IT WAS at a low-key meeting in the Finnish town of Lappeenranta two years ago that Caster Semenya set out her vision for London 2012.
The South African athlete was competing in her first race after an 11-month gender investigation that had threatened to end her running career no sooner than it had begun, but her ordeal had not dimmed her ambitions.
Describing her return as a “new beginning”, she said: “I want to win the Olympics and break the world record.”
The second part of Semenya’s mission statement is unlikely to be fulfilled – Jarmilla Kratochvilova’s mark of 1min 53.28sec has not been remotely threatened in the 28 years since she set it – but the Olympic 800 metres crown is definitely within her reach.
In her semi-final on Thursday evening, her powerful kick from 250 metres out was a flashback to her runaway victory at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin, and her winning time of 1-57.67, a season’s best by more than 1½ seconds, was the quickest of all the eight qualifiers.
All roads appear to be leading to what would be an extraordinary ending to a saga that threatened to tear the sport apart three years ago when the International Association of Athletics Federations questioned her femininity and ordered her to undergo a gender test.
Even when she was finally cleared to return to women’s competition, beginning with that meeting in Finland, she still struggled for acceptance by her peers.
At a meeting in Berlin a couple of months later, where Semenya won easily against a high-class field, Canadian runner Diane Cummins said: Is she man, is she lady? What constitutes male, what constitutes female?
“Even if she is a female, she’s on the very fringe of the normal athlete female biological composition from what I understand of hormone testing. So, from that perspective, most of us just feel that we are literally running against a man.”
The furore over her ambiguous gender has subsided over the last couple of years to the extent that her selection as the South Africa flag-bearer for the Opening Ceremony raised barely a flicker of media interest.
It is partly because she has enjoyed none of the dominance that she had when she won her world title in 2009, and so her presence is no longer so controversial.
Even when she did revive memories of her old form when she ran 1-56.53sec in the final at last year’s worlds in Daegu, she was still beaten into second place by Russia’s Mariya Savinova – one of her key rivals in Saturday’s final.
In fact, her performances have been so inconsistent over the past two seasons that theories have circulated about how she could have been trying not to appear too dominant so as to avoid further scrutiny from the IAAF.
Another theory is that her form has been skewed by feminising hormones that she has been required to take as a condition of her return to women’s competition. She has always refused to answer questions about whether she is receiving ongoing treatment for an inter-sex condition.
The inconsistency has continued right up to the Games, which she arrived at with only the 21st quickest time of the season, but the manner of her victory on Thursday suggests she will be in the mix for gold.
Savinova will be a big threat, while Kenya’s defending Olympic champion, Pamela Jelimo, is the fastest woman in the world this year, but Semenya is cutting a confident figure.
“I’ve done enough in training and it is just a matter of time, pump with the legs, just run,” she said.
The moment she dreamed about in her darkest days has finally arrived.-www.telegraph.co.uk