Caster Semenya: Track and Field’s single biggest controversy continues

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© Copyright – 2019 – Athletics Illustrated

The single biggest controversy on the track over the past several years has been what to do about Caster Semenya, the South African 800-metre gold medallist from Rio who self-identifies and chooses to compete as a woman while living with a condition called hyperandrogenism.

Semenya is intersex. Non-official medical records indicate that she produces a significantly higher concentration of testosterone over most other women. Meanwhile the governing body of track and field, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), according to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, did not adequately prove that endogenously (naturally occurring) elevated testosterone is a performance enhancer.

Famed journalist Amby Burfoot put it in the nicest possible way and in not so many words, that while testosterone is one of those things that make people – mainly men – strong, Semenya has an apparent advantage that non-intersex woman can only get through cheating – in other words, the track is currently not an even playing field.

Paula Radcliffe recently said what many are thinking and that is if the CAS rule in favour of Semenya, therefore all woman with hyperandrogenism, this could bring down the sport.

During the 2016 Rio Olympic 800m final the top three women appeared to be very masculine. Recently the silver medallist in that race, Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi, confirmed that she is also intersex. Margaret Wambui, the bronze medallist has long been suspected of being intersex.

In 2016, the CAS said that the IAAF  apparently failed to prove testosterone’s benefits in women during their defence against the case of Indian sprinter Dutee Chand, who appealed their ruling that women with hyperandrogenism must take testosterone-limiting medication.

Although it would be ridiculous to suggest that Semenya is at fault for her condition, and it is not something that she should be shamed for, hyperandrogenism likely gave her an overwhelmingly unfair advantage over the athletes that she competes against. Currently, there is not enough research on the subject to prove how much she benefits, if at all.

However, she is the 2012 London Olympic silver medallist and the 2016 Rio Olympic gold medallist. Some have argued that she appeared to breeze to her Rio win.

While Semenya’s sex verification test results that the IAAF ordered up in 2009 were not officially released, some information was leaked.

Semenya has internal testes, no ovaries or womb and endogenously produces at least three times the testosterone in comparison to the average woman, 99 times out of 100.

Many of her competitors are frustrated by her so-called advantage. Some have even been cruel. Elisa Cusma Piccione of Italy said, “For me, she is not a woman… It is useless to compete with this, and it is not fair.” Britain’s Lynsey Sharp said after being easily defeated in Rio, of racing Semenya that “it is out of our control and how much we rely on people at the top sorting it out. The public can see how difficult it is with the change of rule but all we can do is give it our best.” She also suggested in that interview that her feelings about Semenya’s unchecked testosterone levels were echoed by other 800m runners that finished off the podium.

Canada’s Melissa Bishop is not one of them. Although at times Bishop has avoided discussing the subject with the media, she did tell Ottawa Citizen journalist Mohammed Adam, “No one in the race has control over this. Me missing the podium is because I didn’t run fast enough, not because of who was in the race.”

Bishop took time off in 2018 to start a family and is now training and apparently fit. It will be interesting to see how she fares after the ruling.

Semenya stormed onto the track scene in 2009. In just one year, she dropped her bests from 2:04.23 to 1:55.45 as a teenager, an unheard of performance improvement, which prompted the IAAF to put her through a sex verification test. Tactless as it was at the time, it revealed Semenya’s unfair advantage. She was subsequently ordered to take testosterone-limiting medication.

During the time that she was receiving the testosterone-controlling protocol, her performances plummeted. From 2009 to 2016 she ran annual seasonal bests at well under 2:00. Except during 2014, where she could manage just 2:02.66; a big drop in performance.

The CAS in 2015 ruled that the IAAF did not adequately prove that elevated testosterone in hyperandrogenous women is a performance enhancer. So they subsequently suspended the IAAF’s requirement to have her T-levels governed through medication. They also called it a human rights violation, all in the case of Chand appealing the ruling.

When the CAS overturned the IAAF’s policy, the governor was lifted and Semenya was back to near world record form. The world record of 1:53.28 by Czech Jarmila Kratochvílová from 1983 has always been viewed as suspicious – as have most of the next fastest performances between Kratochvilova’s and Semenya’s, which currently ranks at 20th all-time.

Unsurprisingly, Semenya was once again dominant in 2016. She easily ran her personal best (and again the fastest time of the year in the world) of 1:55.28.

But by doing so, Semenya demonstrated anecdotally that elevated T-levels are indeed a performance enhancer. Science has proven – long before the CAS ruling – that elevated levels of testosterone in women can provide an increase in performance. This is why WADA has banned the use of testosterone, and surely it is impossible for the CAS to now deny it is not clearly a performance enhancer.

In fairness, Canadian physiologist Trent Stellingwerff made it clear that there is not enough information regarding how much of a performance enhancement exists when elevated levels of testosterone is naturally produced in hyperandrogenous women. The results may be very different than for those who acquire the hormone exogenously.

The only way that women (the vast majority) can elevate their testosterone to the levels of hyperandrogenous women is to take performance-enhancing drugs. In other words, they would have to cheat. This creates a paradox: do you force a small minority of athletes to take inhibiting drugs in order to maintain the parameters of what is “female,” or do you open up the doping floodgates? It’s an impossible problem that’s unfixable without redefining the fundamental categories of sport.

The nuances and the complexities – scientifically-speaking – are so grey that it is a problem at this time that appears impossible to solve.

Therefore the CAS decided to put off making the decision until the end of April. There is no date indicated now. The original date was March 26, six months prior to the IAAF World Championships in Doha, Qatar, which start on September 27.

Between WADA’s ban of testosterone and Semenya’s demonstration while on and off the protocol, there appears to be a strong case that both exogenously and endogenously elevated testosterone are both indeed performance enhancers.

Semenya recognises that she is different. She has said, “God made me the way I am.”

Knowing this, she continues to choose to race against women.

Regardless, her competitors through drug testing and record-keeping in the Athlete Biological Passport are monitored and limited in their levels of testosterone, while Semenya is not.

How is that fair?

 

 

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