Caster Semenya became the first South African woman in 64 years to win Olympic gold in athletics on Saturday, running a personal best time of 1:55.28 in the 800 metres final.
Burundi’s Francine Niyonsaba finished in 1:56.49 to claim the silver, her country’s second medal in any sport at the Olympics. Kenya’s Margaret Wambui won bronze in 1:56.89.
Semenya has dominated the event this season, with three of the fastest four times, and there had been speculation she could break Czech Jarmila Kratochvilova’s world record of 1:53.28 set in 1983. It is the longest-standing athletics world record.
Staying with the pack for the first lap, Semenya let Niyonsaba lead the race up to the 600-metre mark before pulling ahead with an injection of pace to take the gold.
“The race was really quick. The first 400 we were pushing ourselves, it was great,” Semenya told reporters. “It was just about being patient ... I have a very quick last 200, I just have to utilise it.”
The 25-year-old said she had also considered competing in the 400 metres in Rio but chose to focus on her main event.
“We realised the time difference was not going to favour us so we just had to be clever and focus on the 800,” she said. “I think it was a wise decision.”
Semenya won the silver medal in London four years ago.
In Rio, however, she was lacking key competition in the form of Russia’s Mariya Savinova and Ekaterina Poistogova, first and third in 2012, who were barred from the 2016 Games following revelations of state-backed doping in Russian athletics.
Some observers have suggested Semenya herself is competing with an unfair advantage, albeit one she can do little about.
After winning the 2009 world title as a 19-year-old, tests reportedly revealed that she is hyperandrogenous, resulting in her body producing an abnormally high amount of testosterone, which makes her more powerful than her rivals.
An International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) rule limiting the amount of naturally occurring functional testosterone for female athletes appeared to have limited Semenya’s prospects but the rule was quashed by the Court of Arbitration for Sport last year.