Caster Semenya

Week 85 (16 - 22 May 2015)

Caster Semenya, the South African 800m runner, granted a rare and intriguing interview to BBC Sport this week as she continues her comeback from the two-year hiatus which followed her silver medal at London 2012.

As well as her success in London, the 24-year-old also has a world championship gold medal to her name from 2009 when she burst onto the world athletics scene as an 18-year-old.

As you would expect of an athlete who has already scaled the heights of her sport, Semenya is hailed as a star in South Africa – as the BBC’s interview in her new home of Potchefstroom showed – but outside of her home country, her public profile is very different.

Click here to watch the BBC's interview with Caster Semenya 

In the hours and days following her stunning break-through victory in Berlin in 2009, Semenya was subjected to questions about her gender and her eligibility to compete in a female field.

For a teenager who should have only been thinking about celebrating, it must have been a horrible episode. The fallout lasted for 11 months until a panel of medical experts established that she could compete again. At the time, Semenya declared she was “thrilled” but the drawn-out process had taken its toll.

“If it wasn’t for my family, I don’t think I could have survived it,” she admitted to BBC Sport’s Ben Smith. “I was world champion but I was never able to celebrate it. It was a bit upsetting, you feel humiliated.”

Being interviewed by the side of a long-jump sand pit, it’s clear that Semenya has moved on from the hurt of how she was treated – without letting it change her approach to life.

She said: “I think they (the fans) understand me, as I am. I’m not a fake, I’m being natural. I’m just being Caster, I don’t want to be someone I don’t want to be, I don’t want to be someone who people want me to be.

“I grew up with all the boys, I never liked to play around with girls because I always thought girls were too soft. I like challenges. I was always away from home, I was always in the bushes.”

Semenya’s next challenge is turning her Olympic silver medal into gold at Rio 2016, something she feels she can achieve and perhaps even break the 800m world record of 1:53.28 – which has stood since 1983.

In the written article accompanying his interview with Semenya, Smith reports a final qualifier to Semenya’s motivation, which she told him off camera: "It is not about what people think of you, it is about proving them wrong. Do you understand? It is about doing what you are best at. I am a runner, what I do best, is running. It is that simple."

Until now the story of Caster Semenya as a person and as a runner has been told by those who don’t know her, with that narrative being dominated by her gender. This interview shows her as a woman who has completely moved on from the controversy which engulfed her late teenage years. As a media prospect she has now moved herself into the category of any other athlete going for gold in Rio – it’s precisely the type of profile she wants. 

Photo: CBS