Sharp take on Semenya criticism, madcap medals & doping

Home » Sharp take on Semenya criticism, madcap medals & doping

When Caster Semenya published the story of her life last year, there were clearly a few scores she wanted to settle, one being with Lynsey Sharp.

Over the years, the now-retired Scottish 800m runner somehow got caught up in the middle of the controversy surrounding Semenya.

She got hounded on social media, was told never to set foot in South Africa and was subjected to threats, maybe idle or maybe not. Who could tell? It was scary stuff.

The two athletes had raced against each other since they were juniors.

Semenya has always been pleasant to Sharp face-to-face, but in her book last year, she went for her. The Scot was branded a sore loser and accused of disgraceful behaviour.

“Sharp looked at me as though I was less than human,” it read.

In the latest edition of This Sporting Life, Sharp talks about her life and times and there’s no doubt her story is one of the most intriguing in Scottish athletics.

Semenya is only part of it, but it’s a painful part.

“I wish she had said those things to my face if that is how she really felt,” the 33-year-old says.

“I don’t believe those things are true. I don’t know how it got to this point, how I became this villain. I’m shocked that she wrote that in the book.”

‘Things taken out of context’

We’re at the Rio Olympics in 2016. Sharp has just finished sixth in the 800m final.

She’s disappointed that she’s not won a medal, but she’s just run her fastest-ever race, so it’s complicated. Plus, her grandad is dying at home, so it’s emotional, too.

The final is won by Semenya with Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi taking silver and Margaret Wambui of Kenya winning bronze.

All three medallists were athletes with certain disorders of sexual development (DSD). Under the rules as they exist now, none of them would have been allowed to race.

For Sharp, the problems started when she had to do a BBC interview directly after the final.

All season, she’d been bombarded with questions about Semenya and her right to race and she’d grown weary of dancing on the head of a pin. The questions were constant. She needed help.

Protections were put in place by way of a member of British Athletics intercepting any Semenya questions. But, with that BBC interview, Sharp was on her own.

“I remember thinking through my answer and trying to be really careful in what I said,” she recalls. “I got back to the village and people were asking me if I was OK, because there was loads of stuff on Twitter.

“I got really emotional in that interview – the culmination of four years work and not getting a medal while my grandad was dying at home. I was really sad.

“Things were taken out of context. Me crying was taken as being a sore loser. People said to me after, ‘Oh you’ve won because she’s not allowed to compete anymore’, but it was never like that, it was never me versus her. It was a really sad situation.”

‘I almost cringe at European gold’

Elite racing has been kind and cruel to Sharp.

She talks about the European Championships in Helsinki in 2012, an 800m final won by the Russian, Elena Arzhakova, with Sharp second. Another Russian, Irina Maracheva, was third and Maryna Arzamasova from Belarus fourth.

Arzhakova was a doper, got banned for two years and was stripped of her medal, Sharp being awarded gold retrospectively. Maracheva was also a doper. So, too, was Arzamasova.

“I got upgraded to gold, but I found it really hard to deal with because you start questioning everything,” Sharp says. “And you’re like, ‘What’s the point? Like, what’s the point in doing this?’.

“I didn’t get the national anthem played in that stadium. I didn’t get to do a lap of honour. I felt a bit disillusioned.

“I grew up with mum and dad talking about doping in the sport. And we’re still talking about it now. It’s just never going away.

“I got upgraded, but it’s too late. It didn’t mean anything to me. I almost cringe when people say I’m a European champion.”

Silver medal a triumph over adversity

At every twist and turn of Sharp’s career on the track, there’s been drama.

The Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014 was madcap. The night before her final, she went down with sickness and was taken to the hospital in the village.

No food, practically no sleep and the biggest race of her life to come. “I was on my hands and knees throwing up in the middle of the night outside what is now some person’s house,” she recalls.

Everybody around her was told to not mention what happened during the night. Everybody knew, but nobody raised it so as not to mess with her head.

“I would have questioned myself: Can I do it?” Sharp explains. “It’s only really when you look back do you realise how much of the sport is mental.

“I was only able to race because nobody said anything negative. That and the power of the crowd.”

She smiles when talking about the home crowd that night. She says it wasn’t that she could hear it, she could feel it.

“It was like they were pushing me down the track, as if the wind was behind only me,” Sharp says. “I had this super-power behind me.”

Her silver medal was a triumph over adversity and her proudest moment in the sport.

Her new life? She’s doing just fine. A little boy, Max, a husband, the runner Andy Butchart, a new career and a quieter existence. Bliss after the bedlam.

Some of that bedlam, though? The very best of times. Days and nights she will never, ever forget.

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