LONDON -- Just after the women's 800-meter race finished, the winner -- Russia's Mariya Savinova -- turned to the silver medalist, South Africa's Caster Semenya, and the two shared a hug. Exactly as they did last year in Daegu, when they finished in the same order in the world championships. And exactly the complete opposite of what happened in Berlin in '09, at those world championships.
After that race, where Savinova took fifth and then-unknown Semenya smashed her competitors by more than two-and-a-half seconds, Savinova was one of the first to heap scorn on Semenya. "Just look at her," she said, referring to Semenya's muscular build, and insinuating that Semenya was a man, or in some way unfairly masculinized. (For background on the frenzy that ensued when it became public that Semenya had undergone biological sex testing, read this.)
Coming into these Olympics, Semenya was one of biggest wildcards in the world. Following her win at '09 world championships, Semenya vanished from competition for a year, ostensibly as her eligibility was being worked out. (Britain's Telegraphreported that sex determination tests showed that while Semenya has external female genitalia, she has internal testes, no womb or ovaries and elevated levels of testosterone. Such an individual would be intersex, and have some traits that are typically associated with women and others that are typically associated with men. But the public notion of Semenya's test results comes purely from news reports and has never been confirmed or addressed by Semenya or the IAAF, the governing body for track and field.) This year, prior to the Olympics, Semenya had come nowhere close to the 1:55.45 she ran in '09 to win worlds as an 18-year-old. Her fastest pre-London time in 2012 was 1:59.18. Then, in her semifinal in London, Semenya ran an effortless-looking 1:57.67, followed by an even more effortless-looking 1:57.23 in the final. It was all quite similar to 2011.
Last year, Semenya came into the world championships with a season-best of 1:58.61, and then ran 1:56.35 in the worlds final. In that race, Semenya seemed to have the win locked up, only to be passed by Savinova in the final straight, prompting two-pronged speculation: 1. That she was holding back on purpose so as not to ignite another media firestorm, or 2. That she had been forced to undergo feminizing hormone therapy as a condition of eligibility and that she would no longer be as fast.
The 800 final in London will likely do nothing to push spectators in either direction of speculation. Semenya ran fast, but significantly slower than she did in '09, and never has there been a more relaxed runner at the finish of an 800. Semenya passed most of the field in the final straight to take silver, and, unlike the other women in the race, Semenya did not bend over gasping for air, but just smiled and looked up at the video screen.
It's a difficult thing to process in a race that often brings competitors, literally, to their knees, but Semenya has always looked this way at the end of races, even before she became the subject of global headlines. (See further analysis of the race at The Science of Sport.) Semenya's coach, Maria Mutola of Mozambique -- the greatest women's 800-meter runner ever -- said that "that's how [Semenya] is," meaning she just appears less fatigued than other people, and it isn't an act she trots out in front of the cameras. (Still, given that Semenya has run 52.54 for the 400, it will be interesting to see what she can do if she starts going out faster. On Saturday, she went out in 57.69, rather slow for someone with her 400 speed.)
After the race, Mutola -- who just started coaching Semenya this season -- told Semenya that she did a good job, but jabbed a finger into her shoulder and asked why she made her move so late in the race, when Savinova was already so far ahead. Said Semenya, "unfortunately I made a late move, but I'm very happy with the silver medal." When asked why she waited so long to move, Semenya said that "you never know what is going to happen in a race," and that she just mistimed her kick.
When Semenya was asked whether she purposely did not win, she laughed, and, once again, the 21-year-old from a small town in South Africa showed considerable aplomb in front of the media. "The plan was to go for gold," she said. "Unfortunately, I made a move too late ... Every athlete's dream is to win the Olympics."
When Savinova was asked about Semenya's race, she said, through a translator, that "probably today something was not very satisfactory for Caster ... probably something was wrong with her." Semenya said that her training had not been going well up until a month ago, and that it took her time to adjust to Mutola's coaching, and that "I'm very happy we peaked at the right time."
SI asked Savinova why she now hugs Semenya, when she was one of her primary critics in '09, but, according to native Russian speakers in the room, the question was mistranslated, and Savinova did not adddress the issue. But it probably requires no answer. The one time Semenya ran away from her, Savinova was angry. The last two times -- '11 worlds and the Olympics -- when Savinova won, she had a hug at the ready.
In May, SI published an article about transgender athletes, who have in common with Semenya only the fact that spectators and their competitors sometimes question their gender expression or biological sex, often in derogatory ways. One of the athletes who spoke to SI for that article was Joanna Harper, a 55-year-old medical physicist and age-group distance runner who was born male and began hormone therapy in order to transition to female in August '04. Harper's times started getting worse rather quickly after beginning the therapy, but she was still similarly competitive, only it was against women. In February, Harper won the 55-to-59 age group at the women's national cross-country championship in St. Louis. As far as how competitors view her, Harper said: "I have found for many female competitors, the question of fairness in their eyes comes down to whether or not I beat them. If they beat me, it's okay, if I beat them, it's not okay. It's hard to fight that perception."