At the Rio Olympics in 2016, three athletes stood atop the 800M podium: Caster Semenya with gold, Francine Niyonsaba with silver, and Margaret Wambui with bronze. At Tokyo this summer, none of these athletes will be eligible to compete in the 800M due to a 2018 World Athletics (previously the IAAF) rule change that put a cap on permissible testosterone levels for women with Differences of Sexual Development (DSD) in middle-distance events (400M up to a mile).
All three Rio medalists fall into this category with naturally high levels of testosterone, which would have to be lowered through medication (e.g. contraceptive pills) in order to meet the new requirements. None of them have opted to medically suppress their natural hormone levels. Instead, they’ve all set their sights on the 5000M race.
On May 28th on the coast of her native South Africa, Semenya ran a personal best in the event, clocking a 15:32.15. A solid time, but she is still 22 seconds off the Olympic standard.
Semenya has significantly improved in each of her three 5000M showings since March but is now quickly running out of time to hit the 15:10 Olympic cut off. Qualifying comes to a close at the end of June. The good news and the bad news is that there is minimal competition from her fellow countrywomen, meaning it’s a race against herself to determine whether we get to see her in Tokyo.
Semenya gave serious consideration to making the 200M her new focus, but ultimately decided on the 5000M.
“I’m getting old‚ I’m scared to tear my muscles,” she told the BBC in April. “We had to sit down and make sure that the decision that we make makes sense. Distance makes sense. We’re happy with what we’re doing‚ we’re having fun.”
Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi, on the other hand, smashed the Olympic standard in what was only the second 5000M race of her career, crossing the line at 14:54.38 at the Meeting de Montreuil in France on June 1st. Setting a new Burundian national record both times she’s run the 5000M, Niyonsaba has assertively punched her ticket to Japan.
A challenge is not a barrier. It’s an opportunity to do better. Heading to Tokyo with a great qualifying time of 14.54.38 (PB) in 5k#nevergiveup #PB #NationalRecord #RoadtoTokyo2021 #determination #mentalforce#meetingmonteuil2021 pic.twitter.com/gcQqnOMw6b— Francine Niyonsaba (@FrancineNiyons4) June 2, 2021
Unlike Semenya and Niyonsaba, Margaret Wambui of Kenya is not pursuing an Olympic bid this summer. Having only recently decided to shift her focus to the 5000M, Wambui doesn’t want to rush training at the new distance.
While Caster Semenya continues her legal battle against World Athletic’s regulations, her fans are left to watch as she and her fellow elite runners attempt to conquer a distance more than six times as long as that which they’ve trained for their entire careers.
How fast and how far they can take this new pursuit remains to be seen. But anyone who has watched these athletes fight to arrive at this point in their careers must suspect this latest journey has only just begun.
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