Caster Semenya celebrates victory in the women’s 800m final at the Rio Olympics. Photo: Mike Egerton/PA Wire
JOHANNESBURG - After an unbeaten 2016 in which she became Olympic champion, Caster Semenya will face a fresh assault on her vice-like grip in the women’s 800m when she opens her international season at the Doha Diamond League meeting on Friday.

Semenya could not have asked for a tougher start to her international campaign facing Olympic 800m silver medallist Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi and third-placed Margaret Wambui of Kenya.

Adding to the allure of the contest, Ethiopian distance ace Genzebe Dibaba has also entered the fray as she looks to add the two-lap race to her repertoire.

Making her Diamond League debut in the 800m, Dibaba, who is the reigning World Champion and Rio 2016 Olympic silver medallist in the 1500m will have a baptism of fire against Semenya.

After taking an extended break, Semenya is perhaps at her most vulnerable and can expect a strong challenge to her supremacy of the last year.

Semenya is one of only two athletes in the field that have raced over the 800m so far this season and it will be difficult to gauge the form of the rest of the line-up.

The national record-holder posted a season’s best of two minutes, 00.99 seconds (2:00.99) at last weekend’s South African University Championships after a busy week of racing.

Coach Jean Verster said the race would serve as some sort of test for his charge as she is still in the early stages of her season: “You have to kick it off and see where you are. It has been a bit difficult over the last few weeks where she missed training due to sponsorship commitments,” Verster said.

“She is slowly but surely regaining her fitness and getting stronger, the South African Championships and University Champs were good to get race fitness.

Photo: Roger Sedres, BackpagePix

“This year she has not raced nearly as much as she did last year so it will be some sort of a stepping stone for her.”

Verster said it would be interesting to see where Semenya’s form is compared to her nearest rivals but there was no pressure due to a long season ahead.

Although Semenya has not yet posted a world qualifying time this season, she has a wild-card entry thanks to her African title victories last year.

“There is still a lot of training to be done, and it is also a low-key season for her where she does not have to prove anything,” Verster said.

“She just wants to enjoy it and she may race over other distances later in the year. Maybe a few 400 metres abroad.

“The idea is that she goes out to be competitive.”

Photo: Mike Egerton, PA

Meanwhile, South Africa’s two top male 400m hurdlers LJ van Zyl and Cornel Fredericks will also open their international seasons in Doha along with national 100m record-holder Akani Simbine.

Fredericks and Van Zyl will be looking to dip below the tough qualifying standard of 48.50secs as soon as possible.

Van Zyl goes into the race with a season’s best 49.29secs while Fredericks clocked 49.27secs last month.


The Star

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