Caster dodging Budd’s shadow

By SAPA Time of article published Jul 7, 2012

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Nearly three decades after that fateful crash in the Los Angeles Olympic final – along the roller coaster ride that was Zola Budd's career – another young South African has the chance to replace unwanted baggage with a gold medal.

While they have shared similar troubles, Caster Semenya will look to evade the shadow of her veteran compatriot when she toes the line in London next month.

Like Budd, Semenya was from an isolated area – the former from Bloemfontein, at the southern tip of the highveld, and the latter from rural Limpopo.

And like Budd, Semenya's maiden venture beyond SA borders resulted in a time of turmoil that she would rather forget.

Thrust into infamy as teenagers, both found solace on the track, turning their focus on training and soaking in the solitude of the distance runner.

Budd shied off from the critical response in her adopted country as she focussed her attention on the track.

In much the same way, Semenya shut herself out from a battle between medical experts and simply focussed on her training.

While Budd had a chance to get the British public on her side at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, she went on to establish her infamy in the 3 000m final, and she retreated further away from a relentless, unforgiving public.

Semenya, given a similar opportunity to earn acceptance from the global public, hopes her Olympic debut will finally put all the issues of the past three years to bed.

“My plan is to win gold (in London), maybe to get to the podium,” Semenya told reporters after she qualified for the Games in Pretoria in April.

Her time in the capital city that day – 1:59.58 – was historic.

Semenya became the first woman in 21 years to dip under two minutes on SA soil.

She has set other records in a flourishing career, including a national senior best of 1:55.45 to win the 2009 world 800m title just hours after it was revealed that her gender was under question.

Perhaps most significant of all her performances was the mark she set when she won the 2009 African junior title in Bambous, Mauritius, where she clocked 1:56.72.

Semenya smashed the 25-year-old national junior record of 2:00.90 set by Budd in Kroonstad in March 1984.

Five months after she set that mark, Budd, just 18, was booed around the Los Angeles track.

And while she twice won gold at the World Cross Country Championships, and broke the world 5 000m record, Budd never really recovered from that collision with Mary Decker.

Weeks after she stormed to gold in Bambous, Semenya, also 18, became a household name as she experienced an emotional crash of her own after the Berlin World Championships.

Nearly three decades after her troubles were compounded on the Los Angeles track, Budd has opened up again to the public and media, but it took a long time.

Three years after the Berlin debacle that smothered the teenage Semenya, she has already warmed up, relatively at least, and the 21-year-old is becoming comfortable in her public approach.

Semenya has been less erratic this season, and under new coach Maria Mutola she seems more confident in her ability and more self-assured in her demeanour.

After failing twice in attempts to qualify for the Olympics in the SA domestic season, Semenya kept a level head before dipping under the required standard in Pretoria.

“I don't feel pressure,” she said at the time. “I just have to do my thing. I train hard.

“I know what I am capable of so I don't need to stress.”

Offering perhaps South Africa's best chance for a gold medal in the English capital, if Semenya delivers her trademark shoulder-swipe at the end of the 800m final, she'll be brushing off more than just the challenge offered by her opponents.

She'll be shaking off three years of infamy and starting afresh – a chance Budd never really got. – Sapa

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