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Coach says Semenya still long way from top form

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South African track and field athlete Caster Semenya smiles during a training session in Pretoria, South Africa, Thursday, July 8, 2010. South African track and field athlete Caster Semenya smiles during a training session in Pretoria, South Africa, Thursday, July 8, 2010.

LAPPEENRANTA, Finland (AP) — On the eve of Caster Semenya's return to competition, her coach said the South African runner is a long way from being in the shape that earned her gold in the 800 meters at the world championships.

Michael Seme said Wednesday that Semenya is aiming for a time of 2 minutes, 4 seconds at Thursday's Lappeenranta Games. It's her first race in nearly a year after undergoing gender tests.

It's a long way from the 1:55.45 Semenya set when she ran away from the field at the world championships in Berlin in August. However, she's still the favorite in Finland. Her closest rival, Ukraine's Olga Yekimenko, has a personal best that is five seconds slower.

"We are not expecting a good time tomorrow," Seme said. "She's far away from being in the shape that you know."

Seme said the main aim is to get Semenya fit enough to win the 800 gold at October's Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, India.

Semenya's manager, Jukka Harkonen, confirmed she'll also compete at the Lapinlahti Games on Sunday.

In an interview with Finnish newspaper Ilta-Sanomat, Semenya said she needs 10 or 12 competitions to reach peak condition.

"Eleven months is far too long a break from competing. I just need competitions, and this is what they have to offer here," she said. "I'm not there right now, but if I practice as my coach instructs me to, the world record will be no problem."

Jarmila Kratochvilova's world record of 1:53.28 has stood for 27 years.

Semenya's appearance at Kimpinen Stadium has created international media interest in an event that normally receives little attention outside the Nordic country.

Race director Jarmo Viskari said Semenya's appearance at the meet is "like having a lottery win."

Semenya was left out of South Africa's team for the upcoming African championships after failing a fitness test the day after she was cleared by the IAAF to compete.

As an 18-year-old in Berlin, Semenya burst onto the running scene with a victory at her first major final. Her dramatic improvement in times and muscular appearance led the IAAF to order gender tests.

This sparked outrage in South Africa where she had returned home a national hero after a stunning win. Public officials rallied behind her and her lawyers entered into negotiations with the IAAF that lasted 10 months.

Semenya said in the Finnish newspaper interview that she is not bitter about the gender tests and has not thought about suing the IAAF for compensation.

"I'm not bitter toward anyone. And I'm not even sure if I have been treated fairly or unfairly. I don't know the rules. If this had to be done like it was, then so be it," she said.

Seme said that his phone hasn't stopped ringing since Semenya was cleared to compete.

"It was a very nice day for us," the coach said. "We had a nice dinner, talked about it and even had champagne with the lawyers."

Rival athletes are also watching Semenya's return closely.

British 800-meter runner Jenny Meadows, who finished in third place in Berlin, told the Daily Express in England that she feels sympathy for Semenya.

"I feel sorry for Caster. The whole world knew about it. It was the first time Caster had been out of her own country to Europe," Meadows said. "It has been said that it's over now that Caster is being allowed to run again, but it won't be, not for her."

Meadows added that Semenya has the potential to break the world record if she can regain the form and fitness that took her to gold in Berlin.

"It's who's going to win the silver medal if Caster runs that fast again," Meadows said.


Associated Press Writer Matti Huuhtanen in Helsinki contributed to this report.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

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