Caster Semenya has been the dominant force of female 800 metre running the last few years, but if the IAAF gets its way her dominance could come to an end after the 2018 season. The double Olympic and World champion coasted to easy victories and Games records in both the 800 and 1500 meters in Gold Coast, Australia, during the Commonwealth Games last week.
Semenya has remained undefeated over her favoured distance of 800 meters, since the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) ruling of the 24th of July 2015 in the Dutee Chand case, which suspended the IAAF’s hyperandrogenism regulations.
The IAAF’s hyperandrogenism regulations introduced in May 2011 had set a limit of natural testosterone for female competitors at 10 nanomoles per litre of blood. Caster Semenya, Indian sprinter Dutee Chand and others who exceeded this ceiling were barred from competing unless they submitted to treatment which would medically suppress their production of testosterone.
The CAS ruling awarded the athletics federation two years to scientifically prove that elevated levels of natural testosterone improved the performance of female athletes in an unfair manner. The deadline was extended twice and the IAAF submitted both a draft of their new proposed regulations and supporting evidence in September 2017. These revised regulations would only apply to the running events of, 400, 400 hurdles, 800, 1500 and one mile. The IAAF has until the 19th of June 2018 to decide if it will maintain its support of the original regulations or to advise CAS regarding how it intends to implement the revised regulations, which they want to be implemented by November 2018.
It is impossible not to sympathise with Caster Semenya after the despicable way she was treated by the media, some of her competitors, the IAAF and her own federation, Athletics South Africa, at the tender age of 18, after her break through victory during the Berlin 2009 World Championship.
A lot of what happened then was beyond atrocious. Pierre Weiss, the general secretary of the IAAF, stated that:
“She is a woman, but maybe not 100%”
Elisa Cusma who competed in the final, finishing sixth, took it even further and told reporters:
“She is a man”
Even so it must be considered that this is an issue which goes far beyond the popular South African. The reality is that the 800 meter is an event that has been utterly dominated by athletes either known, or rumoured, to have their performances boosted by naturally high levels of male hormones. The results after CAS suspended the IAAF’s hyperandrogenism regulations, speaks for themselves. Every gold medal and nine of the twelve medals at the last four global championships have been won by competitors belonging to this category.
Lord Coe, the president of the IAAF, has made it abundantly clear that the issue is not about cheating: “I want to make one point crystal clear, this is not about cheating, no athletes have cheated.”
However, he has also reiterated:
“This is about our responsibility as a sports international federation to ensure, in simple terms, a level playing field.”
“We draw the lines at two classifications for our competitions, men's events and women's events.”
“This means we need to be clear about competition criteria for those two categories.”
There are a near endless number of drivers for why people succeed at sports. Some are physical like the height of a basketball player. Others are psychological, like as an example the alpine skier Aksel Lund Svindal’s ability to master fear and perceive risk differently from most other humans, while thundering down a mountain at speeds in excess of 150 kilometres an hour. Some ask why a biological driver like testosterone levels should be treated differently from a physical driver, like the height of a basketball player. After all, elite sports are riddled with physical, biological and psychological outliers.
The matter is further complicated by the fact that there seems to be no way of adroitly dividing the biological parameters of gender into only two categories in the real world and that subjecting healthy women to hormone treatment to curtail testosterone levels is not a benign intervention. Many also see it as a human rights issue and some gender equality advocates argue that barring women with higher levels of testosterone from competing would be discrimination, as the competitor would be punished for natural body traits. It is excessively harsh to tell an athlete who identifies as a woman, was born as a woman, reared as a woman and who believe that she should compete with other women, that she can only be allowed to compete against men.
The way sport is currently organised, for the most part broken into only two distinct categories, men’s events and women’s events, is far from ideal. To safeguard the rights of all, it could make sense to add a third “intersex” category. However, it is doubtful if such a classification would be financially viable and this makes it very unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future. This means that Lord Coe has a valid point. Clear criteria are needed to determine who will be allowed to compete as a female. If we do not have clear and enforceable criteria, women will likely in some cases be forced to compete against athletes with no wombs, ovaries but internal testosterone producing testes.
It is not only the rights of the hyperandrogenic athletes that are at stake. The rights of the 99% of women, who have testosterone levels of less than 1/3 of the old IAAF threshold, should also be considered.
While above average height is considered an advantage across many sports, like basketball, tennis, rowing, hurdling and volleyball, it will be a disadvantage for other sports. Being of less than average height, will in most cases give you a greater strength to weight ratio, greater power to weight ratio, faster rotational capacity, greater agility, balance and a lower centre of gravity. Being shorter is considered an advantage in some sports like artistic gymnastics, horse racing and shooting.
With male hormones in female sports it is a different story. You would be hard pressed to find many sports where having less of it would constitute an advantage. So in my opinion the comparison of physical traits like the advantage of height in basketball to having more male hormones in female sports is comparing apples to oranges.
According to the research made by Stephane Bermon and Pierre-Yves Garnier that was published in British Journal of Sports Medicine, which the IAAF presented as evidence to CAS in September of 2017, female athletes with higher testosterone levels can have a competitive advantage of between 1.8%-4.5% over female athletes with lower testosterone levels, for some events. A two percent advantage in the women’s 800 can be the difference between winning and not making the final. It is however far less than the give or take 12 percent difference often encountered when comparing male and female sports.
It is also a question of the survivability of female sports as we have known it for decades. If hyperandrogenic athletes will be allowed to dominate certain sports or events, what will the impact be on the recruiting of the non-hyperandrogenic female athletes for these sports and events? As a woman with normal levels of male hormones, knowing that you likely will be up against competitors who will have a significant advantage over you due to as an example having testosterone producing internal testes, would you really be motivated to make the sacrifices associated with professional sports through many years to try to make it to the top?
To be fair even if Semenya has had good results in both the 1500 meter, where she recently won the Commonwealth Games in dominating fashion and nabbed a bronze medal at the World Championship in London last year, and the 400 meter, where she has won on the Diamond League circuit. The 800 race is the only championship event where she truly has stood apart from her competitors. Even if she holds the world best in the 600 meter, her personal bests in the other events are some way off the world records.
It has been suggested, that Semenya is just jogging and toying with the other competitors and that she could break world records at will and might even run the first female mile below 4 minutes. Even if I agree that it looks a lot like she is jogging and controlling the races before sprinting to victory late, I think this is mostly down to her running style. It has looked much like she has been only jogging when she has been defeated in big races too, like the 2012 Olympics. The first across the line, Mariya Savinova was later disqualified for doping.
I find speculation that she could run the one mile race in less than 4 minutes and break Svetlana Masterkova’s current world record by more than 12 seconds absolutely nonsensical. Even if I am convinced that her record breaking abilities are vastly exaggerated and no matter how much I respect Caster Semenya and how appalled I am by the way she was treated after her breakthrough in 2009, I truly hope that the sport federations like the IAAF will be allowed to take the steps they deem necessary to try to keep women’s sports as a level playing field. Unsurprisingly, research indicates that testosterone levels are a driver of performance and if sport federations are not allowed to determine that athletes who have many times more testosterone than is encountered in 99 percent of women, should not be allowed to compete as females, it will likely over time become the end of female sports as we know it.