'Distance makes sense:' Semenya pins Olympic hopes on 5,000

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South African long distance athlete Caster Semenya on her way to winning the 5,000 meters at the South African national championships in Pretoria, South Africa, Thursday, April 15, 2021. Semenya said she's likely to focus on long-distance events for the rest of her career. (AP Photo/Christiaan Kotze)

PRETORIA – Caster Semenya won the 5,000-meter race at the South African national championships on Thursday in a personal-best time and then said she's likely to focus on long-distance events for the rest of her career.

That could be her best hope of running at this year's Tokyo Olympics after being barred from defending her 800-meter title.

The two-time Olympic champion won the 5,000 in 15 minutes, 52.28 seconds at Tuks Athletics Stadium at the University of Pretoria. That was outside the Olympic qualifying standard of 15:10.00 but Semenya has until the end of June to qualify for Tokyo.

Although the nationals are South Africa's main trials for the Olympics, athletes only need to register a qualifying time once at any recognized meet before the June 29 cutoff.

It's still a long shot for the 800-meter specialist, but Semenya's time on Thursday was more than 22 seconds faster than her last outing in the 5,000.

Semenya's participation in the event at the nationals was confirmed the day before the meet started and is a departure from her previous plans after announcing last year that she would attempt to qualify for the Tokyo Games in the 200 meters.

“We had to look into‚ can we do 200 for the next five years? It was not really in our favor," the 30-year-old Semenya said Thursday. "I’m getting old‚ I’m scared to tear my muscles. We had to sit down and make sure that the decision that we make makes sense. Distance makes sense.”

Semenya is barred from running in events from 400 meters to one mile at top track meets under World Athletics' testosterone rules. She has refused to bow to those rules and take medication to lower her natural testosterone levels, calling the regulations unfair and discriminatory.