at the Union Buildings in Pretoria
Maria Mutola just grinned after Caster Semenya had galloped her way into tonight’s Olympic 800 metres final as the fastest runner.
Mutola would not say anything deeper than, “no comment”, but that smile said it all. It was an “I told you so” expression.
The 21-year-old from Limpopo had made a statement of intent so strident and strong that it had left the rest of the field a little stirred, if not shaken.
Semenya and Mutola seem the perfect combination. Mutola is the perfect coach for Semenya. Semenya is the perfect runner for Mutola.
The Maputo Express has won and lost Olympic races. She’s a three-time 800m world champion and a double Commonwealth Games winner. She competed in her first Olympics when she was 15 in 1988, and ended in 2008, when she finished fifth.
Under Mutola, Semenya has honed and matured her race tactics. At the World Championships in Berlin in 2009, she was a front-runner from the gun. At the World Championships in 2011, she had learnt that races are won in the head as much as with the body. “Maria has been my idol since I started to run,” said Semenya last year.
“After Daegu, I asked Maria if she was interested in coaching me. Her answer was positive and I am very happy now. Maria has had a long and super successful career. She will be a great teacher for me.”
In her heat on Wednesday, she sat at the front of a bunch chasing the charging Alysia Johnson Montano of the United States, who had gone hard from the start. She controlled the pack quite beautifully, leading them on the chase before putting in a kick in the final 200m to haul Johnson Montano in and qualify for the semifinals on Thursday night.
If she had been impressive in the heats, she was even more so in the semifinals. She eased into fifth spot, running off the shoulder of the leaders, watching and assessing. It was a quick first lap and when they hit the final 250m, she was imperious. She ran a time of one minute and 57.67 seconds, but the manner of it was what impressed. She started strongly, settled in fifth place as the field went through 400m and then kicked with 250m left.
Russian Elena Arzhakova was second fastest at 1:58.13 while Kenya’s Janeth Kepkosgei Busienei was third in 1:58.26. Defending Olympic champion Pamela Jelimo was slower, much slower, in 1:59.42.
“I think she (Mutola) will be very happy,” said Semenya. “The time I ran makes me very confident. It’s about running your own race, you have to think of yourself and about yourself. You have to run a good time to get into the final and that’s what I did.
“Sometimes, if you want to run a good race, you have to forget about everybody, just think about your own race because it can disturb you. You have to think about yourself. What matters is when you cross the line. I was a bit nervous but this crowd makes me feel at home and reminds me of good memories.
“It’s about putting on the spikes and just running.”
Semenya will also be running for more than just the chance of winning South Africa’s sixth medal when she leads the 800m off at the Olympic Stadium tonight.
She will be running to help South Africa finish as the top nation in Africa at the 30th Olympic Games. They are ahead of Kenya right now. A win by Semenya would help keep them there and, you would think, would bring more than a “no comment” from Mutola.