PARIS, France - Shockwaves reverberated through the Stade Charlety as Caster Semenya produced one of the most impressive and brave performances of her illustrious career to clock the fourth fastest 800-metre finish of all-time at the Paris Diamond League on Saturday night.
It was one of the best track and field meetings thanks to a host of record-breaking performances, but Semenya’s brave run would dominate conversations at the breakfast tables at the athletes’ hotel the next day. Semenya burnt up the track in the second-last track event of the night, scorching home in 1:54.25 to chop almost a second off her previous South African record.
She stopped the clock just 0.24s short of Kenyan Pamela Jelimo’s continental record and edged ever so close to Czech athlete Jarmila Kratochvilova’s world record of 1:53.28 from 1983. The South African adopted a tactic she has never employed at a major international event before.
The build-up to the race suggested Semenya and her coach Samuel Sepeng were concocting something special for the Parisian spectators. They both suggested before the race that she would be going after a sub-1:55 time which could double up as a dress rehearsal for bigger things to come.
“When I am on the 700-metre mark and I am on 1:44 I just need to keep the rhythm until the finish line, then it would be a good time. So it was just fantastic,” Semenya said after the race. “We didn’t request a pacemaker to see how fast we can go without one, it was a wise decision because running 1:54 is not a joke.”
In their final session on Friday before the race, the duo practised a few sprint sessions coming out of the final few metres of the bend and into the straights. They also did not request a pacemaker as they have proven to be a hindrance instead of aiding her in posting fast times.
Sepeng has for long toyed with the idea that Semenya should use a different tactic rather than delaying her kick for the final 200 metres. Instead, he wanted her to follow Kenyan men’s 800m world record holder David Rudisha’s tactic by attacking with 300 metres to go, open a big enough gap between herself and the rest of the field and go full throttle over the final straight.
“The coach decided I needed to try something new, if you can run from 300 metres you can run a better time and I told him ‘when I am ready, when I am ready’. I don’t want to be rushed but today Saturday) was a perfect day for us and we executed on the 300 metres and we have done well.”
Semenya led the race from start to finish going through the bell in an impressive 56.12 seconds with Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi hanging on her coat-tails. Before the race, Niyonsaba jokingly asked Semenya not to take it out too fast but the South African had other plans. Niyonsaba clocked a season’s best of 1:55.86 with American Ajee Wilson finishing third in 1:57.05.
While Semenya claims the Berlin track where she won her first world crown as a teenager as the metaphorical birthplace of her track career, Paris should hold a special place in her heart. After the race, she went on a full victory lap saluting her ‘people’, not just the ones at the Southern tip of Africa but the entire continent.
“I am just a human and if you want to be an inspiration to the world and to the youth, you cannot focus on negative things. With the help of God, you can do big things,” Semenya said. “I know it is the fourth-best time in the world so I am trying to enjoy each and every race that I run and see what we can do. This season is about trying good things, new challenges and to see what you are capable of.”
Lining up in the final race of the night, South African 100m record holder Akani Simbine watched with pride as his friend acknowledged the spectators. “I saw her doing a victory lap and as I was walking to the start I saw her running and I was thinking 'Caster is such a big inspiration, she is amazing',” Simbine said. “She exceeds all expectations, she is a great lady and a great friend.”
Semenya’s next stop is the Lausanne Diamond League meeting on Thursday where Ethiopian Genzebe Dibaba’s 1 500m world record of 3:50.07 may come under threat.
Ockert de Villiers is attending the Paris Diamond League courtesy of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF)
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