Olympic and world 800m champion Caster Semenya raced a 5,000m on Friday at a race in her home country of South Africa, and while her 15:32.15 run was a 20-second PB, it was still well off the Olympic standard of 15:10.00. A 2019 World Athletics ruling bars Semenya, who is an athlete with DSD (differences of sexual development), from competing in races from the 400m up to the mile, so she has set her sights on the 5,000m for the upcoming Tokyo Games.
Since the WA ruling blocked Semenya and other DSD athletes (who have higher-than-normal levels of testosterone) from competing in anything from the 400m to the mile, it gave her a couple of options: drop down to sprint races or jump up to longer runs. A third option offered by WA was for DSD athletes to take medications to lower their testosterone, but Semenya refused to do so.
At first, Semenya dabbled in sprints, and in 2020, she got her 200m PB down to 23.49 seconds. This was still well off the Olympic 200m standard of 22.80, though, and Semenya shifted gears once more, this time jumping up to the 5,000m (which is the next-shortest race available to her and other DSD athletes in the Olympic program). She has raced the 5,000m three times in 2021, improving with each run.
First, she ran 16:14.43 in March, finishing more than a minute off Olympic standard. A few weeks later, she broke 16 minutes for the first time in her career, posting a huge PB of 15:52.28. Unfortunately for Semenya, despite the big step toward Olympic standard, this time was still 42 seconds slower than she needed to run. On Friday, she got closer to standard, but she still sits well away from 15:10.00. The Olympic qualifying window closes at the end of June.
One piece of good news for Semenya is the fact that only one South African woman has hit Olympic standard during this current qualifying period. Dominique Scott ran 14:59.08 at a race in the U.K. in July 2019, which gives her by far the best result among South African women since the qualifying window opened in May of that same year.
Unofficial time of 15:32.15 for Caster Semenya during a 5000m race at the Newton Classic Qualifier in KZN. It's her personal best time, but not yet good enough to qualify for #Tokyo2020
— Percivale Young (@Percyoung) May 28, 2021
This is good for Semenya because it means she doesn’t have to compete with other South African Olympic hopefuls. Each country can only send three men and three women per event to the Olympics, and if three South African women had already hit standard, it would likely mean that Semenya would have to not only run under 15:10.00, but also beat the slowest of those athletes.
Semenya is not the only DSD athlete looking to make the Tokyo Games in the 5,000m — Burundi’s Francine Niyonsaba has also made the jump up in distance. Niyonsaba won silver behind Semenya in the 800m at the Rio Olympics in 2016 and the 2017 world championships. While Semenya was the stronger of the two in the 800m, it looks like Niyonsaba is better at the 5,000m, as she recently ran a Burundian national record of 15:12.08. This time won’t get her into the Olympics, but seeing as she’s just two seconds off standard, she appears to have a much better shot at making it to Tokyo than Semenya does.