National Columnist

Unique sensation Semenya tested most by doubters


Someday soon, Caster Semenya could become the fastest half-miler of all time. I'm positive she's fast enough.

I hope she's tough enough.

Because some of us won't be classy enough.

Caster Semenya again showed how much she overmatches women competitors Sunday in Berlin. (US Presswire)  
Caster Semenya again showed how much she overmatches women competitors Sunday in Berlin. (US Presswire)  
You remember Semenya, right? She's the woman who made headlines a year ago because people weren't sure she was a woman. She won the 800 meters at the 2009 World Championships in 1 minute, 55.45 seconds, the fastest time of the year. It was one of the fastest times ever, just two seconds off the world record, and she did it at age 18 -- nearly a decade before most half-milers hit their prime.

And she didn't do it pretty.

Don't look at me like that. I'm not calling her ugly. I'm saying the world called her ugly. The world decided she wasn't feminine enough to be female, so she was subjected to cruel inspection. Medical people ran tests. Journalism people ran stories. Beaten runners cried foul.

"For me," said half-miler Elisa Cusma Piccione of Italy, "she's a man."

That was last year. But it's happening again this year. It started up Sunday, when Semenya won the World Challenge in Berlin in 1:59.90 -- a remarkable time for anyone, but just a starting point for Semenya. She hadn't been eligible to run for 11 months while track officials verified her gender, and this was just her third race since being cleared last month. Breaking the 2-minute barrier so soon, and winning this race so handily, drew attention. Not all of it was the good kind.

Canada's Diane Cummins, who finished eighth Sunday, wondered aloud to The (London) Daily Telegraph, "Basically, is she man? Is she lady?"

It'll only get worse. Hell, it already did get worse. Cummins went on to note that, "Even if she is female, she's on the very fringe ..."

Even if she is female ...

Cummins concluded like so: "Most of us just feel that we are literally running against a man."

I read those comments, and I fear for Semenya. Literally I'm scared for her, for her mental health, because what she is going through is beyond bullying. It's inhuman, abject cruelty. She's 19, for god's sake. She has broken no rules. All that testing she underwent included a thorough search for performance-enhancing drugs. Those tests came up negative. She's not a cheater. She's not a man, either.

What she is, apparently, is a woman with certain biological markers that are unusual for a woman. Don't expect me to make sense of the science here, because it's way over my head. All I know is this: Doctors tested her, her blood and her tissue for nearly a year, and they concluded that she's woman. Writing that sentence makes me cringe.

Imagine the sentences still to be written. Or worse, spoken.

If the crowd this weekend in Berlin was an accurate indicator, track fans are rooting for Semenya. Her introduction "was greeted by the loudest cheer of the day," according to The Daily Telegraph, but then came the race, and the interviews afterward. You've heard from Cummins, but she wasn't the only one. She was the most blunt one, yes, but cruelty comes in subtle forms. Like this, from Britain's Jemma Simpson, who finished fourth on Sunday:

"It's obviously a human rights issue, but human rights affect everyone in the race, not just one person," Simpson told The Daily Telegraph. "The rest of the field just gets ignored. ... You're not going to say in the media what you feel deep down."

And what do they feel deep down? They feel fear. Semenya is going to dominate the women's 800 like Usain Bolt dominates the men's 100. At 6-foot-5, Bolt has the fast feet of a typical sprinter but the stride of a man nearly a half-foot taller. He has his own unique physiology.

And Semenya has hers.

"There are guys who can challenge Usain Bolt, but nobody can challenge Caster Semenya," Cummins said. "She is four or five seconds better than any of us, and that's incredible."

Some day she will own the world record. It's a matter of time, as are the 2012 Olympics. They're approaching, and they'll be in London -- where tabloids are not known for their restraint. The headlines will be awful. The stories will be painful.

Caster Semenya will be 21.

I hope she makes it happily to 22. I really do.

Gregg Doyel is a columnist for He covered the ACC for the Charlotte Observer, the Marlins for the Miami Herald, and Brooksville (Fla.) Hernando for the Tampa Tribune. He was 4-0 (3 KO's!) as an amateur boxer, and volunteers for the ALS Association. Follow Gregg Doyel on Twitter.

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