2017 Worlds Women’s 800: Can Ajee Wilson Snap Caster Semenya’s Unbeaten Streak?

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by LetsRun.com
July 31, 2017

Considering she hasn’t lost an 800-meter race in almost two years, a world title for Caster Semenya in 2017 has seemed preordained for some time. And while that still may be the case — the 26-year-old enters Worlds riding an 18-race win streak in the 800 — her most recent race in Monaco showed that she may be vulnerable. In that race, Semenya went wire-to-wire to win in 1:55.27, a new personal best and the fastest time in the world since 2008, but was pushed all the way to the line by Olympic silver medalist Francine Niyonsaba and U.S. champ Ajee Wilson.

Can anyone beat Semenya, who will be doubling back from the 1500 earlier in the championships? Or will she add another title to her growing pile of gold medals?

Race times
Prelims: 
Thursday, August 10, 2:25 p.m. ET
Semis: Friday, August 11, 2:35 p.m. ET
Final: Sunday, August 13, 3:10 p.m. ET

2016 Olympic results
1. Caster Semenya, South Africa 1:55.28
2. Francine Niyonsaba, Burundi 1:56.49
3. Margaret Wambui, Kenya 1:56.89
4. Melissa Bishop, Canada 1:57.02
5. Joanna Jozwik, Poland 1:57.37

2017’s fastest performers (among women entered)
1. Caster Semenya, South Africa 1:55.27
2. Francine Niyonsaba, Burundi 1:55.47
3. Ajee Wilson, USA 1:55.61
4. Melissa Bishop, Canada 1:57.01
5. Margaret Wambui, Kenya 1:57.03

Ajee Wilson Tries to Make History

Two years ago, when the Court of Arbitration for Sport announced it was suspending the IAAF’s hyperandrogenism guidelines, we suggested that the ruling could pave the way for Semenya and the other women believed to be hyperandrogenic to dominate the women’s 800. That is exactly what has happened. Semenya has not lost an 800 since September 2015, while Francine Niyonsaba, who, like Semenya, is believed to be hyperandrogenic, has either won or finished second behind Semenya in every one of her races save one — the 2017 Pre Classic, when she lost to Semenya and Margaret Wambui (another likely hyperandrogenic athlete). The 800 — traditionally one of the most topsy-turvy events in track and field — has become utterly predictable. Clearly the ruling has had a huge effect on the event, and that effect may continue into the future as many experts believe IAAF likely doesn’t have strong enough evidence on the effect of testosterone in women’s athletes to convince CAS to overturn the ruling.

To us, that is absurd. All one has to do is look at how Semenya and Niyonsaba were running before the ruling in 2015 (neither could break 2:00) and after the ruling (both have run 1:55 and are utterly dominant) to see how much they benefit from having male levels of testosterone in their bodies due to the fact they are believed to have internal testes and not ovaries.

As we head into Worlds, Semenya and Niyonsaba are once again favored to go 1-2, just as they did in Rio one year ago. But unlike last year, when we nailed 1-2-3 in our preview and correctly predicted that Semenya would crush everyone, the outcome is not a foregone conclusion.

The reason for that is Ajee Wilson.

After missing the spring while her positive test for zeranol was adjudicated (USADA ultimately ruled that Wilson was not at fault and she was not subjected to a ban), Wilson, who is still just 23 years old, has been on fire. The first sign was her 1:58.94 in the semis at USAs, followed two days later by a ridiculous negative-split 1:57.78 in the final. Wilson then won her first European race in Padua in 1:59.19 before heading to Monaco and giving Semenya and Niyonsaba all they can handle.

The fact that Wilson was so close to the two women who have dominated the event the past two years was, on its own, a sign that she is capable of gold in London — which would be the first for an American woman at 800 meters since Madeline Manning in 1968. She was just .34 of a second behind Semenya, and while Semenya did gap her late, it doesn’t take much to flip the result — if Semenya runs a little worse, or Wilson runs a little better, the outcome could change.

Of course, we should note that Semenya almost never has bad races and she strayed from her usual tactics in Monaco in order to chase a fast time. Normally, Semenya will allow someone else to lead early before making a big move to pull away in the final 200 meters, but in Monaco, she went out in 56.7 and led the entire way. Compare that to last year’s Olympic final in Rio, where Semenya ran a near-identical time to what she ran in Monaco in 2017 (1:55.28 in Rio vs. 1:55.27 in Monaco) but went out almost a second slower (57.59) and won by a much bigger margin (1.21 seconds) as she didn’t start to really push it until she moved into the lead late on the final turn.

The good news for Wilson fans is that there’s reason to believe that she could have run faster in Monaco as well (and yes, we realize this sounds crazy considering she ran 1:55.61 and smashed the American record). But if you watch the final 200 meters of that race, you’ll see that Wilson runs the entire final turn in lane 2.

Granted, there’s always a risk-reward at play in that scenario (had Wilson not gone wide, she risked Semenya and Niyonsaba running away from her) but if Wilson had been in the lead rather than Semenya, it’s not hard to envision a different outcome.

Niyonsaba, obviously, should be able to challenge Semenya too. The one other woman who could be a threat is Margaret Wambui, the Olympic bronze medalist. Wambui has actually come closer than anyone to beating Semenya in an 800 since her win streak began as she finished just .10 behind her in Eugene in May. But Wambui was a well-beaten third in Oslo and she was awful in Monaco, finishing DFL in 2:02.13. Normally when an athlete runs that poorly, something is wrong. The question with Wambui is whether it was an isolated problem or a persistent one. Wambui went out faster than normal (57.3), so our guess is that she just overcooked it on the first lap and packed it in when she realized she wasn’t going to run fast. Expect her to challenge for the medals in London — apart from her Monaco disaster, only Semenya and Niyonsaba have beaten her since the start of the 2016 outdoor season.

As well as the other women have been running, defeating Semenya remains a monumental task. Of the five global championships she has entered since bursting onto the scene in 2009, Semenya has won four of them (technically she finished second in 2011 and 2012 but champ Mariya Savinova has been stripped of both titles for doping). Only in 2015 was Semenya beaten, and even that was likely a result of years of medication artificially lowering her testosterone levels. She knows how to get it done at the major championships. But Semenya is also doubling for the first time in a major championship, and the 1500 is before the 800 (1500 is on days 1, 2 and 4; the 800 is on days 7, 8 and 10). The 800 final could potentially be Semenya’s sixth race in 10 days. How will she hold up?

It’s certainly bold for Semenya to try the double this year. We get why she would want to consider it coming into the year as we imagine the 800 had almost become a bore for her, but she’s been challenged a lot more in 2017 than 2016. In 2017, she’s won her four DL races by an average of  0.33 of a second (.20, .59, .10. and .42). Last year, she won her four DL 800s before Rio by a lot more — by an average of 1.11 seconds (.91, 1.56, 1.10, .88).

Can Anyone Else Medal?

Canada’s Melissa Bishop was fourth in Rio last year, missing out on a medal by .13, and she was with Semenya, Niyonsaba and Wilson in Monaco until they began to separate over the final 125 meters. Bishop is the only other woman with a realistic shot at a medal, but her chances still aren’t great. Consider: last year in Rio, Bishop ran a near-perfect race, clocking a Canadian record of 1:57.02, and Wambui still ran her down for the bronze. In Monaco, Bishop was even better (1:57.01) but still got smoked in the final 100. Bishop took silver two years ago in Beijing and has only improved since then. Unfortunately for her, the women’s 800 is an entirely different event than it was in 2015. Even if Bishop knocks it out of the park and runs 1:56 in London, that still may not be enough for a medal. Of course, someone could always fall or trip so you never know.

Belarus’ Marina Arzamasova is the defending champion (we don’t blame you if you forgot that) but she’s raced just two 800s this year, with an SB of 2:02.59 at the Pre Classic. She is not expected to be a factor. The only other women under 1:58 this year that we haven’t mentioned are Charlene Lipsey (1:57.38) and Eunice Sum (1:57.78). Sum was the world champ in 2013 and bronze medalist in 2015 and though she’s run a few good DL races (3rd Doha, 3rd Lausanne), she hasn’t shown the potential to threaten for a medal this year. Lipsey’s turnaround under coach Derek Thompson has been remarkable as she’s gone from never breaking 2:00 before this year to the 7th-fastest American ever. We’re not writing off Lipsey after one poor race in Monaco (8th in 2:01) as she’s been brilliant in 2017, but her training partner Wilson is clearly the superior runner and Wilson will have a hard enough time medalling. Lipsey has a good shot to make the final, but anything beyond that is a bonus.

Of the three women on Team USA, Brenda Martinez is the only one with a global outdoor medal (bronze in ’13 that is slated to be bumped up to silver) and though she’s been overshadowed by Wilson lately, Martinez has been having her best season since she earned that medal in 2013. She ran 1:58.46 at USAs and followed that up with a 1:58.43 in Monaco, her two fastest times since ’13 and she’s shown great strength as well in running 4:03, 4:03 and 4:02 in her last three 1500s. Four years ago, this kind of stuff was good enough for a medal, but right now Martinez may only be the third-best American.

LRC prediction: 1. Semenya 2. Niyonsaba 3. Wilson

Yes, we’re running back the results from Monaco. Though Wilson showed in that race that Semenya and Niyonsaba are vulnerable, it should also be noted that she ran the race of her life and still couldn’t beat either of them. Semenya and Niyonsaba (in that order) have been too consistently dominant for us to bet against them in London. Of the “Big Three,” Wambui has looked the most vulnerable and even if she’s back to her normal self at Worlds after a stinker in London, Wilson is still capable of beating her. Against this field, that is likely good enough for a medal.

And if Wilson does medal, she deserves a ton of props. After Semenya, Niyonsaba and Wambui started crushing everyone every time out, it would have been easy for an athlete like Wilson to pack it in and lose hope. Instead, she’s responded with the finest year of her career and is now in position to battle for a medal even with the CAS guidelines no longer in effect — something few could have seen coming a year ago.

 

Talk about the 800s on our fan forum / messageboard: MB: Official pre-race men’s and women’s 800 discussion thread – Can Semenya and Rudisha keep winning? 


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