Caster Semenya and the IAAF witch-hunt

The association put the South African athlete through a humiliating gender-verification ordeal when she broke on to the circuit in 2009. Ten years later, not much has changed.

The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) has hounded Caster Semenya for a decade, treating her worse than athletes who were found guilty of taking part in state-sponsored systematic doping.

The IAAF’s witch-hunt of the two-time 800m Olympic gold medalist has gone as far as the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). Semenya is challenging the IAAF on their hyperandrogenism regulations. Last week, from 18 to 22 February, the matter was heard in Switzerland behind closed doors.

Under these regulations, athletes like Semenya with naturally high testosterone levels will be required to suppress their testosterone production with medication to ensure it remains below five nanomoles a litre if they want to compete in the 400m, 400m hurdles, 800m and 1 500m events. Semenya rules the roost in three of those distances: 400m, 800m and 1 500m.

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The flawed data on which the IAAF’s case rests ranked hammer throw (4.53%) and pole vault (2.94%) as the events in which athletes with high testosterone levels have a bigger advantage, compared with the 400m (2.73%) and 800m (1.78%) events. But hammer throw and pole vault were left out of the proposed regulations, which suggests that this is not only a direct attack on Semenya but also a racially motivated stance, as athletes who do well in those codes tend to be white while athletes of colour dominate the 400m, 800m and 1 500m events.

“This is an attack on her and her alone from those who simply don’t like that she doesn’t fit into their neat box of what a woman is,” Hannah Mouncey, an Australian transgender footballer wrote in The Guardian. “The fact that these limitations only apply to the events she has dominated for so long means that the IAAF’s attack on her isn’t even subtle, such is the arrogance with which the organisation operates.”

IAAF’s ‘underhand tactics’

The IAAF has been blatant in their attack on Semenya, from targeting her events to using questionable data and leaking confidential information before the start of the hearing.

“Athletics South Africa [ASA] notes with great dismay and disappointment that despite the parties having been bound to confidentiality undertakings and ASA consistently adhering to them, IAAF has during the course of the proceedings this morning [18 February] released the names and backgrounds of their expert witnesses,” said ASA.

The IAAF also revealed “the topics to be covered by them in the current proceedings at the court of arbitration. This is in clear violation of the confidentiality undertaking made to CAS and in ASA’s view, these amount to underhand tactics to try and win support for their views in the court of public opinion.”

That the hearing was held behind closed doors is concerning. Based on the underhandedness with which the IAAF has conducted itself, there should have been more transparency in the matter.

There wasn’t much credibility in the scientific evidence either. A number of researchers have deemed it flawed and gone so far as to call for its retraction.

The errors found by the researchers – which they said Stéphane Bermon, the head of the IAAF’s health and science department and co-leader of the research, had confirmed in an email – include duplicate athletes (more than one time included for an individual), duplicate times (the same time repeated once or more for an individual athlete) and phantom times (no athlete could be found with the reported time for the event).

Despite this, the IAAF went ahead with their case, which makes it difficult to dispel the notion that this is a witch-hunt and not what the organisation says is something they’re doing to “ensure fair competition for all women”.

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Where is fairness for the athlete being persecuted based on bogus research?

“Problematic data make up between 17% and 33% of the values used in the analysis for these four events [400m, 400m hurdles, 800m and 1 500m],” says a paper written by the researchers who questioned the IAAF’s findings.

“Given the pervasiveness of these errors, we hypothesise that similar data problems might be found in the data for the other 17 women’s events and 22 men’s events, as well as in the anonymous medical data, which are the basis for the study’s main conclusions regarding the performance effects of elevated testosterone levels. Such pervasive errors in the four events for which we carefully recreated data call into question the fidelity of the entire dataset.

“Due to the pervasiveness of problematic data, we are calling for Bermon and Garnier [2017] to be retracted immediately by the authors and by BJSM [British Journal of Sports Medicine]. If a new analysis is subsequently completed and submitted for publication, we request that it be done so only with a full, independent audit of the underlying data and results by a team committed to keeping private the associated medical data.”

‘Garbage in, garbage out situation’

The paper written by these researchers could be the smoking gun Semenya and her team need to allow the 28-year-old to run freely.

“I think everyone can understand that if your data set is contaminated by as much as one-third bad data, it’s kind of a garbage in, garbage out situation,” one of the independent researchers who questioned the eligibility of IAAF’s data, Roger Pielke Jr, the director of the Sports Governance Center at the University of Colorado, told the New York Times.

Flawed data aside, these regulations are not only obscene, discriminatory and unethical, they’re also a human rights violation. Human Rights Watch is among the organisations that are critical of the IAAF’s stance.

In a letter to IAAF president Sebastian Coe, Human Rights Watch wrote that “the regulations have the effect of coercing some women to undergo medically unnecessary procedures to alter their hormone levels … We believe the IAAF regulations encourage violations of internationally protected human rights, including the rights to privacy, health, bodily integrity, dignity and non-discrimination.

“Our own research on the experiences of people with intersex traits has found institutional and medical treatment of this population is frequently motivated by prejudice presented as science. The history of non-consensual ‘normalising’ procedures conducted on and promoted for people with intersex variations, such as procedures to reduce the size of the clitoris, change the size and shape of the vagina, and remove gonads, has been thoroughly debunked as unscientific, unethical and in violation of international human rights law.

“The discriminatory treatment of female athletes with intersex traits in sporting events similarly runs afoul of fundamental rights protections.”

Female bodies as a battleground

The policing of women’s bodies, by men, who pass laws on what women can and can’t do with their bodies without involving them in the discussion has a long and, as with the witch-hunts in Europe, often brutal history.

Men have used religion, science, patriarchal standing and culture to take ownership of women’s bodies, dictating what their bodies should look like, what they can and can’t do to them, and how they should be covered. Since its establishment in 1912, the IAAF has been presided over only by men.

Iranian artist Shirin Neshat wrote in The Guardian “how problematic and controversial the female body has been throughout history, as it [has] been claimed to suggest ideas of shame, sin, secret and individuality. Therefore, the female body has had to be carefully defined, controlled and concealed to neutralise its impact in the public domain.

“In recent times, we have been struck by how the female body has been politicised and has functioned in a way as a type of battleground for ideological, philosophical and religious debates and agendas.”

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This sorry history has, since the invention of race on the plantations worked by enslaved Africans in the New World in the 17th century, often been intensely racialised. The questioning of the femininity of black women has always been a central trope in racist ideology. Much of the reporting on Semenya’s sensational success on the track, especially in the right-wing British tabloids, has been profoundly shaped by long-standing racist ideas.

Semenya has been courageous in the battle she is fighting not only for herself but for many women whose bodies have been bastardised, questioned, poked and ridiculed. She doesn’t speak much on the matter, except through subliminal quotes on Twitter.

One of those posts says: “I AM, two of the most powerful words. For what you put after them shapes your reality.”

The truth of the matter is that Semenya has been put through all of this because she is good. She is the queen in the 800m circuit and is slowly moving to own the 400m and 1 500m crowns. Instead of training to try and compete with Semenya, those like Britain’s Lynsey Sharp have spent more time throwing tantrums than working on their craft.

Semenya’s rise to the top of the athletics world is inspirational. She grew up in a rural village without proper facilities, running equipment or diet, yet she rose to the top. Many who say Semenya has an unfair advantage grew up in structured environments with world-class coaches and facilities. That’s their advantage. Are they going to take that away to level the playing field?

There will never be equality in sport and that’s the beauty of it. Sport brings together people who can do incredible things with their bodies because of the discipline, hard work, sacrifice, intelligence and training they either have naturally or undertake to enhance their talent. Telling someone to regulate something their body produces naturally goes against the spirit of the game.

‘Risk of losing the next generation.’ Which generation?

That the IAAF’s primary objective is to halt Semenya’s dominance can be found in its explanation of why the association wants to enforce these rules.

“This standard is necessary to ensure fair competition for all women. Indeed, without it, we risk losing the next generation of female athletes, since they will see no path to success in our sport.”

They should have said we risk losing the next generation of female athletes like Sharp. What they’re doing to Semenya, and what they did to Indian sprinter Dutee Chand, is what will kill the next generation of female athletes. Why go into a sport in which your body will be pricked, prodded and displayed for the world to see, because you don’t fit its criteria of what makes you a woman?

Imagine the children around the world that Semenya’s victories inspire. If she can conquer the world, having grown up in a world where she didn’t have much, what’s stopping the a child from a village out on the global periphery from realising their dreams?

Well, if their dreams are in athletics, what could stop them is the IAAF and its invasive, discriminatory and unethical proposed regulations that will come into effect should they be victorious at CAS.

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