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Nigeria; Where Football Is Life

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Xavi has just got the ball from Sergio Busquets; Casillas makes the run to the edge of the penalty area as he receives the ball, dribbles past one opponent before playing a through-ball for Zidane, who lays it on for Iniesta on the left wing. Iniesta curls in a cross; Christiano Ronaldo rises at the far post to meet it with a powerful header –goal! The stadium erupts in thunderous cheer with cameras synchronizing in a blinding daze of flashes.

Unfortunately, this is not the commentary for a charity match with legendary players from the upper strata of football. There are no cameras in sight and instead of pristine, beautifully landscaped Astro Turf, we have sandy and rocky grounds.

Representing their icons are Obinna ‘Xavi’, Balo ‘Sergio Busquets’, Tola ‘Casillas’, Dayo ‘Zidane’ and Kola ‘Ronaldo’. We are in Lagos, Nigeria, watching the final game between two under-17 teams in the local league cup. The winner gets bragging rights as well as some products from a local FCMG brand.

Football is an overwhelming moment of beauty, spirit and pride and in the most populous country in Africa, that passion is palpable. Gianni Infantino, FIFA President, who was in Lagos at the maiden edition of the AITEO-Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) Awards this year, summed up this love perfectly.

“I was told that in Nigeria, football is passion, but it is a lie because it is more than that. In Nigeria, I was told that football is love, but it is a lie it is more than that. In Nigeria, I was told that football is a religion, but it is a lie. It is more than that. In Nigeria, football is life,” he says in his opening address to a room full of corporate executives, the upper echelons of power in government as well as the hall of fame of Nigerian football.

“Football is also business; when we can harness it properly, a lot of money can be made for the country through the game.”

The country’s love affair with the sport has blossomed over the years into an obsessive relationship. At a buka (local restaurant) in Surulere, a waiter is nearly slapped by an angry fan when he mistakenly changes the channel from a game between Chelsea and Man U to Soundcity, the indigenous 24-hour music channel that is a favorite of most of its diners.

After a heated exchange, the manager apologizes for the interruption and the game is back on. Commonsense is restored. Although this is a repeat match, the men watch intensely with the same passion and vigor of a live game.

“We found that football is the main pull for customers to our restaurant. They are passionate about football. It has turned into a family. Our customers come from all over Lagos to watch the games and once they are here, they have to eat and drink so it’s a win-win for us,” says Nnamdi Mayowa, owner of the restaurant.

As he speaks, a cheer rings out from outside the restaurant. Hordes of football fans have gathered to also catch a glimpse of the action and as any good football story goes, it all began with the kick of the ball in 1945.

That year, the Nigerian Football Federation was introduced as the governing body for the sport. Nigeria subsequently began participating in Africa’s Challenge Cup in the 1960s. Since then, the national team known affectionately as ‘The Super Eagles’, have had a fair number of successes. They won bronze medals in the 1978 and 1979 African Cup of Nations (AFCON) and in 1980, they won the championship in Lagos.

In 1984 and 1988, Nigeria subsequently captured silver medals in the tournament. Football had come to stay and with it a number of international stars were born and shipped to some of the world’s most successful football clubs with lucrative deals.

Then came the dark years. In 2010, Nigeria finished bottom of their group in South Africa with just one point from three matches after losing to Argentina and Greece and drawing with South Korea. In response, the then President Goodluck Jonathan banned the team from competing in the sport for two years. Then followed their exit at the 2014 World Cup where they lost to France, and a subsequent failure to qualify for the 2015 and 2017 editions of the AFCON. Nigerian football morale was at an all-time low.

Finally, a shimmer of light emerged at the end of the tunnel. The Super Eagles breezed through their group stage of the FIFA World Cup Qualifiers to earn a spot as one of only five African countries to make it to Russia 2018.

They were unbeaten in six matches with four wins and two draws, scoring 12 goals and only conceding four times, an incredible feat that took the team, led by German tactician, Gernot Rohr, to their sixth FIFA World Cup.

For Nigerians of this era, there is no sporting moment more significant than this triumph, especially as it is achieved against a backdrop of a sputtering economy that has gripped the country since the fall in crude oil prices and the Foreign Exchange (FX) fiasco of 2016 and 2017. The 2019 elections are also on the horizon and with it, greater economic uncertainty for Nigerians. The country has been increasingly marred by public dissent reflecting the mounting anger over an absentee president. To make matters worse, Nigeria has more than 300 tribes, making a consensus of any kind at the best of times, almost impossible to reach.

“We call football the unifying factor. When Nigeria is playing everyone comes together, we forget our tribes, we forget our differences, we even forget our religion. We all hug together when we do well and we all sulk together when we lose. Football is also business; when we can harness it properly, a lot of money can be made for the country through the game,” says Akin Alabi, founder of NairaBET, a leader in a wide range of betting opportunities on all sports.

Having attended two World Cups, South Africa in 2010 and Brazil in 2014, Alabi firmly has his eyes set on Russia.

“I want them to get to a quarter appearance. That will be the best-case scenario for me because I do not think we have gotten further than that,” he says.

However, he is quick to point out that this is not Nigeria’s strongest team.

“I think our 1994 team was fantastic. We do not have the caliber of players we had then, but no one has the perfect team out there. This is a national team and not like pro football where you can take money and buy whichever player you want. You have to make do with those that are available from the country you are from. So we are hoping it goes well,” says Alabi.

He believes the prospects of an African country actually bringing back the cup is far-fetched. Countries like Germany for example have a well-oiled football development machine, which helps them churn out a lot of quality players, which any African team cannot match right now.

“The German team is called a German machine for a reason, they have a well-oiled team and continuity. Their manager has been there for years on various World Cups so everything is run professionally. In Nigeria and Africa, when it is time for a match, we just invite players to run and play so that cannot work. We need better development in terms of processes,” says Alabi.

However, Brian Okonkwo is adamant Nigeria will go all the way to the finals. But then again, he would be. As a member of the Nigeria Football Supporters Club, he has dedicated his life to the advancement of the sport that saved his life as a troubled youth.

“When I was younger I used to be in an armed robbery gang and we did a lot of bad things to innocent people. I was on a fast track to jail or death but luckily, someone from my family was able to help me turn over a new leaf by introducing me to football,” says Okonkwo.

He has been present in all Nigeria’s five World Cup appearances in the past.

READ MORE: African, Football, Cup Up Aces’ Sleeve

“I think we have everything it takes to bring this home for our people, the team simply needs the support of the country behind them and that is our job. We are with them all the way and we need the resources to enable us to do our job,” says Okonkwo.

According to the Club’s National Chairman, Samuel Ikpea, the club will take 1,000 people to Russia to cheer and support the Super Eagles. This means 1,000 visa applications, 1,000 hotel rooms and 1,000 mouths to feed for the duration of the Russia 2018 tournament.

“Football is a passion of the nation and we do this job out of love for the sport. We have been in this business for a long time and we are already sourcing for funds to ensure that we get to Russia. Unfortunately, it is difficult because we have not been able to receive any funds from the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) or the ministry of sports since this new government came,” says Ikpea.

According to Ikpea, this differs to the previous government who invested $140,000 to help them cover expenses to support the Super Eagles in the last World Cup.

“Teams like Nigeria come into the World Cup and historically something happens. They look great in the qualifiers then everything falls apart, something happens with the federation, somebody doesn’t get paid and now all of a sudden this team is in disarray going into the competition,” says Marcus Dawson, a sports commentator for Metro TV.

In the absence of adequate infrastructure, and in spite of the paucity of training facilities, football is played on streets, paths or fields. The potential of the sport has not been realized in the country due to the lack of support from corporate organizations that only see football as a CSR initiative instead of a lucrative business venture.

As a result, the NFF is fighting to ensure the team has adequate resources to efficiently compete in Russia. According to Amaju Pinnick, President of the NFF, the organization is working on generating $2.8 million for the Super Eagles’ participation in the games.

“Failure is not an option in the FIFA World Cup and we need to come together to ensure we provide the team with everything they need to make it through,” says Pinnick.

The organization receives support from private organizaitons like Aiteo who have a focus on developing the quality of football in Nigeria. So far, Aiteo has paid the sum of $600,000 and $890,000 to cover its contractual obligation of providing support to the technical crew of the Super Eagles for the whole of 2018, well beyond the World Cup, according to Deputy Managing Director, Francis Peters.

READ MORE: Wounded Swallows Roast In Football Hell

This however pales in comparison to investment in sports by their European counterparts. In a little more than a decade, Germany has invested nearly $1 billion in its youth soccer programs, with academies run by professional teams and training centers overseen by the national soccer association, the Deutscher Fussball Bund, according to a report in The New York Times.

Also of grave concern was the issue of the selection process for the team, which sparked widespread debates across the country. Like the case of Sone Aluko, a professional football player, who is a striker for Fulham FC but could not make it on the coveted team shortlist.

“The NFF is not responsible for making the selection of who joins the team. That is the decision of the coach. I know the story of Sone but unfortunately we are just focused on getting the team ready for Russia 2018,” says Pinnick.

Colin Udoh, a leading journalist and sports presenter, shares his insights on the team selection methodology used by the coach.

“It is the coach that selects not the federation even though they have some sway in the decision but ultimately it is the call of the coach. But yes, Sunday Oliseh, who was the previous coach, said he likes to pick players from the top division and I think most coaches in Nigeria want players who are playing at the highest level and the very best in the world rather than those playing in the lower division,” he says.

Secondly, Udoh claims that most European coaches like Rohr will not admit this is what they do. An additional criteria, which Rohr has also added to this team’s selection process evident in the team representing the Super Eagles, is the attempt to lower the average age of the players to 23 years except for John Mikel Obi, Leon Balogun and the goalkeeper where he is trying to integrate a bit of experience into team. So on these two key criteria, most players like Aluko unfortunately will fall out of contention.

“He is not in the top division and he also happens to be 28 years. I would pick him in a heartbeat but unfortunately I am not the coach. If you look at the way the team have qualified for the World Cup, you cannot argue with the results. Apart from that one loss against South Africa, Rohr has masterminded the success of the team to qualify for the World Cup and it is going to be hard to argue with that result,” adds Udoh.

It has been a long road to get here. Nigeria could qualify through the group stages by having the best balance of exciting promise and solidity. In every nook and cranny, and from every social stratum and walk of life, one thing is undeniable, and that is the game of football permeates every aspect of Nigerian culture, and Russia 2018 is another opportunity for the country to put away the differences and unite for this all-important goal.

After all, football in Nigeria is life.

Nigeria’s supporters celebrate after their team scored the opening goal against Burkina Faso during the 2013 African Cup of Nations. Photo Getty Images.

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Thembi Kgatlana’s Long And Hard Road to Houghston

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Thembi Kgatlana’s goal was to make a living playing abroad. She is now proving to be a star of not just South African football but also the African game.

As South African forward Thembi Kgatlana crashed home a volley in the closing minutes of their African Women’s Championship match against nemesis Nigeria, she wheeled away in celebration, accepting the passionate thanks of her teammates.

Kgatlana had sealed just a second victory for South Africa over their old foes in 25 years of trying and for her, it capped a remarkable 2018 that has seen her thrust onto the global stage and into the best women’s football league in the world.

The goal provided all you need to know about the Leratong hospital-born footballer – the awareness to make the run, the speed to get away from the defender, the confidence to take on the shot and the technique to finish past the goalkeeper.

Kgatlana must be one of the quickest players in women’s football, but she has been eager to show in the last 12 months that her game is about much more than pace and she has certainly developed quickly after a first year spent at Houston Dash in the National Women’s Soccer League in the United States (US).

She was there with national teammates Janine van Wyk and Linda Motlhalo in 2018, and will return with the latter in 2019 having had her professional contract that she worked so hard to earn, renewed for another season.

She had hoped to move abroad after the 2016 Olympic Games, where she represented South Africa, but it took a further 18 months for a club to finally take a punt on her talent.

“The wait has been worth it,” Kgatlana tells FORBES WOMAN AFRICA with a broad smile, adding her debut for Dash was unforgettable despite a 3-0 loss.

“It was a moment I had always dreamed of, that I had waited for so long for and made so many sacrifices for. I’ll cherish it for the rest of my life.”

She says her goal has always been to play abroad and make a living out of football. The South African domestic scene is still amateur and cannot provide that support.

“It’s a dream I have been working towards for the whole of my life, since I started playing as an eight year old, working my way through the junior national teams, then to the senior national team. It’s been a long and a hard road, but I’m here now,” Kgatlana says.

She admits her first year in the US was an eye-opener in terms of the level of football and the commitment players put into the game.

“You really have to work hard, everyone is professional and most have been playing at this level for quite a while. They have the experience.

“It’s all about learning and adapting quickly. In life, you face challenges and it’s up to you what you do with those.

“I had to drop out of school [University of the Western Cape] in my final year to wear a professional jersey and to be in the fold to win a contract with a big club.

“I hope it motivates a lot of girls back home to show that anything is possible and dreams do come true.”

The 22-year-old made 16 appearances in her first season with Dash, scoring two goals but also providing a number of assists.

She was used a lot as an impact player off the bench, her extreme pace allowing her to glide past weary defenders in the closing stages of matches. She will want to turn those into more starts in 2019, but also understands her role within the side.

It is also something she has taken on with the national side, known as Banyana Banyana, where she has been an integral part of the set-up for some time, and was named Player of the Tournament when the team lifted the COSAFA Women’s Championship in 2016.

While one player’s career can never be defined by a single goal, Kgatlana has managed to write her name into the history books of Banyana with what is one of the more famous strikes against a Nigerian side that has been the number one team in Africa for many years.

“It was the most amazing feeling ever, because I knew that if I let it bounce a second time, I might not get the chance,” Kgatlana says.

“It’s either I hit it and I see what happens, or I don’t hit it. The adrenaline was rushing, because every time I get into the box, I’m still deciding. But at the moment, when the ball bounced, it was now or never.”

Kgatlana has announced herself as a genuine star of not just South African football but also the African game and her challenge in the coming years will be to kick-on and continue to improve.

She certainly has the drive, passion and the skill to do so, and her development into potential global icon over the next few years will be fascinating to watch.

  • Nick Said

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Egypt to host 2019 African Nations Cup

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Egypt will host the 2019 African Nations Cup finals, the Confederation of African Football confirmed after a meeting of their executive committee in Dakar on Tuesday.

They will stage the expanded 24-team event in June-July after initial hosts Cameroon were stripped of the tournament last month over concerns at the slow pace of preparations.

The North African nation will host the competition for the fourth time, and the first since 2006, after the announcement was made by CAF president Ahmad at a media briefing in the Senegalese capital.

Egypt and South Africa were the only two countries to put forward their candidacies to replace Cameroon.

It will be the first time there will be 24 teams at the tournament and CAF, after several inspection visits over the last two years, said Cameroon would not be ready in time.

Egypt has extensive football facilities, although in recent years attendances at local matches have been restricted because of security concerns following the Arab Spring revolution and Tahrir Square demonstrations in 2011.

The final round of qualifiers for the tournament will be held in March, with 14 nations, including Egypt, having already sealed their place at the finals. -Reuters

Nick Said

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‘From Zero to Hero’: The Queen Of The 800 meters Caster Semenya

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Caster Semenya, the Olympian, on never quitting, come what may.

It is August 2009 in Berlin, Germany, at the finals of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) World Championships.

It’s the 800 meters race; among the eight female runners is 18-year-old South African Caster Semenya, in a yellow track top and green shorts.

Thousands watch from the pavilion, loudly cheering as they await the gun to go off.

In the fourth line, Semenya waits too, blocking out all the noise in her head.

She takes in a long, deep breath and says a prayer.

“On your marks!” shouts the referee.

The women crouch.

“Get set!”

“Bang!”

And the race is on.

The young Semenya from Limpopo, one of South Africa’s nine provinces, runs alongside some of the world’s most famous athletes such as Mariya Savinova from Russia.

In two minutes, a winner will be crowned.

In an impressive show of might and mettle on the track, Semenya sprints ahead of the others.

With long strides, she is the clear lead.

A competitor from Kenya, Janeth Jepkosgei Busienei, then manages to run ahead of Semenya. It’s a tight race as they lead neck-to-neck.

At the sound of a bell signaling they have reached the 400-meter mark, Semenya bolts ahead of the group leaving a wide gap between her and the others.

At 1:55:45, Semenya is officially the champion.

It is a big win for the village girl from Limpopo.

“Things just went from zero to hero, so boom! Zero to hundred. It was just great,” beams Semenya when we meet her for the interview with FORBES WOMAN AFRICA.

At the end of the race, she does her signature move – the cobra – hands facing inwards and then outwards.

Holding the South African flag, she runs a few meters in a lap of honor.

Her country is proud, super-proud of its millennial daughter.

This match was the unforgettable milestone that launched the career of a simple girl from Limpopo on to the world stage.

Her name was soon going to be etched in gold.

Caster Mokgadi Semenya is the reigning Olympics and world champion in the women’s 800-meter race.

On a hot Monday morning in October, we meet Semenya in the leafy suburb of Greenside in Johannesburg, South Africa.

She arrives ahead of the appointed time with her wife Violet and her manager Becky Motumo. Her vehicle is number-plated ‘CASVIO’, an amalgamation of Semenya’s and Violet’s names.

That weekend, she had just returned from New York City, in the United States (US), where she received the Wilma Rudolph Courage Award from the Women’s Sports Foundation and from tennis icon Billie Jean King.

The ceremony was to award women who have extraordinary achievements in sport, and Semenya was one of the recipients.

As she enters the studio for our interview dressed in all-blue Nike apparel and sneakers, she greets everyone warmly.

First on the agenda for the day is makeup, something the sports star says she can never get used to.

“I like to be myself, I am true to myself. I just like myself the way I am and I don’t want anything to change in me,” says Semenya.

“With makeup, it’s the part I hate the most because I don’t like it. That’s not me, so it’s just something else. I don’t like it at all, I just do it because it is business,” she says, laughing.

Semenya opts for the natural look.

She says she loves the simple life, and has always been this way since her early years growing up in the small village of Ga-Masehlong.

As she readies, she reminisces those  years.

“Growing up in Limpopo was special to me, I’m a village girl,” she says.

“When you grow up in a big family, obviously, they appreciate you for who you are and everything you do. They support you. They don’t criticize your work, they just go with the flow and they want what makes you happy.”

Her family was extremely supportive of her love for sports.

Semenya started playing soccer at the age of four, on the street with her friends, and in the bush, where they would bet on matches.

“Actually, I was the best striker in the village [when it came to] street football,” she laughs.

“Everytime I got on to the pitch, everyone wanted me, so I was that kind of a kid.”

In a few years, the young Semenya traded in the football boots for running shoes.

“Before you can kick a ball, you have to run first. Football is all about speed, it is more about agility and how you can move.”

In grade one, Semenya was introduced to athletics and immediately found her feet as a sprinter.

But due to a lack of facilities and proper coaching at the school, she decided to opt for middle-distance running, instead of sprinting.

“With middle-distance, you can run anywhere you want and you can still perform. You don’t really need to be surrounded by mentors and stuff like that,” she says.

Semenya came to realize that she enjoyed running more than football and so traveled a lot to take part in competitions.

At the age of 12, she moved from living with her mother to taking care of her grandmother who was getting older.

“She’s a great human being. I am truly blessed to walk in her footsteps,” she says about her.

“She taught me more responsibility, how to take care of myself and how to take care of others. She also taught me respect, how to appreciate and how to accept others.”

Her grandmother supported her dreams to run, unaware then of how far it would take Semenya.

In 2007, at the age of 16, Semenya ran her first international race in Botswana.

Unfortunately, she was placed fifth and returned to South Africa defeated, but hopeful.

“From there, I discovered that there are a lot of things to learn and I need to focus more and concentrate.”

Semenya worked harder and pushed herself to become better than her competitors.

It was the beginning of her international career in sports.

From ‘zero to hero’

The year 2008 was her final year in high school.

 Semenya continued to compete whilst pursuing her studies.

She had qualified for the 2008 World Junior Championships held in Bydgoszcz in Poland in July that year.

She was one of two Africans competing in the 800m-race.

 Unfortunately, she didn’t make it.

Three months later, her luck changed.

She competed in the 2008 Commonwealth Youth Games in Pune, India.

Semenya won her first international title with a record of 2:04, which was not bad for a 17-year-old.

It was a defining moment in Semenya’s career.

“From there, that’s when I knew this is my field. I need to be in command and I need to train hard. I need to be strong physically and mentally, and everything needs to be ready,” she says.

Since then, gold has become her color.

After the win and back to reality, Semenya went back to high school to complete her matric examinations – these were two fulfilling accomplishments for the young athlete.

2009 was a year of monumental change for Semenya.

The village girl moved to the big city.

She traveled 317km from Limpopo to Pretoria, South Africa’s capital, and enrolled at the University of Pretoria studying athletics science.

 While there, she trained under Micheal Seme, preparing for more career-defining races.

Semenya dedicated her time to intense  training, working on improving her running time.

She ran the 800 meters in two minutes and qualified for the 2009 IAAF World Championships, but due to lack of experience, she didn’t know much about her competitors who had been running for years.

“I knew what I wanted to achieve. It was all about running good times and back then, good times take you to winning big championships,” she says.

In July that year, at the African Junior Athletics Championships, Semenya won both the 800m and 1,500m races with the times of 1:56:72 and 4:08:01 respectively.

She had improved her 800m running time by eight seconds since winning the Commonwealth Games nine  months earlier.

She was the fastest runner worldwide for the 800m races that year. She had bested the senior and junior South African records held by South African female athletes Zelda Pretorius and Zola Pieterse, popularly known as Zola Budd.

But there was no time to lose.

Caster Semenya crosses the line to win the gold medal in the women’s 800 meters final during day five of the 12th IAAF World Athletics Championships at the Olympic Stadium.

Semenya continued to press on training to compete in the IAAF World Championship 2009 in August in Berlin.

She went on to win as a newcomer among some of the world’s best runners.

The long run to freedom

Back home, she brought more glory to the nation.

But as South Africa cheered and celebrated her, others had different plans for the teenage athlete.

At the time, news reports surfaced about the IAAF looking into the young athlete.

The reports suggested that they were conducting gender tests on her.

In a statement published by the IAAF in September that year, they declined to comment on the medical testing of Semenya but confirmed that it was indeed gender-testing.

“We can officially confirm that gender verification test results will be examined by a group of medical experts,” they said.

At the time, they were in discussion with the South African Ministry of Sport and Recreation and Semenya’s representatives, with the view to resolve the issues surrounding Semenya’s participation in athletics.

It was a dampening end to her year.

In November, the results came back.

They found Semenya to have high testosterone levels.

As a result, she was suspended from running and forced to sit on the sidelines.

Semenya’s response was released in a statement by her lawyers.

“I have been subjected to unwarranted and invasive scrutiny of the most intimate and private details of my being,” Semenya said.

“Some of the occurrences leading up to and immediately following the Berlin World Championships have infringed on not only my rights as an athlete but also my fundamental and human rights.”

Reminiscing on the events that took place, Semenya tells FORBES WOMAN AFRICA that she wasn’t and still isn’t worried about the IAAF.

 She will continue to run the race she started.

“Actually, I never thought anything about them. It was just all about me. What is it that I can control? Of course, if someone is or wants to do whatever they want to do, there is nothing you can do,” she says.

“So, I never think about such people. I always think about myself and what will benefit me… There’s nothing I can do about what organizations think and there’s nothing they can do about what I think.”

The case was complex.

 Media reports and critics questioned the ethics of their testing and their methods.

But Semenya was not the first.

 News items and academic reports suggest that sex verification tests at the IAAF started as early as the 1950s.

Dutch athlete Foekje Dillema was reportedly banned in July 1950 after undergoing gender-testing by the IAAF.

In more recent times, Dutee Chand, Pratima Gaonkar and Pinki Pramanik, all from India, have reportedly had to undergo gender-testing too.

But Semenya stood strong.

After her experience, she calls on all women to unite.

“I think we as women need to come together and support each other,” she says.

“Without that, you will still feel discriminated, you still feel oppressed, you still feel criticized in everything that you do and you will still feel like you are not recognized,” she says.

During this trying period for Semenya, back home in Limpopo, a 15-year-old girl from the small town of Westenburg was acting as Semenya in a high school play.

Caster Semenya.
Picture:
Motlabana Monnakgotla

Sevenah Adonis was finishing her grade eight at Hoërskool Pietersburg when she played Semenya for the year-end school concert.

It was also the same period Adonis first heard about the track star.

Semenya’s trial had inspired the young girl.

“My general perception of Caster Semenya  when I had just heard of her is that she’s a very fantastic athlete,” Adonis tells FORBES WOMAN AFRICA.

 “Limpopo is a very isolated place. There’s not a lot of exposure or anything, so for her to actually make it over the parameters of Limpopo is remarkable. I do look up to her and I aspire to go beyond my borders and accomplish things that she has accomplished,” she says.

Adonis is currently pursuing a degree in economics at the University of Limpopo.

The 22-year-old hopes to meet Semenya one day, but for now, she watches and cheers on her fellow Limpopo native making a global mark.

Back in Semenya’s world, July 2010 (after six months of being suspended) was when she received the news she had been waiting to hear.

The IAAF announced that she would be able to compete again.

“The IAAF accepts the conclusion of a panel of medical experts that she can compete with immediate effect,’’ they said in a statement.

The medical details and findings are confidential.

Despite the controversy with the IAAF, Semenya had been dubbed a hero by many for the way she handled the situation.

During the interview with us, she remembers what former South African President, the late Nelson Mandela, once told her when they met.

“Be the best that you can be,” he said to her.

“He just told me, ‘people can talk, people can do whatever they want to do, but it’s up to you to live for yourself first before others. So, the only thing that you can do is to be the best that you can be’,” she says.

It was the best advice she had ever been given.

Semenya returned stronger, winning every race and championship she entered.

“My goal is to be the greatest and there is nothing that anyone can do about it,” she says.

“I’m an athlete, I train and I perform. That’s me and that’s what keeps me going. I believe in myself and I trust myself and I’m always motivated. I’m a very positive person. So even if something comes in a negative way, I always find a way to put in more positive,” she says.

Semenya went on to win a silver medal in the 800 meters at the World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, in 2011.

But it was in the year 2012 when she showed the world her true prowess on the track.

Leading the charge in London

Semenya was only 21 years old when she participated in her first Olympic Games.

“I was more mature then I think, but I didn’t have that knowledge of understanding my body; how to train myself, you know, to calm down,” she says.

But the prestige of the Olympic games excited Semenya.

It was the opening ceremony at the 2012 London Olympics and Semenya carried the South African flag proudly in front of  thousands at the London Stadium (formerly known as the Olympic Stadium), while leading the South African Olympic team.

It was a proud moment for South Africans across the world.

Thousands and thousands cheered her on.

“It shows a great quality, especially more in leadership. So, I lead the team in and then, of course, I still have to go deliver because people look up to you. Your family, your friends, the entire nation. They expect you to perform,” she says.

One of the challenges she faced was not knowing whether all her training had been good enough for that moment.

She didn’t know what to expect.

“What’s going to happen in this championship? Am I going to win? Am I going to even win a medal?” she asked herself at the time.

“It was kind of the most stressful championship I have had in my life…” she says today.

It all came down to how prepared she was.

“When I walk onto that track, I perform. So, when I perform, I expect people to recognize my work but not just because I am me, but for the work that I do,” she says.

But once it was time for the race to take place, Semenya put all her worries aside and stayed focused.

“It is no longer about what happened last week. It’s about what’s going to go down now. We are more focused about it. It’s do or die,” she says. The pressure was on. Semenya was determined to win. Crowds in the stadium cheered waiting for the gun to go off.

“Bang!”

The runners started off.

Semenya began to pick up pace.

As she did, she looked back and saw the other runners catching up.

It was do or die.

“The main thing was to think ‘I have to keep going’. But my other mind was like ‘you have lost the race, there is nothing you can do’… But when you believe that ‘ok, I still have a chance for a medal’, you will just keep on pushing until you get the momentum.”

In the end, Semenya was placed second, behind Russia’s Savinova.

Semenya brought home silver.

It was a proud moment and South Africa celebrated with her as the whole world watched the new face of 800m.


Francine Niyonsaba and Caster Semenya. Picture: Adrian Dennis/ AFP/ Getty images

Francine Niyonsaba, an 800m Burundian gold and silver medallist, was a competitor alongside Semenya at the same race.

After meeting a few months earlier in Monaco, they had become friends.

“Caster Semenya is a good runner. She loves everybody and I think she is a very talented girl and an inspiration to all, especially African youth,” Niyonsaba tells FORBES WOMAN AFRICA.

Twentyfive-year-old Niyonsaba draws inspiration from her friend.

She says that the challenge women face in Burundi is that they feel they can’t achieve anything, elsewhere in the world.

“In Burundi, in our culture, women believe they cannot do something special in the world but it is just a mentality,” she says.

“A woman can do everything!”

Both Niyonsaba and Semenya are passionate about inspiring other women in sport and putting Africa on the map.

Caster Semenya reacts after winning gold in the women’s 800 meter final on Day 15 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium.
Picture: Adrian Dennis/ AFP/ Getty images

At the 2016 Olympics Games in Rio, Brazil, the two competed again.

This time, Niyonsaba won silver and Semenya won gold.

They met again at the 2017 World Championships in London and it was the same win again; Niyonsaba silver, and Semenya gold.

Despite the two always running against each other, Niyonsaba says on the track, Semenya has been very encouraging towards her and the others.

“As an African, she is trying to do something special. She is an exceptional girl, because you know as women in Africa we are afraid to do some things. So, Caster Semenya is trying to show everyone that women can do everything,” says Niyonsaba.

‘I don’t see myself

stepping down’

After bagging world titles and beating records, what else is on the cards for the sports star?

For Semenya, there’s no stopping her and she plans to stay on in the sports industry.

“I don’t see myself stepping down; until  I’m 40, that’s when I’ll be satisfied.”

Semenya plans to become the greatest middle-distance runner in the world and she plans to break more records.

Back home, in Pretoria, she has been running the Caster Semenya Foundation aimed at coaching and equipping children who are active in sports.

The foundation currently trains 20 children aged 12 years and older.

She plans to expand it to other parts of the country.

“My main goal is to empower women and help other young men to be better in future,” she says.

“You have to show them first that education is important and we balance it with sports. If we can perform both sides, I think we will be fulfilled,” she says.

“Education never stops, you keep on learning every single day.

“Without education, your decision-making will be weak… when you are educated, it becomes very easy to make decisions and decide what is the next step.”

In 2018,  she received her diploma in Sports Science from North-West University.

But she hasn’t stopped.

She is currently pursuing a degree in Sport Management at the Tshwane University of Technology.

It has been a big year for the athlete.

In September, she joined the Nike ‘Just do it’ campaign for its 30th birthday.

It featured some of the greatest athletes, the likes of tennis icon Serena Williams and former National Football League quarterback Colin Kaepernick, with each bringing social issues to the fore.

In October, she became the ambassador of Discovery Vitality.

In November, she won big at the South African Sport Awards. She took home the People’s Choice Sports Star Of The Year; Sports Woman Of The Year, and the Sports Star Of The Year.

She was also nominated for the 2018 Female World Athlete of the Year at the IAAF Athletics Awards in December.

With all her accolades and achievements, as her star continues to rise, what about her finances?

During the interview, when asked how much she is worth, the village girl from Limpopo simply smiles and says, “I’m just priceless, to be honest.” 

‘She Is So Humble; Does Not Sweat The Small Stuff’

Caster Semenya’s manager, Becky Motumo. Picture: Supplied
Becky Motumo describes what it’s like managing Caster Semenya’s busy diary.

What is it like working with Caster Semenya?

I love how driven she is… Every single day is absolutely dynamic, ever-changing. It is always a rush. When I talk about a rush, I mean in a good way, because it is a very busy period for us.

I think that having a boss like her, is unique in the sense that she is very direct. So she knows what she wants. She is very assertive. I think for me it’s those little experiences that really make it special.

What are some of the qualities that make her who she is?

People are always quite taken aback by the kind of person she is, her humility. They will try to deck it out, you know roll out the red carpet.

They want to offer her the world and she is so humble. She wants to walk in and get the job done and be professional. She will deliver everything that needs to be delivered. And she respects your time as well. She gets it done and she is out, and you know you have to appreciate someone with a work ethic like that.

What is your favorite memory of her?

Every day! I think especially the times when we are traveling, when we are brainstorming and when we are talking about future plans. She is a very animated individual.

She has an incredible sense of humour and I don’t know anybody who wouldn’t enjoy being around that. It makes working with her an absolute pleasure.

Yes, we are serious, yes, we are professional, yes, we are about the business, but it does help to have those moments of humour when she is talking like Michael Jackson, or dancing, or doing something completely out of the ordinary. And that’s a side of her people wouldn’t know about unless you are close to her.

But I enjoy that, and I enjoy the relationship that I have with her wife Violet.

What kind of a leader is Semenya?

Her time is very important to her. She likes to show up on time, she is extremely professional in terms of that.

I try to arrive at a venue 30 minutes before she gets there. But, if you are late and you are messing with her time because she has such a tight schedule, then definitely she will let you know about that. She will try and be kind about it but she is very stern, so you know that’s one of the examples.

But, as soon as she has told you how she feels, we quickly move on and it’s about the work. And I think that’s the one thing I love about her. She does not sweat the small stuff.

She does not sit and harbor any ill feelings, or spend too much time worrying about anything in the past, so we move on very swiftly.

At the end of the day, it is about getting the work done and that is what we are about.

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