sutcliffe said.
“She came to me in October 2014 and I recommended Jean Verster at the University of the North-West. With Jean, she was able to lose some of that muscle. That’s made a great difference to her running.”
Although Sutcliffe poured cold water on the idea that Semenya was under armed escort, he did confirm that the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (Sascoc) had initiated a media blackout on the athlete. The days and hours running up to Saturday night’s final are the most important of her career and her minders are clearly anxious to keep her as calm as possible.
“She’s excited,” said Sutcliffe. “This is what she’s been training for. After this, I think she’s going to go on to longer events – the 1 500m, possibly. She still has a significant career ahead of her.”
Semenya’s presence at the Olympics has unleashed a media firestorm. Despite no formal confirmation, it has been widely reported that she has a condition called hyperandrogenism, one of the results of which is raised levels of testosterone in women.
This has led her detractors, such as former British Olympic marathoner Paula Radcliffe, to accuse Semenya of having an unfair advantage. Radcliffe told the BBC: “When we talk about it in terms of fully expecting no other result than Semenya to win that 800m, then it’s no longer sport.”
But the situation is more complicated. In 2011, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) required female athletes with unusually high levels of testosterone to take hormones to reduce their levels. The times run by Semenya and others duly slowed, in Semenya’s case by about six seconds.
But the IAAF edict wasn’t universally welcomed. Dutee Chand, an Indian sprinter, questioned the ruling in the Swiss-based Court for Arbitration in Sport, arguing that her rights were being violated by having an upper limit placed on her testosterone levels.
The court upheld her case, meaning that she no longer needed to submit to a regime of testosterone-lowering hormones.
The current impasse between the court and the IAAF is what has allowed Semenya to stop the hormone regimen. This, and not the loss of muscle bulk, is what has allowed her to post three of the four best times in the world over the distance this year, say some.
Despite her activism over the testosterone issue, Chand had a forgettable Olympics and has since returned to India. Semenya, a far more high-profile figure, has been left behind – a magnet for jealousy and often ill-informed invective.
“It was Chand who made the stand,” wrote the Guardian’s Andy Bull recently. “But it’s Semenya who is being confronted by the reaction to the case. Her performances have pushed her into becoming the public face of this issue, a position she has no desire to be in.”
Given that Chand finished seventh in her heat, raised levels of testosterone can’t be the only determinant in athletes with hyperandrogenism, say those in the other corner of the debate.
There are clearly other factors at play: talent, perhaps, and ability and desire. Semenya won silver in London. She’s likely to go one better in Rio.
Can Caster smash the world record?
- Czech athlete Jarmila Kratochvilova still holds the world record for the 800m. She ran 1:53.28 in Germany on July 26 1983.
- The record still stands after 33 years.
- Caster Semenya, according to International Association of Athletics Federations listings, ran a personal best of 1:55.33 in Monaco just last month.
- She qualified for this weekend’s final in the 800m at the Rio Olympics, finishing first in her heat in a time of 1:59.31