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Caster Semenya: I love myself, and I don’t care what people think of me

Sunday May 20 2018

South Africa’s Caster Semenya (gold) poses on the podium after the athletics women's 800m final during the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games at the Carrara Stadium on the Gold Coast on April 13, 2018. PHOTO | AFP

South Africa’s Caster Semenya (gold) poses on the podium after the athletics women's 800m final during the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games at the Carrara Stadium on the Gold Coast on April 13, 2018. PHOTO | AFP  

ELIAS MAKORI
By ELIAS MAKORI
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“Confidence is silent. Insecurities are loud,” she tweeted last week.

Sums it up, doesn’t it?

Controversy has stalked Caster Semenya since she burst into the limelight at the Berlin Olympic Stadium in the summer of 2009, dethroning Kenya’s defending champion Janeth Jepkosgei to win the 800 metres gold medal at the IAAF World Championships.

Well, that wasn’t exactly her first major breakthrough.

Controversial career: South Africa’s 800 metres runner Caster Semenya during a press conference on June 7, 2011, in Oslo, Norway ahead of Bislett games. PHOTO | FILE | AFP

Controversial career: South Africa’s 800 metres runner Caster Semenya during a press conference on June 7, 2011, in Oslo, Norway ahead of Bislett games. PHOTO | FILE | AFP

As a junior, she had won her 800m speciality at the 2008 Commonwealth Youth Games.

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But the 27-year-old first courted controversy in August, 2009, when she ran a sub-two minute race to win the gold at the Africa Junior Championships in Bambous, Mauritius.

Her time of one minute, 56.72 seconds was both a South African national record and a championship record.

This had tongues wagging, with the talk rising a few decibels higher when she shattered another championship record, this time in the 1,500m where she clocked 4:08.01.

And she was only 18!

Suddenly, everyone was discussing about the young girl from Polokwane in the North Sotho Limpompo province.

There was talk that she was a boy disguised as a girl, her brute strength and speed unseen before.

Such talk rose to a crescendo a month later at the senior IAAF World Championships in Berlin.

Running in the heats, the 18-year-old South African accidentally tripped Jepkosgei, sending the Kenyan out of the semi-finals.

But as Kenyan journalists covering the championships from the Olympic Stadium’s media tribune, and close to the action, colleagues Mutwiri Mutuota, Evelyne Watta, James Wokabi, Mike Okinyi and I prodded Athletics Kenya officials who promptly filed an appeal, and Jepkosgei was reinstated in the semis line up.

Semenya wasn’t punished for the inadvertent tripping, and went on to clinch the gold in 1:55.54, another personal best and national record.

Then all hell broke loose!

Scores of journalists hounded her, some even asking her bluntly if she had a male organ!

SCANNING CLEAVAGE

Still a junior, and only competing with seniors for the first time at a global championship, she struggled through the press points, almost breaking down in tears as journalist after journalist shamelessly stared through her yellow and green South African singlet, scanning for cleavage.

The furore prompted the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), amid protests from Johannesburg officials, to call for a gender test. The world wanted to know if indeed she was a woman, or a man trapped in a woman’s body.

The tests were to reveal her high testosterone levels, courting further controversy.

And just last month, the IAAF announced it would introduce new rules on hyperandrogenism from November this year setting fresh testosterone levels.

Athletes with hyperandogenism, or high levels of male hormones, will be restricted to compete in certain events only.

Which effectively mean that Semenya will have to take medication that would reduce her hormones to permissible levels. But such limelight hasn’t dampened the South Africa’s resolve, instead making her the more stronger.

LONG-TIME GIRLFRIEND

Following post-Berlin counselling sessions seemed to have worked, her confidence levels soared to the heights that would see her marry her long-time girlfriend Violet Roseboya at an exclusive and extravagant “white wedding” in Pretoria in January last year.

South Africa’s Caster Semenya (gold) poses on the podium after the athletics women's 800m final during the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games at the Carrara Stadium on the Gold Coast on April 13, 2018. PHOTO | AFP

South Africa’s Caster Semenya (gold) poses on the podium after the athletics women's 800m final during the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games at the Carrara Stadium on the Gold Coast on April 13, 2018. PHOTO | AFP

She had followed up her Berlin victory with another gold at the 2011 World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, before reclaiming her title last year at the Olympic Stadium in London, the scene of her Olympic gold medal performance in 2012, which she defended in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

This was after a triple gold at the 2016 Africa Championships in Durban (800m, 1,500m, 4x400m relay).

At last month’s Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia, Semenya emerged even stronger, winning a double gold in the 800m and 1,500m, after which she declared she wishes to outlive Mozambican legend Maria Mutola’s two-decade reign in middle distance glory.

Footballer-turned-runner “Maputo Express” Mutola’s stellar career saw her win one Olympic title, three world outdoor and seven indoor gold medals, along with eight African titles and two Commonwealth Games gold medals.

A feat Semenya believes she can match, if not better.

A straight talking champion, a stark contrast from the feeble teenager at the Berlin Olympic Stadium, Semenya is now accustomed to nagging questions from journalists.

Her stern responses, looking writers straight in the eye, seem to confirm she has overcome her most turbulent times. “I love myself,” she told me in the mixed zone of Gold Coast’s Carrara Stadium at last month’s Commonwealth Games.

“From the age of five, I didn’t care what people think of me,” she added, her confident stare enough to repel the most controversial of questions.

“What I think of is the love that I get from my family, the love that I get from my friends, the love that I get from my nation.”

The woman from Polokwane has developed a philosophical vibe.

South Africa's Caster Semenya celebrates with flag after winning the athletics women's 800m final during the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games at the Carrara Stadium on the Gold Coast on April 13, 2018. PHOTO | SAEED KHAN |

South Africa's Caster Semenya celebrates with flag after winning the athletics women's 800m final during the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games at the Carrara Stadium on the Gold Coast on April 13, 2018. PHOTO | SAEED KHAN |AFP

“You always have to surround yourself with the right people,” she notes, matter-of-factly.

“I appreciate the love that I get from my parents. They have raised me for who I am, and they are never ashamed of their kids,” he adds.

It is this vibe that you will find in her intermittent tweets.

“The two most powerful warriors are patience and time,” she tweeted last Friday, for instance.

“Confidence is contagious. Catch it, Spread it,” she posted a day earlier.

The sort of contagious confidence she has been working to instil in underprivileged South African girls, who, like herself in Polokwane, were born in rural areas.

“It’s not about me any more.

“It’s about the girls in the rural areas who cannot believe they can do this (win medals),” she told me after her 800m and 1,500m double Down Under. “This is just to show them that if you work hard and believe in yourself, anything is possible.

Nothing is easy.

“My performance is just to inspire them, and let them know that they need to work hard and believe in themselves.”

“When I run it’s all about them and they know that. When I get back home they know what I do.

“And from my social media, you can see what I’m doing. I want to show them that its about you. You need to love yourself.”

“It’s not about someone else’s idea, but it’s all about you. You just have to wake up, make up your bed, go out there and face the world.

“In this world, nothing is easy. You really need to work hard so that people can take you seriously.

“I know where I’m coming from.

“I’m coming from the rural areas where I never had the privilege to enjoy good facilities.

“I wanna show them that you can still come from the village, a dusty place, and come to the city and show the world what you are made of.”

'LEAD BY EXAMPLE'

With Nigeria hosting the Africa Athletics Championships this August, Semenya looks forward to defending the titles she won on home soil in Durban two years ago.

South Africa’s Caster Semenya (centre, gold), Kenya’s Margaret Nyairera Wambui (left, silver) and Jamaica’s Natoya Goule (bronze) pose with their medals after the athletics women's 800m final during the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games at the Carrara Stadium on the Gold Coast on April 13, 2018. PHOTO | SAEED KHAN |

South Africa’s Caster Semenya (centre, gold), Kenya’s Margaret Nyairera Wambui (left, silver) and Jamaica’s Natoya Goule (bronze) pose with their medals after the athletics women's 800m final during the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games at the Carrara Stadium on the Gold Coast on April 13, 2018. PHOTO | SAEED KHAN |AFP

She is not choosy, and doesn’t mind even fielding in a regional competition.

“You must lead by example,” she argues. “I’m not gonna pick which championships I must go for.

“We need to show the youth and juniors that when it comes to competition, they must take the Africa Championships seriously.

“How do you expect to win an Olympic championship if you can’t win the All Africa Games?

“Those kids need to see that if Caster can run at the Africa Championships, or the Southern Region Championships, or the All Africa Games, so should I.

“We need to show them that they need to take each and every competition seriously.”

This, she believes, will elevate her to the revered status of her predecessor Mutola.

“This (athletics) is more than a game.

“It’s not only about winning. It’s about leaving a mark. I wanna be the greatest.

“Maria Mutola has been here for two decades, and if she can do that, it shows we can also do that. We just need to follow in her footsteps.”

Indeed, despite the new, controversial IAAF rules on testosterone levels, Semenya has remained focused and is ready to respond to her detractors with performances on the track.

Performances like that one early this month where she blasted to a national record in the 1,500m at the season opening Doha Diamond League meeting, clocking 3:59.92, the first South African to dip under four minutes.

South African athlete Caster Semenya competes in the women's 1500m during the Diamond League athletics competition at the Suhaim bin Hamad Stadium in Doha, on May 4, 2018. PHOTO | KARIM JAAFAR |

South African athlete Caster Semenya competes in the women's 1500m during the Diamond League athletics competition at the Suhaim bin Hamad Stadium in Doha, on May 4, 2018. PHOTO | KARIM JAAFAR |AFP

Everyone is waiting with bated breath to see if she will reduce her male hormones and still dominate in global middle distance running.

But she has very much kept to herself, silently confident and letting her running, and tweeting, do the talking.

“Confidence is silent. Insecurities are loud,” she tweeted last week.

Sums it up, doesn’t it?

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