Dibaba and Semenya go head to head

4 May 2017

Who ran the quickest women’s 800m time at the 2015 world championships and didn’t medal in the event? Genzebe Dibaba of course—blitzing a 1:56.9 split in the last 800m of her 1500m final. It’s the closest time to a PB we have since, remarkably, the Doha Diamond League will be her debut in the event.

It won’t be easy. Caster Semenya was unbeaten over the 800m in 2016. No one got close either. Remarkably she ran a negative split when she achieved her PB and Olympic title. It was in Doha last year when she stormed the last 100m in 13.6 seconds, which PJ Vazel reckons might be the fastest finish by a women in the 800m. All this suggests that she might holding back—partly because she doesn’t need to lay it all out on the track since no one has pushed her, yet.

This chart is not like for like, but here’s how Dibaba’s last 800m (about 2:01) of her 1500m world record compares with Semenya’s Rio PB. Dibaba will be a formidable opponent with her 1500m strength and ability to finish fast. However, it seems likely that Semenya’s 50-second 400m speed coupled with her 800m experience should be enough for her to win this time.

Dibaba v Semenya: 100m splits over 800m

Dibaba on way to 1500m WR, Semenya Rio 800m final

*Semenya’s offical splits starts at 200m (27.6), so we have (crudely) divided this by two for 100m and 200m times

Too early for a fast time?

Semenya has raced four times over the 800m so far this season. Her 2017 best is 2:00.99, just off her pace last year—but by the end of May 2016 she had gone 1:56. Could Pamela Jelimo’s 1:56.94 meet record be at risk? Jelimo also holds the best in the month of May at 1:55.76. Fast times are possible at this time of year, but it might have been better to see this match up later in the season with both athletes race ready.

Broader implications

Once again, there’s a broader narrative at play. The intersex question has been dodged by administrators, with non-intersex athletes set to be locked out of the championship medals again. And what if Semenya breaks the longest-lasting world record in the sport? Will it become another administrative task to remove and reallocate later?

Dibaba, who broke an “unbreakable” record herself, also has a cloud of her own. The arrest of her coach in June last year, reportedly with a stash of EPO, was big news. But somehow it’s slipped off the radar and his athletes are breaking records again.

The proposal to reset all the world records pre-2005 implies the sport has reached a new stage of enlightenment and integrity. But pressing issues haven’t gone away and if we don’t address them world record resetting could become a regular fixture. We are already approaching dangerous territory when setting records and allocating medals becomes an administrative task—rather than a real-time athletic achievement.

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