Semenya out, Kenyan runners lead African chase

2010-09-29 14:00

Caster Semenya’s late withdrawal through injury leaves Kenya’s famous distance runners to lead Africa’s medal chase at the Commonwealth Games in India.

Semenya, the women’s 800-metre world champion and one of the continent’s highest-profile athletes, was forced out yesterday with a back injury and joined another notable African absentee, new men’s 800-metre world-record holder David Rudisha, who withdrew citing fatigue.

Following a tumultuous period where Semenya won the world title last year, underwent sex testing, sat out for 11 months and was finally cleared to run again by the IAAF, the 19-year-old runner had targeted New Delhi as her long-awaited return to major competition.

But her complicated career has experienced another frustrating setback.

South Africa’s Olympic committee said it had withdrawn Semenya on the advice of its doctors after tests confirmed a back problem.

“We are not in a position to compromise her health by risking her competing at New Delhi,” SASCOC chief executive Tubby Reddy said.

South Africa, which was officially welcomed into the athletes’ village in New Delhi today, also has lingering fitness doubts over two other medal hopes, men’s 800 world champion Mbulaeni Mulaudzi and Olympic long jump silver medallist Khotso Mokoena.

Even without 21-year-old sensation Rudisha, Kenya’s team includes three Olympic champions, three world champions and Janeth Jepkosgei, the women’s 800 Olympic silver medallist and defending Commonwealth champion who finished second to Semenya at the worlds.

Rudisha broke Wilson Kipketer’s 13-year-old world record twice in a week in August, but he has been given permission by Kenya’s athletics federation to skip the October 3-14 Games after a demanding season.

Semenya had said gold at the Commonwealth Games was her number one goal for 2010.

She ran six low-key meets in Europe after being given the green light in July, winning four of those races and clocking her best time since her return to win at a Milan meet on September 9.

But the South African Olympic committee’s chief medical officer Shuaib Manjra has now revealed Semenya has been experiencing “serious lower back pain” and was not comfortable during her last few races, leading to an MRI scan which eventually ruled her out.

“It is our medical view that physically and emotionally she would not be capable of doing justice to her talent at an event of this magnitude,” Manjra said.

Kenya’s challenge in India is led by men’s 1 500m Olympic champion Asbel Kiprop, women’s 1 500m Olympic champion Nancy Jebet Lagat and men’s 3 000m steeplechase Olympic champion Brimin Kipruto.

Kipruto faces compatriot Ezekiel Kemboi in the 3 000m steeplechase, the current world and Commonwealth champion.

There’s also world champion Vivian Cheruiyot in the women’s 5 000m, world champion Linet Masai in the women’s 10 000m and Jepkosgei, who is now tipped for 800m gold in the absence of Semenya.

Kenya’s track team is so strong that men’s defending Commonwealth champion over 5 000m, Augustine Choge, and 5 000m Olympic silver medallist, Eliud Kipchoge, did not qualify at national trials.

Peter Mathu, head coach of Kenya’s athletics team, says its the country’s best ever line-up for a Commonwealth Games.

“We have never taken a team like this before.” Mathu said.

“In recent times we have not sent strong teams to the Commonwealth Games because the competition is usually held in October and by that time our athletes are fatigued.

This time the runners have sacrificed their rest period to participate in the Games.”

Athletics Kenya secretary-general David Okeyo said: “We expect a stellar performance from the whole team.”

Steeplechase champion Kemboi predicts an historic medal return for the Kenyan athletes.

“I took the team (as athletics captain) to the 2006 Melbourne Games and we finished third,” Kemboi said. “This time we are stronger.”

Africa’s most successful country in the overall medal standings will likely be South Africa, again, after it finished fifth behind Australia, England, Canada and India in 2006.

Even without Semenya, Mokoena and Mulaudzi, there’s still 2006 Commonwealth champions Sunette Viljoen (women’s javelin) Elizna Naude (women’s discus) and Louis van Zyl (men’s 400m hurdles), who will all defend their titles.

In the swimming, men’s short-course 50m freestyle world record holder Roland Schoeman, who won three gold medals in Melbourne, and paralympic swimmer Natalie du Toit, who won two golds, will be strong contenders.

“The performance of this team will give us an indication of how well we are doing on the road to the London Olympics in 2012,” said South Africa’s Olympic committee president Gideon Sam, who has asked the team to improve on its 38 medals in Melbourne.

“We expect good performances from both the swimmers and the track and field athletes with good contributions from the bowls team as well.”

South Africa’s 147-strong team is also targeting medals in boxing, cycling, rugby sevens and shooting.

Along with South Africa and Kenya, Nigeria could also find a place on the podium through Blessing Okagbare, a bronze medallist in the women’s long jump at the Beijing Olympics.

The versatile Okagbare won gold in the 100m and the long jump at the African championships this year and will compete in the 100m, 200m, long jump and 4x100m at the Commonwealth Games. 

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