EUGENE, Ore. – In one way, this race was like so many in the past for Caster Semenya. When she crossed the finish line, there wasn't anyone near her.
This race, though, was the 5,000 meters — not her specialty, the 800 — and when Semenya crossed the line all alone, she was in 13th place.
She failed to advance through the opening heat at world championships Wednesday, an expected result for the South African who is barred from her best event because of rules that demand she take hormone-reducing drugs to enter races between 400 meters and one mile.
Semenya finished the 12 1/2-lap race — run in blistering 91-degree (32 Celsius) heat — in 15 minutes, 46.12 seconds, 54 seconds behind the winner, Gudaf Tsegay of Ethiopia. Given the circumstances, Semenya said this did not feel like defeat, and she was nowhere near giving up.
“I think it is great to be able to run here,” she said. “Just being able to finish the 5K, for me, it is a blessing. I am learning and I am willing to learn even more. It was hot, I could not keep up with the pace, I tried to stick as much as I can. But it is a part of the game.”
Semenya lost an appeal of a World Athletics regulation that made women with certain intersex condition ineligible in races between 400 meters and a mile. Since 2019, she hasn't raced in a major 800-meter race, the event in which she has won two Olympic and three world titles.
But there's nothing keeping her from the 5,000, and even though she had virtually no chance of winning, she came to Oregon anyway. Her personal best in the race is 15:31.50, which is outside the world-championships qualifying standard. But she moved into the race after some higher-ranked runners did not enter.
American Karissa Schweizer, who finished fifth in Semenya's heat, said “it’s pretty inspiring that she’s making most of her effort and she’s still out here competing at a world level.”
“She’s in obviously a different situation,” Schweizer said. “She can’t control that. She has to move up to a different event and the 5K is a tough event. We just have to look it as that regard — that she’s at a world-level in a 5K.”
Semenya's case is the most recognizable of a handful of instances involving intersex and transgender athletes in sports.
Semenya is not transgender, but her case carries strong implications for how transgender athletes are treated and classified. Semenya has never publicly identified herself as intersex or having the intersex condition called 46,XY difference in sex development (DSD). But she essentially acknowledged having the condition when she appealed the World Athletics rules.
World Athletics President Sebastian Coe, who has hinted that the rules could be updated later this year, but probably not in a way that would restore Semenya's eligibility in the 800, said science regarding the effects of testosterone on athletes has guided all World Athletics’ decisions.
“The issue for me is very simple,” Coe said in an interview the day before Semenya’s race. “Of course, I recognize that both with DSD and with transgender, these are societal issues. I don’t have the luxury, however, of being intimately involved in that debate. My responsibility is to protect the integrity of women’s sport.”
Semenya has been an outspoken critic of the rules, most recently saying through her lawyer that they are “an affront to the spirit of the sport.”
Two Namibian 200-meter runners, Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi, have a condition similar to that of Semenya, but because their races do not fall under the restrictions, they are eligible. Coe said the distance restrictions, like all else in the regulations, “are not carved in stone.”
Mboma missed worlds with an injury, while Masilingi failed to make it through Tuesday night's semifinals. Another runner, Francine Niyonsaba, successfully moved from the 800, where she won a silver medal at the Rio Games, to the 5,000 and 10,000. She finished fifth in Tokyo in the 10K, but is out of worlds due to injury.
“Our whole approach has been about finding a navigable solution through this,” Coe said. “I didn’t come into the sport to stop people competing, I came into the sport to find a reason to allow them to compete.”
Semenya did just that.
She hung in the middle of the lead pack of the 18-woman race for about three laps, then things started stringing out. Halfway through the 5,000 meters, she had fallen to 13th — racing in a group of three runners some 80 meters behind the lead group. With about three laps to go, Semenya was in a familiar place — running all alone on the track — but she was in 13th.
There were no runners within 50 meters of her on either side when she crossed the finish line to a notable burst of applause, same as she received when she was introduced at the starting line.
While most of the runners collapsed to the track at the end, Semenya paced around, breathing heavily, with her hands on her hips.
She high-fived a few of the runners, grabbed a wet towel to put on the back of her neck, then dug around in a cooler for something to drink before heading up a set of stairs that lead away from the track.
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