If there was one athlete likely to live up to a favourite tag at the IAAF World Championships London 2017, it was surely always going to be Caster Semenya.
Every time that the Olympic champion has lined up for an 800m race since September 2015, when she finished eighth at the ISTAF Meeting in Berlin, she has found a way to win. Nobody has found a way to beat her.
And that winning streak continued at the London Stadium despite the best efforts of Burundi’s Francine Niyonsaba, the silver medallist behind Semenya in Rio, and Ajee’ Wilson, the 2012 world U20 champion.
The finishing time of 1:55.16 was the fastest in the world this year, a fact that can partly be attributed to the early pace set by Niyonsaba and Wilson and their silver and bronze medals were just rewards for their efforts throughout the race.
Over the course of her winning streak, the 26-year-old Semenya hasn’t established a reputation for employing front-running tactics and this race was no different.
Wilson, who set a US record of 1:55.61 in Monaco in July, Niyonsaba and Kenya’s Olympic bronze medallist Margaret Wambui all set off much quicker than the South African and at the break it was Wilson who found herself jostling with Niyonsaba for the lead.
It was Niyonsaba, though, who went through 200m in first place in 27.08, a blistering pace that not even Semenya had any hope of maintaining and the pack inevitably slowed through 400m, 57.98 showing on the stadium clock.
At the bell, Niyonsaba, Wilson and Wambui made up the top three, with Great Britain’s Lynsey Sharp tracking them, Semenya content to sit in fifth.
It was with 250 metres remaining that the next significant move was made, Wilson kicking hard, but Niyonsaba wasn’t happy to relinquish the lead and responded accordingly.
By now, the two were a few metres clear of the rest of the field and Semenya sensed enough danger to close down the gap.
Into the finishing straight, the three chief protagonists were running side by side, Wambui having faded from contention, and with 60 metres to go Semenya moved clear, able to maintain her pace to the finish.
Wilson, clearly feeling the effects of her early front running, began to fall away and had to settle for bronze in 1:56.65, as Niyonsaba held her form to take silver in 1:55.92.
Semenya added another major title to her collection, eight years after winning her first world title, while silver was Niyonsaba’s first medal at an outdoor IAAF World Championships and bronze was Wilson’s first outdoor senior global medal of any colour.
The champion paid tribute to the crowd, who had shown so much support, as well as her coaches.
“I just love you guys,” she said over the stadium speakers. “It feels like home in London… there are such fantastic people here. Beautiful.”
“I’m lucky to have a great support team who work with me. Full credit to them. Another world title is a fantastic honour for me and I love to do it here in London. The crowd are so welcoming to me and it makes it feel even more special.”
Semenya was also asked about the prospect of bettering the world record, which currently stands at 1:53.28.
“We need to clear 1:55 first and it will require a lot of hard training,” she mused. “I have Olympic, world and Commonwealth titles now so maybe it is time to target the world record. It’s the next thing on the list. I know it will be difficult but I will have to attempt soon, maybe.”
With Semenya in such fine form, Niyonsaba was satisfied with second, for now.
“I am very, very happy,” she confirmed. “This medal is for all Burundians and they are happy now. Everybody is watching in Burundi. I am so excited. In this final, everybody was looking good, all competitors are strong. So I got off there as fast as possible to make it a fast race.”
While paying tribute to Semenya, she didn’t rule out one day standing on top of the podium.
“I am very emotional now. I congratulate Caster Semenya. I would like to beat her. Everything is possible.”
For Wilson, bronze was an unexpected bonus from a race in which her only goal was to run as fast as possible.
“I think the key was the timing,” explained the 23-year-old. “We didn’t do too many races during the season, so the timing was really important towards the World Championships. I did not expect the podium, I was ready to fight, attack the top three and see what happens.
“Against this strong field, I tried to focus on my own race. I tried to speed it up in the last 100 metres, no matter if I came out short of a medal. I did my best, pushed it 100 percent.”
Dean Hardman for the IAAF