As the athletics program began at the Rio Olympics on Friday, there are few greater certainties on the track than South African Caster Semenya winning a gold medal in the women’s 800m.
The women’s 800m heats begin on Wednesday and barring illness or injury, there should be no other athlete able to provide Semenya with serious competition for top spot in the final next Saturday. She has run four of the five fastest times in the two-lap event this year, improving her own personal best to 1:55.33 seconds last month. When Semenya wins gold, like in 2009 at the World Championship when she was just 18-years-old, the controversy will surely follow.
For strongly patriotic South Africans and supporters of Semenya, the issue is simple and she should be allowed to run because she is a woman. The issue of Semenya competing, however, is far more complex than the distinction between the sexes.
One of the biggest arguments in favour of Semenya is that she is doing nothing wrong by competing. The 25-year-old is cleared to compete and is in the best form of her life. The problem, however, is that testosterone is the single biggest determining factor in athletic performance and the naturally high levels occurring in Semenya’s body give her a massive advantage over her competitors.
Seven years ago, Semenya was subjected to very public, very cruel, gender testing following her breakthrough win at the World Championships and she only returned to competition over a year later as a result.
The reason for the controversy lurking menacingly behind the curtain again is the ruling made by the Court of Arbitration (CAS) in July last year. CAS suspended “hyperandrogenism regulation” by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) because of a ruling involving Indian sprinter Dutee Chand. Athletes like Semenya and Chand, and others but none as high-profile as the South African, had been taking testosterone-lowering medication allowing them to compete up to that point.
At the time, women’s marathon world record holder Paula Radcliffe voiced her concerns about the elevated levels of testosterone in hyperandrogenic athletes.
“The concern remains that their bodies respond in different, stronger ways to training and racing than women with normal testosterone levels and that this renders the competition fundamentally unfair,” said Radcliffe.
Since that ruling, Semenya’s times have improved by up to seven seconds. In fact, at the SA Championships in April this year Semenya won the 400m, 800m and 1500m titles. Those three races were within three hours of each other, and Semenya could have had legitimate medal aspirations in Rio in the 400m and 1500m were she to compete.
Sports scientist Ross Tucker explains on the website sportsscientists.com the extent to which Semenya’s performances were affected until last year when the hyperandrogenism regulations were suspended.
“Semenya’s performances, under this policy of reducing testosterone, dropped off in a predictable manner,” writes Tucker.
“Having run the 1:55.45 at 18 years, she never got close again, though did win Olympic silver in London (behind a doper), and a World silver in 2011. Last year, she failed to advance beyond the semifinals in Beijing and hadn’t even made the qualification mark for the preceding year’s Commonwealth Games. 2:00 had become a significant barrier when the world record had been plausible at 18.
“Now, she is untouchable. People will (and have said) that it’s down to her focused training, recovery from injury and so forth, but I’m not buying that. The change has happened for an obvious reason – the restoration of testosterone levels, and that is thanks to the courts – CAS, the Court of Arbitration for sport, last year ruled that the IAAF could no longer enforce the upper limit of testosterone, and in so doing, cleared the way for Semenya, and at least a handful of others, to return to the advantages that this hormone clearly provides an individual. That CAS ruled this way because they felt that there was insufficient evidence for the performance benefits is one of the stupidest, most bemusing legal/scientific decisions ever made.”
The latest development on this issue came on Thursday when IAAF president Sebastian Coe said his organisation intend to challenge the ruling which suspended the monitoring of testosterone levels in female athletes. The IAAF has until July 2017 to appeal the ruling, and Coe said the IAAF would engage in talks with CAS over the next year on the matter.
“We were surprised by the CAS decision, and I think the IOC was too,” said Coe.
“We are looking again at this issue and will be talking to CAS at some time over the next year. We need to go back to CAS and have the right people looking at this.”
After the Rio Olympics, and assuming Semenya blows away the field by breaking the world record of 1.53.28 which has stood since 1983, Coe will have the main argument in his case. If the IAAF win the case and have ‘hyperandrogenism regulation’ restored, a level of testosterone monitoring will surely be re-introduced.
The level of testosterone reduction that CAS and the IAAF agree to will also be controversial, as whatever figure they come up with will appear arbitrary in a case which is far from unequivocal. – African News Agency (ANA)