No Semenya: Uganda's Halimah Nakaayi, in 1:58.04, wins women's 800

DOHA, Qatar — It was 10 years ago already that Caster Semenya announced herself to the world. Just 18, a virtual unknown from South Africa, she won the women’s 800 meters at the IAAF world championships in Berlin. 

Since, the Semenya story has captivated, educated, intrigued, inspired, enraged and so much more, a debate over on, the one hand, the worth of every single person on Planet Earth to not only be who she or he is but the best she or he that he or she can be matched against, on the other, the fundamental question of what is fair tied up with the obligation of international sports authorities to be fair to everyone, not just someone.

There is no right or wrong in the complex mosaic of issues presented by the matter personified by Caster Semenya and, as it turns out, others with what has come to be called “differences of sexual development,” including the two other medalists in the women’s 800 at the Rio 2016 Summer Games, Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi and Margaret Wambui of Kenya.

To reiterate, there is no — speaking figuratively — black or white here. This is a matter subject to interpretation. It is all grays. This is why the debate, the politics, the posturing has been — is — so ferocious, and from so many sides. Just to pick one of many, many comments on the matter, this from U.S. racer Brenda Martinez here in Doha: “I’d rather race against an intersex athlete than a drug cheat.”

It’s also why Monday night’s championship final at the IAAF 2019 world championships marked either the end — 10 years later — of the Semenya story in track and field or, perhaps, a pause, just another chapter, now amid a contentious legal process, before next summer’s Tokyo Olympics.

Uganda’s Halimah Nakaayi wins the women’s 800 // Getty Images

Uganda’s Halimah Nakaayi wins the women’s 800 // Getty Images

Halimah Nakaayi of Uganda, her country’s flag-bearer at the Rio closing ceremony, won the 2019 women’s championship final, in a national-record 1:58.04. It marked Uganda’s first-ever gold medal in the 800 at the worlds. 

Meanwhile, just when you thought the story of the women’s 800 could not possibly take another twist — this is the same Halimah Nakaayi who, in August at the African Games in Rabat, Morocco, took third in the 800, in 2:03.55, five seconds slower.

She finished eighth — eighth of 10 finishers— at the Birmingham Diamond League (August, 2:03.4).

That said, Nakaayi did win the Oslo Diamond League (June, 2:01.93) and took second in Lausanne (July, 1:59.57).

How to explain a solid June and July … a dreadful August … and then … from an athlete in her first world final … this?

Americans went 2-3. Raevyn Rogers, the former Oregon standout, took second, in 1:58.18. Ajee’ Wilson, the pre-race favorite, led at 600 and 700 meters but could not hold on. She crossed in 1:58.84.

Another Ugandan, Winnie Nanyondo, who is arguably stronger in the 1500, finished fourth, in 1:59.18. She and Nakaayi danced a victory lap dance called the Chiganda that, they explained later, came from central Uganda. “We are the first Ugandans to make it to a final in the 800,” Nakaayi would say. “It is really so meaningful … so we had to dance this dance, it is our tradition.”

The women’s 800 dominated a Monday evening at Khalifa Stadium that, for the first time since these championships got underway, actually — though the stands were hardly full — enjoyed real atmosphere.

This may have been in significant measure because of the last event of the night, the men’s 400 hurdles, which featured local hero Abderrahman Samba. He got third, in 48.03. Norway’s Karsten Warholm won, in 47.42, and took his victory lap wearing a set of golden horns, American Rai Benjamin taking second in 47.66.

Beatrice Chepkoech of Kenya went 8:57.84, a new championship record, to win the women’s 3k steeplechase. American Emma Coburn’s personal-best 9:02.35 got her second.

Maria Lasitskene, the Russian competing here as one of the so-called “authorized neutral athletes,” won the women’s high jump, at 2.04 meters, or 6 feet, 8 1/4 inches. Yaroslava Mahuchikh of Ukraine, also just 18, took second at the same height. American Vashti Cunningham got third with a personal-best 2.0 meters, or 6-6 3/4.

For all that, the number that jumps out from Monday night, amid the debate over DSD, is 1:58. Look again at the times of the top three finishers from that women’s 800 — 1:58.04, 1:58.18, 1:58.84.

Post-race news conference: Raevyn Rogers, Nakaayi, Ajee’ Wilson

Post-race news conference: Raevyn Rogers, Nakaayi, Ajee’ Wilson

Compare: when Semenya won in 2017, it was 1:55.16, Niyonsaba second in 1:55.92. 

Semenya’s best this year — the 2019 world lead — is 1:54.98. 

Wilson had the year’s second-best time, 1:57.72. 

How to compete? 

This is, at least from one perspective, the crux of the dilemma.

Wilson is the London 2017 worlds women’s 800 bronze medalist. Semenya won; Niyonsaba took second. Wilson was eliminated in the semifinals of the Rio Games, third in that semi, won by Wambui, Niyonsaba second. 

Semenya’s championship stat line, for those who might need a gentle reminder, staggers the imagination. She had to take hormone suppressing medication to be able to run from 2010-15. All the same: 2012 and 2016 Olympic gold medalist and, as well, gold medalist at the world championships in 2009, 2011 and 2017.

Wilson had said beforehand that without Semenya and Niyonsaba on hand she believed her chances had to be more constructive: “The two people who kind of you know beat me [not being here] definitely increases my odds.”

It looked that way at 700 meters. But then — no. “That last 50, 60,” Wilson said at a post-race news conference, “I fought with all I had. It was just about making it to the line at that point.”

She acknowledged she was, as she put it frankly, “disappointed,” adding, “My parents are here. I saw them in the cooldown lap. They gave me hugs and kisses.”

Rogers, meanwhile, had run on this very same track at the Diamond League meet in May. 

“It’s a blessing to be in this position,” she said. “I took a risk. It was a risk I am confident in taking only because I ran on this track in May.” Then, she said, “I kicked off the curve and died with 30 meters left.

“This time, I just needed to be more patient. I was confident in my speed and went for it at the right time. Silver means a lot tome. Nobody gets the opportunity to medal in their first world championships.”

For her part, Nakaayi said, “I was feeling so good. I knew something special was going to happen tonight so I kept pushing and pushing and in the end I got it. I am so happy.”

No Semenya — or other DSD athletes ? “For my side,” Nakaayi said, “I always believe in change. Once the change is made, I just need to focus what’s on the ground.”