Questions have been asked by the international media if Caster Semenya may have allowed herself to be beaten in the 800 metres Olympic race to avoid more controversy over her gender.
On Saturday, Semenya surprised many with her strategy of lagging behind the frontrunners for too long and then surging forward towards the end of the race to come in second place, taking home the silver medal.
Some commentators, reported www.slate.com, have suggested that the 21-year-old athlete, the women’s world champion and the favourite to win, appeared to have been more than capable of taking the gold.
The BBC’s David Ornstein commented that Semenya “had more left in the tank” and quoted BBC commentator Kelly Holmes who said: “She looked very strong, she didn’t look like she went up a gear, she wasn’t grimacing at all. I don’t know if her head was in it, when she crossed the line she didn’t look affected.”
Sports Illustrator’s Tim Layden tweeted that Semenya “seemed oddly disengaged most of race and not tired at end” and that she “seemed aerobically relaxed two steps past finish line”.
Also for Sports Illustrated, David Epstein last week wrote before the race that Semenya was in a ‘no-win’ situation: “If Semenya wins the gold, she is likely to be accused of having an unfair advantage. If she runs poorly, she is likely to be accused of sandbagging the race so as not to be accused of having an unfair advantage.”
South African Mark Wolff tweeted “me thinks it was a scandal avoidance” adding, “she went through an extremely painful period of gender accusations so keeping under radar would avoid it further…”
Semenya denied suggestions that she chose not to win at a post-race press conference. “The plan was, like I said, to win a gold. I just made a mistake. A late kick.”
It seems whatever she does, Semenya is fated to always be mired in some form of controversy. She has been battling humiliating questions about her gender and sex since she won the 800 metres at the Berlin Athletics World Championships in August 2009.
She underwent tests to asses if she should compete as a woman, became the subject of intense media speculation and was suspended from running. In July 2010, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) finally gave Semenya the all-clear to compete as a woman.
For most South Africans, however, the star is a hero who helped the country achieve one of its best-ever showings at the Olympic Games, with a medal tally of three gold, two silver and one bronze.