She took some deep breaths, then got up, walked to the stagger start and went straight to work. Making her Olympic debut three years after being forced to undergo gender tests that cast doubt over her future in track and field, Semenya finished second in her preliminary heat on Wednesday morning.
The 80,000-seat stadium was almost full, but she’s used to big crowds. The whole experience, though, was something new.
“It was a very important race,” Semenya said. “It was a tactical race. I wanted the race to be a fast one. To be a good contender, you have to run under 2 minutes.”
This is the Semenya of 2012 — she’s 21 and she’s reserved, almost guarded, and generally restricts her public comments to topics of competition.
And who could blame her?
She was still a teenager when she had no choice but to endure having her most intimate details debated and discussed in the global media.
Semenya was sidelined for 11 months — while track and field’s governing body decided whether or not to allow her to compete — after she won the 2009 world title at age 18, posting a stunning time of 1 minute, 55.45 seconds.
She was tested and eventually cleared to compete in 2010, but she struggled with a back problem for a while before returning to the world championships at Daegu and winning a silver medal.
The backing she has from the South African federation was in evidence when she was selected to carry the flag at the opening ceremonies at the London Games, where she’s a genuine medal contender.
After posting an Olympic qualifying time at the national trials earlier this year, Semenya said “I have to win a gold.”
“My dream is to win the Olympics,” she said, “and that’s my plan.”
She ran her heat in 2:00.71, finishing just behind the 2:00.47 run by American Alysia Johnson Montano, the fastest qualifier from the preliminaries. Defending Olympic champion Pamela Jelimo won her heat in 2:00.54 to advance with the second-fastest time.
Semenya ran a controlled race, hanging back with the pack while Montano led out quickly, then relying on a late kick to cut down the gap and secure the second automatic qualifying spot from the heat.