2016 Olympic Women’s 800 Preview: Like It Or Not, Caster Semenya Is Going to Crush Everyone In Rio

by LetsRun.com
August 17, 2016

A year ago, when the Court for Arbitration of Sport suspended the IAAF’s hyperandrogenism policy, we criticized the decision and wondered whether South Africa’s Caster Semenya, the world’s most famous hyperandrogenous athlete, was the favorite for 2016 Olympic gold in the women’s 800 meters. Twelve months later, much of what we predicted has come to fruition: after finishing dead last in her semifinal heat at last year’s World Championships, Semenya is even more dominant that when she burst onto the scene with a world title in Berlin in 2009. The 25-year-old has destroyed every field she’s faced this year with comical ease and should do so again in the final in Rio.

Race Times
Prelims: Wednesday, August 17, 9:55 a.m. ET
Semis: Thursday, August 18, 8:15 p.m. ET
Final: Saturday, August 20, 8:15 p.m. ET
2015 Worlds results
1. Maryna Arzamasova, Belarus 1:58.03
2. Melissa Bishop, Canada 1:58.12
3. Eunice Sum, Kenya 1:58.18
4. Rababe Arafi, Morocco 1:58.90
5. Shelayna Oskan-Clarke, Great Britain 1:58.99

2016’s Fastest performers (among women entered)
1. Caster Semenya, South Africa 1:55.33
2. Francine Niyonsaba, Burundi 1:56.24
3. Melissa Bishop, Canada 1:57.43
4. Eunice Sum, Kenya 1:57.47
5. Margaret Wambui, Kenya 1:57.52

Will Semenya Go For the World Record?

The identity of the gold medallist is not in doubt. Aside from a 400-meter defeat on March 5, Semenya has not lost in 2016, including four easy Diamond League wins in Doha (1:58.26), Rabat (1:56.64), Rome (1:56.64) and Monaco (1:55.33). When Semenya has had someone to push her, like Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi, she’s responded by running 1:56 or 1:55. When she’s facing slower competition, she’s content to sit and kick, leading to a result like Doha, where she ran perhaps the fastest final 100m of an 800 in history. She can win any style of race and is leaving 1:56 women like Niyonsaba in the dust. There’s no strategy to employ, no way to out-think Semenya; the talent gap is simply too wide. She’s unbeatable.

The primary drama in this race surrounds the clock. Semenya has looked capable of breaking the oldest track & field world record on the books, Jarmila Kratochvílová‘s 1:53.28 from 1983, throughout the Diamond League season, but in every race save Monaco, she’s run conservatively until the final 150 meters. And even in Monaco, where Semenya ran 1:55.33 (the fastest time in the world since 2008), her 200 splits (26-30-31-28) were not what you would draw up for someone looking to run as fast as possible. If Semenya goes out in 54 or 55 in Rio and keeps pushing during the third 200, 1:52 or faster is a real possibility. 

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Will Semenya go after that mark in Rio? The popular sentiment is that Semenya, with nothing else to peak for, will go all-out and break the world record. Her coach, Jean Verster, told The Guardian that he believes Semenya is in world-record shape, but didn’t offer an opinion as to whether she would go for it in the final.

“Of course I believe Caster can do it. But our main goal is to win gold,” Verster said.

Really, the only person who can stop Semenya from making history is Semenya. After her dominant win in Berlin, Semenya took silver at the next two global championships. At the first, she was powering to the win on the homestretch until Russia’s Mariya Savinova (now exposed as a drug cheat) moved by her late in the race. Semenya did not put up a fight and settled for silver. At the time, that result provoked questions about whether Semenya lost on purpose to avoid the media attention (a significant portion of it tasteless and unfair) that accompanied her world title two years earlier. We didn’t buy it, pointing to South African sports scientist Ross Tucker‘s article on the race. Here’s an excerpt of what he wrote:

There are far better ways to win a silver medal, lose a race and divert attention of[f] yourself than what Semenya did today. If she was deliberately trying NOT to win, then it would be far easier to come through late, especially in a race like today’s where early pace is fast and the gaps are large. Would a late charge from sixth to second (possible if you watch the race) not divert attention more than a fade into silver? But instead, Semenya attacked the race with 250m to go, assumed the lead, ran in front for the world to see, and looked to be going away before losing gold. That’s a sure way to attract attention, not to deflect it

The next year, however, Semenya competed at the Olympics, which bring far more eyes than the World Championships. And what did she do there? She put in a late charge to move from sixth to second in the final 100 meters. She did exactly what Tucker said she would do if she were looking to divert attention away from herself. No one can say with certainty whether Semenya was dogging it in Daegu or London. Some runners always manage to look relaxed when they run (think Matthew Centrowitz) — Semenya might be one of them. But even if she was slowing down on purpose (and again, there’s no proof), we expect her to run for gold in Rio as the rules are on her side. Semenya is allowed to compete without treatment, and though the media scrutiny can’t be enjoyable for her, she is used to it at this point.

By this logic, it also makes sense for Semenya to go for the world record. If she’s already going to be in the spotlight for winning gold, why not add a world record on top of it, especially when it’s an open secret that Semenya can run much faster than 1:55? The only problem is if she runs something insane like 1:49. If that happens, not only will Semenya draw more attention to herself, but she’ll also be hammering home the point about how it’s unfair for her to compete against women who don’t benefit from excess testosterone. Running 1:49 (which is unlikely, but not inconceivable) would essentially end Semenya’s career as CAS would be forced to accept that her testosterone gives her an advantage. Of course, that should already be clear to anyone who’s watched Semenya run this year, but it’s far more likely that Semenya will be able to continue to compete if she won Olympic gold in 1:52 than 1:49.

Other Medal Threats

Semenya is the face of hyperandrogenism in the women’s 800, but chances are, she is not the only woman in this field with the condition (and if you’ve been following the event this season, you know who we’re talking about). But again, as long as the testosterone in these women’s systems is natural, it doesn’t matter how high their levels are. With that caveat, a look at the other medal contenders…

Francine Niyonsaba is the favorite for silver, as she’s undefeated against women not named Semenya. Niyonsaba, who ran 1:56 at age 19 in 2012, did not race at all in 2014 and was in horrible form in early 2015 but improved markedly late last year (her SB was 2:07.9 until September, when she ran 1:59 and 1:57) and kept rolling into 2016, winning World Indoors in March and routinely running in the 1:56-1:57 range (she set her pb of 1:56.24 in Monaco on July 15). If it weren’t for Semenya, Niyonsaba would be the heavy gold medal favorite as only one woman — Lynsey Sharp in Rome — has finished within one second of her in a Diamond League race. And even then, Sharp was .83 back — a lot in an 800.

Margaret Wambui of Kenya was actually only .40 back of Niyonsaba in Monaco, running 1:56.64, but Wambui was later DQ’d for cutting in early. But Wambui, the 2014 World Junior champ and 2016 World Indoor bronze medallist, is the favorite for bronze after her big 1:57.52 pb in France in June and her demolition of 2013 world champ/2015 world bronze medallist Eunice Sum at the Kenyan Trials.

To summarize: Semenya is undefeated outdoors in 2016 at 800 meters, as is Wambui (not counting the DQ). Niyonsaba’s only losses are to Semenya. All three women have shown 1:56 fitness, and since the start of 2009, there are only five women who have run 1:56: Semenya, Savinova (doper), Niyonsaba, Pamela Jelimo and Eunice Sum (who barely qualifies at 1:56.99). Normally the 800 is one of the most unpredictable races in running, but in this case, there’s a clear top three in place.

While Semenya is a lock for gold, Niyonsaba and Wambui could be beaten in the right circumstances. In Niyonsaba’s last race in Hungary on July 18, she ran 1:59.84, only .15 ahead of Molly Ludlow. Niyonsaba has been a cut above everyone else on the circuit this year (save Semenya) but she hasn’t been holding off or playing sit and kick like Semenya. That means that her 1:56 sb is a fairly accurate gauge of her ability. 1:56.24 is still a ridiculous time — only Semenya and Savinova have run faster since the start of ’09 — but if Niyonsaba is a little off in Rio, say 1:56 high or 1:57, she could be beaten if someone like Sum or Melissa Bishop runs a great race. The same thing could happen to Wambui. Of course, both women could just as easily run their best race of the year and unleash a 1:55, in which case no one else can touch them. But they’re not a lock for silver and bronze.

You’ve got to feel for Melissa Bishop. The Canadian, who was second at Worlds last year, has been brilliant in 2016 and is peaking at exactly the right time, lowering her own national record to 1:57.43 in Edmonton on July 15. Unfortunately, her peak happens to coincide with the age of Semenya, Niyonsaba and Wambui. Bishop had a rocky start to her season, placing seventh in Rome in her Diamond League debut on June 2, but she was much better in Birmingham three days later, running 1:58.48 to take third behind Niyonsaba and France’s Renelle Lamote, and she’s been undefeated since then. Bishop’s last race before the Olympics wasn’t terribly convincing — she just held off Brenda Martinez and 1500 specialist Shannon Rowbury at the TrackTown Summer Series — but overall she’s looked great, breaking 1:59 four times. If she runs a PR in Rio and either Niyonsaba or /Wambui slips up, she’s got a shot at the podium.

Eunice Sum dominated the Diamond League circuit for three years before Semenya’s return, and she looked great in her last two races (second to Wambui at the Kenyan Trials, 3rd in Monaco in 1:57.47). Like Bishop, if Sum runs at a PR level (1:56.99), she could snag a medal in Rio.

Beyond Bishop and Sum, both 2015 medallists, there several other women to watch. But a medal for any of them would either require a massive breakthrough or a massive slip-up from one of the favorites. A quick run through:

  • Renelle Lamote, France, 22 years old: 3rd in Rabat behind Semenya and Niyonsaba, then 4th in Rome and 2nd in Birmingham in a pb of 1:58.01. She has beaten Bishop in their past two matchups. She was a World Championship finalist last year at 21 but she got beat at the European Championships in July, finishing second.
  • Nataliya Prishchepa, Ukraine, 21 years old: The precocious Prishchepa had a pb of 2:04.47 entering the year but has made a huge leap in 2016. She ran a four-second pb of 2:00.20 in her season opener and has won every race since then, PRing again at the Ukrainian Champs (1:59.08) and winning Euro gold ahead of Lamote. Don’t be surprised to see her run 1:58 or even 1:57 in Rio.
  • Lynsey Sharp, Great Britain, 26 years old: Sharp has been very consistent this year — outside of the British Champs, she’s broken 2:00 in every race, with top-five finishes in all five of her DL 800’s. She also narrowly missed her pb in Monaco, running 1:57.75. The only knock on Sharp is that she hasn’t run her best at global championships — she was 7th in her semi at the 2012 Olympics, last in her semi at Worlds last year (though she still ran 1:59.33) and didn’t make the final at World Indoors this year. But Sharp has two medals from the European Championships (silver in ’14, gold in ’12) and a silver from the 2014 Commonwealth Games, which suggests that she has the potential to run well in Rio.
  • Shelayne Oskan-Clarke, Great Britain, 26 years old: The surprise fifth placer in Beijing last year, Oskan-Clarke proved her performance at Worlds was no fluke, defeating Sharp to win the British Champs and winning the London Diamond League in her last pre-Olympic race. The fact that she’s only broken 2:00 once this year (and only broken 2:01 twice) could be a concern, but she entered last year’s World Champs on a similar note.
  • Maryna Arzamasova, Belarus, 28 years old: The defending world champ, but she’s looked mediocre to average during three Diamond League races (8th Rabat, 5th Rome, 5th Birmingham, none faster than 1:59.65).

The Americans

The U.S. hasn’t medalled in this event since Kim Gallagher‘s bronze back in 1988 (though really, Alysia Montaño‘s fifth at London 2012 should count as a medal considering she lost to two Russian dopers). That drought is unlikely to end in 2016. Let’s start with the U.S. champ, Kate Grace. Grace has been winning a lot of races (Oxy 1500, Portland Track Festival 1500, Olympic Trials 800, TrackTown Summer Series 1500), but those wins have come almost exclusively against domestic competition. When you’re winning races, the time isn’t always important, and Grace has certainly looked capable of running faster than the 1:59.10 she ran to win the Trials (Molly Ludlow, fourth in that race, ran 1:57 a week later in Monaco).

With that said, the fact remains that Grace has broken 2:00 exactly twice in her life; the Olympics will be a big step up for her. She’s raced a grand total of one Diamond League 800 in her life (she ran Pre this year, but the 800 was not a Diamond Race event) and though it went well (she PR’d for fourth in Paris), that was over three years ago. Grace’s 1500 background should help her in the rounds, but even if she runs 1:58 in the semis, that may not be enough to make the final — three women ran 1:58 in Beijing last year and didn’t make the final. And should Grace make the final, she’s totally overmatched by Semenya, Niyonsaba and Wambui (like almost everybody else) and won’t be favored over Bishop or Sum. Grace has had a tremendous season, and making the final would be a reasonable goal. Anything beyond that is gravy.

Ajee Wilson ran a world-leading 1:57.67 back in 2014 and almost equalled that last year, running 1:57.87 and winning the New York Diamond League before an injury forced her to withdraw from Worlds. She was looking like an Olympic medal threat back when she earned silver at World Indoors in March (just behind Niyonsaba and ahead of Wambui). So far, however, Wilson has yet to approach that form outdoors in 2016. Her first Diamond League of the year (2:03 for 11th in Rome on June 2) was a disaster; her second (2:00.81 for 7th in Birmingham on June 5) was better but she still didn’t look like a medal contender. She’s turned it around recently, winning the adidas Boston Boost Games on June 17 in 1:59.72, running a season’s best (1:59.51) to take second at the Trials and running 1:59.98 to win at the American Track League meet in Houston on July 23.

Wilson’s fitness level was enough to get her on the team, but to do anything in Rio, she needs to return to the 1:57 woman of 2014/2015. That’s certainly possible — in 2013, Wilson only broke 2:00 once (1:59.55 at USAs) before finishing sixth at Worlds. But against a stacked field (particularly at the top), even making the final will be an accomplishment.

Nobody expected the third member of Team USA, converted 400 runner Chrishuna Williams, to be here at the start of the year (indeed, few would have pegged Grace for the team either). But she’s on the team, a beneficiary of contact on the final bend of the Olympic Trials that saw Montaño hit the track and Brenda Martinez lose most of her momentum. Williams’ form immediately before and after the Trials was pedestrian (2:03 and 2:01 in her two races directly before, 2:02 in her only race afterwards) and she’s less experienced than her U.S. teammates (even though she’s 14 months older than Wilson). Williams is still only 23, so this Olympics should be a good learning experience for her; even making it out of the first round would qualify as a success as she’s only broken 2:00 twice in her life (and before this year had never run faster than 2:01.61).

LRC Prediction: 1. Semenya 2. Niyonsaba 3. Wambui

Semenya has crushed everyone all season long and we see no reason to expect anything different in Rio. The only question is whether she goes all-out for the world record. Niyonsaba and Wambui have looked a cut above everyone else this year and if Semenya strings it out in the final a la Rudisha in 2012, they could run some ridiculous times as well.

Betting odds can be found here.

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