Caster Semenya qualified for the Olympic women’s 800metres semi-finals with supreme ease on Wednesday and was immediately plunged into a new gender controversy after a race rival questioned whether it was fair for her to compete.
South African Semenya will be hot favourite for Saturday’s final but Frenchwoman Justine Fedronic, who failed to advance from the heats, said although she had sympathy for her rival’s situation, her high testosterone levels meant it was not a fair fight.
“When you line up against someone like that, you know it’s going to be a completely different ball game,” Fedronic said.
“I do feel for her. She is just trying to train and compete just like the rest of us so that is really not fair to her. But it is not fair for others too. So I don’t know what the solution is.”
Semenya has dominated the 800m this season and there has even been speculation that she could take down Czech Jarmila Kratochvilova’s 1983 record of 1 minute, 53.28 seconds – the longest standing athletics world record and widely considered to have been chemically enhanced.
Some observers consider Semenya to be also running with an unfair advantage, albeit one she can do little about.
After winning the 2009 world title as a 19-year-old, tests are reported to have revealed that she is hyperandrogenous, resulting in her body producing an abnormally high amount of testosterone, which makes her more powerful than her rivals.
An International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) rule limiting the amount of naturally occurring functional testosterone for female athletes appeared to have limited Semenya’s prospects but the rule was quashed by the Court of Arbitration for Sport last year.
Semenya had struggled to rediscover the form of her breakthrough year – some blaming the dip on medication to reduce the testosterone – but this season she has roared back to her best and came to Rio unbeaten on the Diamond League circuit.
President Sebastian Coe said last week that the IAAF was considering an appeal against the CAS ruling, so this could turn out to be Semenya’s last chance for Olympic glory following her silver medal four years ago.
“We’ll see how the regulations will change,” said Fedronic. “I think the Olympics will probably bring a lot more eyes to the issue than there have been before. It’s an issue of protecting human rights, but I guess the decision is who has to be protected?”
Semenya won her heat in 1.59.31 and she said it was harder than she made it appear.
“It wasn’t easy, It was pretty hot,” she said. “I just tried to hang on and tried to feel my body first so I was comfortable.
“I’m not focused on any world records, I am focused on enjoying my championship and it’s going to be a tough 800. Times don’t matter but medals matter.”
Belarusian Maryna Arzamasava and Canada’s Melissa Bishop, first and second in last year’s world championships, found themselves in the same heat as each other but took both automatic qualifying spots for Saturday’s final with the two fastest times of the day, just under a second quicker than Semenya.
Russian duo Mariya Savinova and Ekaterina Poistogova, first and third in the London Olympics four years ago, were unable to take part in Rio due to the doping suspension on the country’s athletes and have both been recommended for life bans by the World Anti-Doping Agency.