Caster Semenya ran her first public race in eight months and broke the national 300-meter record at a low-level meet at a South African university before proclaiming: “I’m here to stay.”
The Olympic 800-meter champion said the race Friday night at the University of Johannesburg, which also featured high school students, was her season-opening event.
“Track and field, you will still see my face,” Semenya said after winning the 300 race in 36.78 seconds. “That is all I can say for now.”
It’s not the first time Semenya has guaranteed a comeback.
The Olympics are just five months away and it’s doubtful if Semenya will be able to defend her title in the 800 meters. But maybe she has another plan.
Semenya is currently banned from competing in her favored event at major meets, and any distance from 400 meters to one mile, unless she follows World Athletics rules that require her to medically reduce her natural testosterone levels to compete in women’s competitions.
The regulations were designed for female athletes with differences of sex development like Semenya and have been severely criticized.
Semenya, who turned 29 last month, has twice appealed against the regulations. She lost her first appeal at sport’s highest court. Her second legal challenge at the Swiss supreme court is still being considered. Her chances of winning that second appeal are seen as slim.
Semenya has repeatedly refused to adhere to the testosterone regulations and her decision to open the Olympic year with a 300-meter race might be significant.
The rules do not apply to races below 400 meters and Semenya could compete in the 200 meters at the Olympics without having to reduce her hormone level.
Semenya didn’t indicate if that was her intention when she stated that her track career was not over. The South African has rarely run the 200 meters and her personal best is 24.26 seconds. Semenya would have to improve that by nearly two seconds to meet the qualifying standard of 22.80 seconds for the Tokyo Olympics.
She’s previously tried distances longer than the mile with limited success.
Semenya’s last appearance on the track was in June last year when she won an 800-meter race at the Prefontaine Classic in the United States. Track and field’s new testosterone regulations then came into effect and prevented her from running the 800, a distance where she’d become utterly dominant. Semenya is a two-time Olympic and three-time world champion over two laps and has won 31 straight races. She wasn’t able to defend her title at last year’s world championships because of the regulations.
The South African has become one of track’s best-known athletes since winning the world title in 2009 at the age of 18. Her stunning debut unleashed a firestorm of controversy when it was revealed she had been forced to undergo sex tests during the meet by the world track and field body.
Semenya is the most high profile but not the only elite female athlete with a difference of sex development. Court documents indicate she was born with the typical male XY chromosome pattern but also female traits. She has been legally identified as female her whole life but World Athletics considers her “biologically male,” a description she has angrily railed against in what’s become a bitter battle.
Semenya’s story has presented track and field, and maybe sports in general, with one of its most difficult and contentious conundrums and the debate has been raging for more than a decade. In essence, World Athletics says her high testosterone level gives her an unfair athletic advantage over other female runners. Semenya says it’s a natural genetic gift.
In the midst of the battle with track authorities, Semenya has sometimes given confusing messages regarding her future.
Last year, she joined a soccer team in Johannesburg and announced she would play for it in the 2020 season. That seemed to suggest she was ready to give up track and field but she denied that, saying she could be a soccer player and a runner.