THE OPENING day of the South African athletics championships was always going to be about Caster Semenya’s return to the track, but Akani Simbine very nearly made it an historic one for himself too.
The 800m Olympic champion Semenya had an early start, lining up at 8.20am at Tuks Athletics Stadium for the unfamiliar 5,000m, in an attempt to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics.
She is still fighting her case at the European Court for Human Rights to overturn World Athletics’ ruling for athletes with differences of sexual development – to be allowed to participate in distances from 400m to the mile without having to take medication or undergo surgery to lower her natural testosterone levels.
But a hearing is not likely to happen before the Games, so the 5,000m is a different avenue for the 30-year-old to get to Japan.
And while Semenya eventually won the race in 15:52.28, it was some distance from the qualifying mark of 15:10.00. Defending champion Glenrose Xaba finished second in 15:55.25.
Semenya said at track-side afterwards that she was not too concerned about her time at this stage, and that she was considering contesting a few other races in the coming months – but that failing to make it to Tokyo would not be “the end of the world”.
What would have been encouraging for the three-time 800m world champion was the fact that she set a new personal best, eclipsing the 16:14.43 she posted a few weeks ago, and that it was at altitude, which is always more difficult for long-distance athletes.
But then it was over to Simbine, who flexed his muscles in the morning heats with a quick 10.11 seconds. With the 100m final scheduled for 5pm today, the semi-finals yesterday afternoon at 1.50pm were shaping up as the best chance for fast times due to the warmer conditions.
The 27-year-old Commonwealth Games champion didn’t disappoint, taking his time to get into stride and then motoring away from the rest of the field at about the 40-metre mark.
Simbine exploded through the finish line and showed his elation after what he thought was a new national record of 9.82, beating his previous mark of 9.89.
But he went down on his haunches when the stadium announcer stated that the wind reading was too strong at +2.8m/s, above the legal limit of +2.0m/s. The 9.82 would also have been a new African record …
In a video interview afterwards Simbine said that despite the wind issues, “it’s really exciting to know that the body can go that fast”.
Some of the more notable performances on day one came in the field, where Rocco van Rooyen produced another Olympic qualifying distance to claim the javelin title with 85.25m, while in the women’s event, Jo-Ane van Dyk 59.47m caused an upset by beating Sunette Viljoen (57.37m).