EXCLUSIVE: 'The Caster I have got to know over the past 10 years'
Athletics / 15 November 2019, 12:30pm / Ockert de Villers
In the basement of a Lausanne hotel, a relaxed Caster Semenya irons her shirt while in conversation with her long-time lawyer, Greg Nott.
The conversation shifts between the serious and the mundane as they prepare for the next instalment of a battle that has been raging since 2009. Semenya and Nott have been “partners in crime” for a decade, and they continue to be the fly in the ointment of the mighty IAAF.
Perched on a hill in Lausanne, their hotel is small and inexpensive compared to the luxurious accommodation where the top dollar will buy you breathtaking views of Lake Geneva.
When your legal team argues your case pro bono, you cannot justify or afford to stay in a fancy hotel in one of the most expensive cities in the world.
It's been 10 years since Nott took on the David-versus-Goliath fight against the IAAF and Nott is still in awe of Semenya’s doggedness amidst a career-ending threat.
Nott remembers how Semenya went about her business on the eve of their appeal to the IAAF’s female eligibility rules before the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Lausanne in February.
“She was preparing and doing her work quite easily, quite neatly, quite assured and no nervousness like a runner preparing for a track meet,” Nott says.
Nott strikes me as unassuming. The high-power lawyer exudes warmth during the interview at Norton Rose Fulbright’s Sandton office in early October.
It is hard to imagine Nott is the same person who has beaten the IAAF twice - first in Oscar Pistorius’ successful appeal to compete against able-bodied athletes in 2008 and again after they banned Semenya for the first time.
Nott gets triggered by injustices, and when it emerged that Semenya had been subjected to a gender verification process and declared ineligible to compete, his senses went haywire.
“I was watching the (2009) Berlin (world) championships with my youngest son Thomas at the time, and he is now 19, he was then 10. We were screaming, ‘Go, Caster, go!’,” Nott recalls.
“Then all hell broke loose with the banning and the revelations in the Australian press. I went for a walk with my dogs in Delta Park, and I said, ‘Flip this! You can’t bully, this is bullsh*t! I phoned my friend Brian Currin, who used to head Lawyers for Human Rights and asked him if this wasn’t something we should be doing.”
Buoyed by the Pistorius victory and with the support of Nott’s firm, they offered to fight Semenya’s case on a pro bono basis.
Nott assembled a team that would challenge a ban which required intense negotiations and international meetings with IAAF representatives.
Semenya was finally allowed to compete after an 11-month ban, representing a major victory for not only the duo but everybody in their team.
But it was hardly the end of the sorry saga with the IAAF’s shadow following Semenya like the Grim Reaper, waiting to drop the guillotine.
The IAAF had played police over Semenya’s body between 2010 and 2015 before the original regulations were suspended following a challenge by Indian sprinter Dutee Chand.
The suspension served as a temporary reprieve for Semenya and other female athletes with naturally elevated testosterone levels.
That was until the IAAF Council approved the implementation of its latest regulations in March 2018, which triggered Semenya and Nott’s challenge before the CAS.
The decade-long battle against the monolithic IAAF has fostered a close relationship between Semenya and Nott. It has turned into a family affair, making it a personal fight.
“I’ve known Caster for a long time, and to be quite frank, I’ve grown to love Caster,” Nott says.
“It is a family thing because my boys love Caster, my wife, and with Violet (Raseboya, Semenya’s partner) we shared their nuptials. At that moment, I also saw a very loving and caring Caster, a person committed to a relationship.
“We are inseparables, and there is a nice sense of trust, and when you gain her trust, it is a big step because she is wary and rightfully so.”
While Semenya seemed vulnerable and overwhelmed by the media attention on her return from the Berlin 2009 championships, Nott recognised her fighting spirit early on in the process.
Semenya served as a pawn to unscrupulous politicians and support for the teenager thrust into the global spotlight was hard to find.
Showing maturity that belied her years, Semenya’s indomitable will ultimately convinced Nott they could make the giant fall.
“To go back to the beginning, although she was a quiet person, she was also a very adamant person,” Nott says.
“We drove away from the HPC (Tuks High-Performance Centre) where we had met in Toby’s (Sutcliffe) office, and I said, ‘we can do this case!’.
“Caster was absolutely focused where she said she wanted the following medals. Even at that age, at 18, 19, I remember her saying, ‘I want these five medals’.
“I can’t remember which specific ones they were; I wish I could because it would make a good story, and I am sure she has accomplished those.
“Sure enough, she has gone about her business terribly focused.”
Semenya’s single-minded focus has served her well over the last 10 years, winning three world titles and two Olympic gold medals in her pet 800m event.
The latest IAAF ban has left Semenya’s career in limbo with the track phenomenon awaiting the outcome of an appeal before the Swiss Supreme Court which is expected in early 2020.
While Semenya is left frustrated and unable to compete at this year’s IAAF World Championships in Doha, she remains resolute in challenging the regulations.
Nott and Semenya make a formidable team as they feed off each other’s strengths in a fight that may seem impossible to win.
“The one thing she really is, is wise for a person of her age. Sometimes she tells me lessons, not to worry because this will happen, not to worry because this is meant to be,” Nott says.
“Where there is flagrant unfairness as she perceives this to be now, this chasing her down by the IAAF, she gets really riled up and angry. She does see herself in the role of taking on the unfairness.”