South African runner Caster Semenya celebrates taking silver in the women's 800 metres final at the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) World Championships in 2011.
Credit: Mark Ralston

Country: South Africa
Age: 21
Height: 5’ 7’’
Weight: 140 lbs.
Event: 800 meters, 1500 meters

Why you know her:

This will be Caster Semenya’s first Olympics, but not her first time in the international spotlight. Semenya broke out into the world running stage at the 2009 World Track and Field Championships in Berlin when she won the 800 meter run with a time of 1:55.45. That 3:51 mile pace was fast enough to cross the finish line 2.45 seconds ahead of second place and defending champion Janeth Jepkosgei.

Before her World Championship victory, the then 18-year-old was relatively unknown. She had only broken 2 minutes once before, in the 800 at the African Junior Championships earlier in 2009. Before that, her fastest time was 2:04.23 from the year before at the Commonwealth Youth Games in Pune, India.

Such dramatic improvement is practically unheard of for young female runners, which along with her masculine features, sparked questions about her gender. Three hours before winning the World Championships, the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) filed an investigation of her gender status. Due to her muscular body and deep voice, Semenya has heard the gender comments her whole life, reports the Los Angeles Times, but the international exposure caused uproar from her family and even the ruling political party in South Africa, the African National Congress.

After an 11-month suspension during which extensive and invasive medical tests were conducted and reviewed, she has been cleared to return to the track.

Why we're watching:

Semenya suffered a series of other setbacks, such as a back injury that caused her to miss the Commonwealth Games and a falling out with her coach. Semenya qualified for the London 2012 Olympics in April at a provincial meet, running a time of 1:59.58. That came as a relief after she failed to break 2 minutes during her first two races this year (the qualifying mark of 1:59.9 must be run at least twice in order to qualify).

At the 51st Ostrava Golden Spike held in May of this year, Semenya lost the 800 meters by 2.20 seconds to rival Pamela Jelimo from Kenya. Semenya is still favored to win gold at the Olympics and could even break the world record — currently a blistering 1:53.28 set in 1983 by Czech runner Jarmila Kratchvilova. But she will have to go up against Pamela Jelimo once again, along with other tough competition.

Hoping to put the gender scandal behind her, Semenya has set her sights on Olympic gold and says she will dedicate her achievement to Nelson Mandela, the hero of South Africa.


When asked about her coach’s expectations that she could break the world record, she responded: “It is about the hard work actually, you cannot just say it, you know, you have to work hard, you have to dedicate yourself ... discipline, concentration, counts, so yeah she might say it, but it’s up to me, if I train hard, you know, mentally strong, yeah then it will come out.”

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