The last time Caster Semenya was beaten over 800m was almost two years ago, as she was eliminated at the semifinal stage of the IAAF World Championships in Beijing. In the intervening period, the 26-year-old has secured her second Olympic title and produced 15 sub-two-minute runs, including four under 1:56.
She is the athlete to beat over two laps.
Indeed, prior to the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Monaco in July, a Semenya victory in London, with Burundi’s Francine Niyonsaba, who has also enjoyed a consistently excellent couple of years in second, was almost a foregone conclusion.
But then Moncao happened.
One of the best 800m races of all time saw a Semenya and Niyonsaba 1-2 with sub-1:56 performances yet again, but also saw a further five athletes break 2:00, including three under 1:58. Melissa Bishop set a Canadian record of 1:57.01, Sifan Hassan clocked 1:56.81 and, most impressively, Ajee’ Wilson recorded a personal best and US record of 1:55.61.
Semenya’s invincibility was suddenly open to question at least.
The South African, who will be aiming for her third world title following victories in 2009 and 2011, remains the favourite, but the margin of victory in Monaco was much reduced compared to previous occasions.
Niyonsaba, who has broken two minutes in every race over the past two seasons and took the silver medal in Rio in 2016, will surely be Semenya’s closest challenger in the London Stadium, but, in Wilson, they now have another athlete who could rival them.
The 23-year-old from New Jersey was a precocious junior, placing fifth at the 2013 World Championships, and will be seeking another medal to add to the silver she earned at last year’s World Indoor Championships.
One of the most surprising aspects of the Monaco race was the performance of Margaret Wambui. The Olympic bronze medallist and Kenyan champion has been the athlete to get closest to Semenya and Niyonsaba in recent times, but finished a distant ninth. However, with a best of 1:56.89 set when taking her third place in Rio, she will surely still feature strongly.
In addition to Canada’s Bishop, who took silver two years ago, Kenya’s Eunice Sum, third in Beijing and the winner in Moscow in 2013, also toes the line, while the USA’s Brenda Martinez also produced a season’s best in Monaco and heads to London in confident mood.
The same can be said for her US compatriot Charlene Lipsey, who clocked 1:57.38 as runner up in Lausanne, and the Britons, Lynsey Sharp and Shelayna Oksan-Clarke, both of whom will feed off home support and have shown themselves to be astute racers.
Dean Hardman for the IAAF