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Questions still surround Caster Semenya as she returns to Olympics

Caster Semenya is competing in her second Olympics after taking home silver in the 800 four years ago in London. Reuters/Lucy Nicholson

RIO DE JANEIRO -- Caster Semenya has been called many things -- not all of them pleasant -- and it seems the South African runner has decided to funnel this second Olympic campaign of hers down to just her and her event. That was the distinct feeling the most controversial athlete in the Olympic Games threw off Wednesday after breezing to victory in her morning 800-meter qualifying heat, and then walking through the cattle chute media area beneath Olympic Stadium, declining all requests to talk with her mouth clamped shut and a shake of her head.

Amid the endless cacophony of opinions about whether Semenya should be able to run here in Rio at all, Semenya's continued silence is even more conspicuous. She has a good chance to not only win the gold medal but break one of the oldest, most stubbornly unassailable records in track -- Jarmila Kratochvilova's 33-year-old world record of 1:53.28, which is widely believed to have been drug-enhanced, though Kratochvilova never tested positive for PEDs when she ran for Communist-run Czechoslovakia.

If the 25-year-old Semenya does smash the record -- the talk that she will restarted after she ran a world-best 1:55.33 last month in Monaco -- not everyone will celebrate her.

Neither she nor her coach, Jean Veter, has ever confirmed the widespread belief that Semenya has an intersex condition, meaning she was born with both male and female anatomical characteristics. Nor have they directly acknowledged she is hyperandrogenous as a result, meaning her body produces markedly higher testosterone levels than other females.

She has heard complaints that she has a naturally occurring but "unfair" chemical advantage ever since 2009, when she burst onto the track scene as an 18-year-old who won the 800 world championship in Berlin in a remarkably fast time and The Daily Telegraph of Sydney published a story three weeks later that trails her to this day. The article noted that Semenya was flagged after the race for gender testing. And all hell broke loose after that.

The IAAF, track and field's international governing body, refused to confirm the report, but Leonard Chuene, president of South Africa's track and field federation, angrily resigned over the leaked information, saying, "We are talking about a child here, whose name has been dragged through the dirt by [the IAAF]. If gender tests have to take place, they should have been done quietly. By going public on the tests, the IAAF has let down this young child."

Semenya has been thrust ever since into the center of some wide ranging, highly invasive, often heated debates about fairness, stereotyping, the concept of gender identity as a nuanced rather than binary concept, and the shifting science about how much testosterone levels really affect athletic performance in women.

Semenya's determination to keep competing has also provoked discussions about exactly whose rights are being trampled here: Semenya's? Her competitors? Could it be both?

Semenya is breaking no existing rules. She has every right to run in Rio or wherever she wants.

There were suspicions after the IAAF established a ceiling in 2011 for how much testosterone female competitors can legally have in their system that Semenya's times got worse between 2012 and 2014 because she began taking hormonal suppressants to meet the standard. But like everything else, she's never personally addressed that topic, either. She also hasn't addressed the gripes that the reason she's running faster again now is the Court for Arbitration in Sport's ruling last year (in a case brought by Indian sprinter Dutee Chand) that testosterone levels alone were not a reliable marker of gender, and suspended the ceiling for women that the IAAF and some other federations were using. If Semenya was on suppressants, she can legally be off them now. And her times have plunged again. She is unbeaten in the 800 this year. Her season's best is nearly a full second better than Burundi's Francine Niyonsaba, her closest challenger.

The IAAF now has two years to make its argument why the rule should be reinstated. But UCLA geneticist Eric Vilain, a consultant to the International Olympic Committee medical committee who is quoted in a story by Sports Illustrated's Tim Layden this week, said he does not expect the testosterone ceiling to be restored because, "CAS wants IAAF to demonstrate the entirety of the difference between male and female athletic performance is androgenous testosterone.That is not going to be proven, because it's not true.

"There are other factors. My testosterone level is higher than Jackie Joyner-Kersee's, but she would defeat me in a race for many other reasons."

So if scientists can't agree on what's the correct -- or least unfair -- thing to do, it's no surprise Semenya's rivals can't either.

American 800 runner Ajee Wilson, who finished just behind Semenya in Wednesday's heat, said she thinks the IAAF's testosterone limit "is something that should be revisited." But Great Britain's Lynsey Sharp, a sometime critic of Semenya, tersely said, "I don't want to talk about it" and Canadian medal contender Melissa Bishop said the same thing.

Ireland's Clara Everard said, "It's a very sensitive topic. But as far as I know, she's not breaking any rules."

Simoya Campbell, a 22-year-old Jamaican runner, agreed, adding: "I think everything happens for a reason. And we can't break down someone like this. She [Semenya] didn't make herself. God has a plan for everyone. He knows best. It's up to us to just support her. Mentally, I know it has to affect her even though she doesn't say that much. She's tough. Even with all the things that have been said, she's still out here running fast. I think she's so mentally tough."

Semenya's dilemma is, the better she runs, the louder the consternation gets.

It doesn't help that the women's 800 has a particularly fraught history even beyond that world record Semenya is chasing. Mariya Savinova, one of the rivals who complained about Semenya after losing the 2009 world title race ("Just look at her," Savinova said, referring to Semenya's "masculine" appearance and deep voice) is not here. She is among the recently banned Russian track stars who were just found guilty of doping at the 2012 London Summer Games. Her London victory will likely be taken away-- meaning Semenya, who finished second there, would belatedly get her first Olympic gold medal.

If that feels like a turnabout of fair play, Semenya has said nothing about that, either.

She is now in Year 7 of this public saga. She seems to have long ago concluded the best statement she can make is to just keep showing up and running fast. There's no percentage in engaging the rest. Semenya seems to get that controversies have their own half-lives. And the sad truth for her is, some can never be out-run.