As Caster Semenya appealed a planned rule change that could impact her dramatically, she put together one of the fastest middle-distance seasons in track and field history.
In an interview last week, the scrutinized Olympic 800m champion from South Africa declined to discuss her in-process legal challenge to an IAAF rule that would force female runners in her events with high testosterone to reduce those levels starting next season.
“I’ve been advised to stick in my lane,” Semenya said before receiving the Wilma Rudolph Courage Award at the Billie Jean King-founded Women’s Sport Foundation’s annual salute in New York City. “I cannot say anything about it.”
The IAAF expects a hearing in Semenya’s case in February with a verdict by March 26.
In 2009, when Semenya won the world 800m title by nearly 2.5 seconds at age 18, word leaked that track officials mandated she undergo sex testing. The IAAF had gender-verification testing in place until 2011, when it was replaced with a test for abnormally high levels of natural testosterone.
In July 2015, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) suspended the IAAF’s regulation, ruling that it lacked sufficient scientific backing and was therefore unjustifiably discriminatory. CAS is also handling Semenya’s appeal to the current proposed rule change.
Semenya has never spoken publicly in detail about her situation. It has never been publicly verified that Semenya’s body naturally produces abnormally high levels of testosterone or that she ever took hormone suppressants.
What’s clear is that Semenya is looking forward to competing next season.
This past spring and summer, she clocked the three fastest times of her life in each of the 400m, the 800m and the 1500m (breaking 1:55 for the first time).
Semenya is now the fourth-fastest woman in history in her primary event, the 800m, and .97 of a second slower than the questioned world record set by Czech Jarmila Kratochvílová in 1983.
It’s hard for Semenya to gauge her chances of closing in on the longest-standing record in the sport (assuming her legal challenge holds up).
“But if you are a half-second or a second away from a world record, then you think, OK, there are things that I’m doing right,” she said. “The most important thing is being consistent. When you run 1:55, 1:54 consistent, it shows that you can do better than that.
“Also when you run 400 meters under 50 [seconds], then you can run [the 1500 meters] under four minutes, it shows you still have more in the tank.”
Semenya broke those time barriers for the first time this spring and summer. She finished the season ranked No. 1 in the world in the 800m, No. 4 in the 400m and No. 9 in the 1500m, rare versatility.
She said she would rather win a fourth world title at 800m next year than break the world record. The 400m is also very much in her plans.
“If we can run almost 49 low next year … then we’ll know we’re ready to do anything at 800 meters,” she said. The only women to break 49.5 since the Rio Olympics are Rio gold medalist Shaunae Miller-Uibo of the Bahamas and world silver medalist Salwa Eid Naser of Bahrain.
World records clearly are important to Semenya.
She said her favorite race was not at an Olympics or world championships, but a 600m in Berlin in August 2017. She took nearly a second off the fastest time ever in the event, which is not on the Olympic program and thus is listed as a “world best” rather than a record.
Semenya returned to Berlin, also site of that eye-popping 2009 World title, for another highlight last month. She ran the world’s fastest 1000m in 22 years and met LeBron James.
“He just told me, keep on doing what I’m doing,” Semenya said. “He inspires me. I inspire him. It was just more for exchanging words when greatness meets greatness.”
NBC Sports’ Seth Rubinroit and NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.
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