The price of victory: Caster Semenya again on trial

EPA/Franck Robichon

In summary: 
  • Retesting of biological samples from the 2012 London Olympics either has or will involve anti-doping cases being brought against numerous athletes
  • However, critics claim women’s sport is in peril if the Court of Arbitration for Sport decision that allowed Semenya to compete is not overturned

Caster Semenya’s gold medal in the women’s 800 metres track event at the Rio Olympics may be supplemented, in coming months, by an upgrade from silver to gold for the same event at the London Games. Re-testing of biological samples from 2012 either has or will involve anti-doping cases being brought against numerous athletes.

It is thought that Russian Mariya Savinova, winner of the 800m at London, is among that group. She is already facing charges of systematic doping; losing this gold medal would add pain to any disqualification.

Semenya – being a clean athlete and runner-up – would deservedly claim the gold medal. Much like Australia’s track athlete Jared Tallent, who was belatedly awarded a gold after his Russian opponent was eventually found to have doped, Semenya would be roundly applauded as the new winner.

Politics of participation

Intriguingly, there is likely to be greater public acceptance of Semenya’s achievement from London than for her victory in Rio.

In 2012, her time in the 800m final was 1:57.23; in 2016 it was 1:55.28. According to critics, this two-second performance difference can be accounted for by the suspension of the IAAF’s hyperandrogenism policy, which (from mid-2011 through to mid-2015) set an upper limit on endogenous testosterone levels in female athletes.

Semenya, who is understood to have hyperandrogenism, was barred from athletics by the IAAF for much of 2009-10. It is speculated, but not confirmed, that Semenya was “allowed” back on the condition that she take medication to reduce her normal levels of testosterone.

From mid-2015, Semenya was no longer required to take hormone-altering drugs after the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) ruled that the IAAF had not presented evidence that endogenous testosterone conferred athletic advantages among women.

CAS also ventured that performance gains through naturally high levels of testosterone in female athletes may be proportionate to other genetically heritable bodily attributes that are not surveilled.

IAAF in the dock

The appeal to CAS was brought by Indian sprinter Dutee Chand, who had been banned from competing under the hyperandrogenism policy. She was now free to take part in the Rio Games, where she participated without fanfare, not moving beyond the initial qualifying stage.

Unlike Semenya, whose every heat was scrutinised, Chand posed no interest to the media, nor a performance threat to rivals. Much like her colleague, Santhi Soundarajan (banned by the Athletics Federation of India in 2006 under its “gender test”), Chand was not competitive on the world stage – and raised no clamour in Rio.

Semenya, by contrast, had always been a top-level performer – and received saturation coverage at the Olympics.

Semenya appears likely to be made the Olympic champion in both London and Rio, but according to critics of the CAS decision, the second of these achievements is problematic. A typical complaint is that Semenya’s times – which are overall better in 2015-16 than in 2011-2014 – are evidence that elevated levels of endogenous testosterone do confer a performance advantage for women athletes.

At present, though, this is merely correlation, not causation. As any reputable scientist will affirm, a hypothesis is a proposition until it is tested robustly. And that is precisely what CAS has asked the IAAF to follow up.

Some 14 months after that ruling, the IAAF has still to go back to CAS. It has a further ten months in which to do so, otherwise the hyperandrogenism regulation will not simply be suspended, it will be declared void.

Respecting the umpire’s decision?

A cornerstone of sport is acceptance of the rules in place, as well as respect for adjudication processes.

The CAS decision about the hyperandrogenism policy was made in mid-2015; the IAAF has yet to go back to court. In the meantime, opponents of the CAS ruling have directed much of their angst about this towards a single athlete – Semenya – rather than the IAAF.

Social media has been replete with claims that women’s sport is in peril if the CAS decision is not overturned, as with this tweet reflecting on Semenya:

Gender will kill off female elite sports. Elite sports is professional and transgenders compete NOW! Gender sport should be XX & XY

Former British star athlete Paula Radcliffe has also been exasperated. In a radio interview she lamented:

When we talk about it in terms of fully expecting no other result than Caster Semenya to win that 800m, then it’s no longer sport.

Radcliffe might have conceded that no-one really expected Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps or Katie Ledecky to be beaten in their favourite events, but it was still “sport”.

Some of Semenya’s competitors in the 800m final expressed “frustration” with the CAS decision. Britain’s Lynsey Sharp, who finished sixth (2.5 seconds behind the winner), said:

You can see how emotional it all was … 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.

Sharp might have conceded that her personal best time for the 800m – 1:57.69 – would have left her 0.5 of a second behind Semenya at London, during a period in which (it is assumed) the latter was taking hormone-suppressant medication.

Polish runner Joanna Jozwik, who came fifth behind Semenya, drew attention to bronze medallist Margaret Wambui, whom she suspected also had elevated levels of natural testosterone. When asked how she could get to the podium, Jozwik replied: “inject a little testosterone”. Her time at Rio – 1:57.37 – would not have put her past Semenya in London.

Managing expectations

During the Rio Olympics, the IAAF reiterated its surprise and disappointment at the CAS judgement. This was extraordinary commentary at the very time Semenya was competing.

IAAF president Seb Coe emphasised that the IAAF would at some stage be going back to CAS. This added jet fuel to media obsession with the “fairness” of Semenya’s participation at the Olympics.

This type of mismanagement has provided oxygen to those who seem to relish questioning the “legitimate” status of female athletes who don’t suit conventional norms of femininity. The following tweet is from an athletics coach:

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