The unanswered questions which have always been a constant in Caster Semenya’s thorny relationship with the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) remain, but a metaphor for the indecent haste with which the organisation would like to see the back of her is that she is scheduled to run what could well be her last 800m race on Friday evening.
Semenya – a reigning Olympic champion who has not lost at the distance in 29 races – was always going to open her European season with a run at the Diamond League event in Doha. Now there’s finality to it because once she returns home she has to decide whether to comply with the IAAF’s eligibility regulations for female classification after losing her appeal against them in the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) on 1 May.
If she still wants to compete in the women’s 800m and the 1 500m, Semenya has to measure whether her testosterone levels exceed those stipulated by the IAAF’s newly ratified eligibility regulations and start taking suppressants by 8 May.
Her other choice is appealing the decision by CAS at the Swiss Tribunal Court within 30 days, an option she is mulling over even though historically that court has not overturned decisions made by its better-known counterpart. This bleak outlook is a far cry from when Semenya’s legal team arrived in Switzerland confident that they could challenge the IAAF’s regulations on the grounds that they were discriminatory to their client.
According to The Guardian, Semenya had opened proceedings with a speech which began with the words: “When I was 18 years old, I won gold at the 2009 world championships in Berlin. It should have been a great moment. But sadly it was tarnished.”
The reason for her legal team’s confidence was that they felt, based on the case of Indian sprinter Dutee Chand four years ago, that the IAAF had to prove exactly how much testosterone aided athletes with differences of sexual development (DSD). Also, the evidence published by the IAAF had been riddled with mistakes.
IAAF shifting the goalposts
But then, The Guardian reported this week that the IAAF reframed the debate from insisting that DSD athletes reduce their testosterone to five nanomoles per litre to compete to using bioethicist Katrina Karkazis’ proposition to use six characteristics to determine sex at the Chand case to look at how that applied to DSD athletes.
Apparently some of Semenya’s legal team believe the IAAF was saying that DSD athletes were biological males, and their retort was to question if high testosterone necessarily always made a big difference. They added that if a DSD woman lacks the hormone DHT she would not get all the benefits of testosterone.
But the upshot was that CAS found that while the IAAF’s rules for athletes with DSD were discriminatory, the discrimination was “necessary, reasonable and proportionate to protect the integrity of female athletics”.
Semenya’s decade-long battle with the IAAF
Semenya’s response to the defeat was typically defiant: “For a decade the IAAF has tried to slow me down, but this has actually made me stronger. The decision of CAS will not hold me back. I will once again rise above and continue to inspire young women and athletes in South Africa and around the world.”
In her statement, Semenya also claimed that the IAAF “has always targeted me specifically”, something which has been proved to some extent by the athletics body’s reaction to the CAS recommendations.
The court did say it had concerns about the application of the rules along the lines of worries that athletes might unintentionally break the strict testosterone levels set by the IAAF; questions of whether higher testosterone gives athletes running the 1 500m and the mile an advantage; and the practicalities for the athletes complying with the new rules.
Perhaps showing its hand that the new rules were indeed targeting Semenya, the IAAF has decided it will immediately apply the testosterone regulations to the 1 500m as well – a race at which Semenya has won world championship bronze and Commonwealth Games gold – ignoring the recommendation by CAS to delay said application while gathering more evidence.
Madeleine Pape, a former Australian athlete who also lost to Semenya en route to her gold in Berlin, wrote a comment piece in The Guardian under the headline: “I was sore about losing to Caster Semenya. But this decision against her is wrong.”
Pape, now pursuing a PhD in Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said by glibly accepting its victory the IAAF would prove to be on the losing side of history as “the pressures on the sport to change have intensified in recent years and will surely not relent with this decision”.
Insufficient evidence to support the regulations
Leading South African sports scientist Ross Tucker, writing on his website The Science of Sport, disagreed with the findings by CAS.
“In my reading of the situation, there is insufficient evidence to support the regulations,” he explained. “There is concept, theory, and biological rationale, but not evidence. And the regulations are, for all intents and purposes, an evidence-based document.
“Their foundation is evidence, because the regulations in their current form evolved out of a mandate received from [CAS] to return with evidence supporting them. You’ll recall that the Chand decision mandated the IAAF to go away and come back with evidence of the magnitude of the advantage, and they said on numerous occasions that the numbers matter.
“There is thus a direct line between the instruction ‘provide evidence’ and what is now in place as a regulation. Therefore, that Chand decision fundamentally reframed the debate – it moved it from being conceptual in nature, to being conceptual plus evidence.”
Changing focus to the 5 000m
Ever the pragmatist, Semenya appears to already have a contingency plan in place, as evidenced by her participating in, and winning, the 5 000m race at the SA National Championships last week in a time of 16:25.23.
Asked if she could somehow transfer her 800m form to the 12-and-a-half lap race, her previous coach Jean Verster said it was more complicated than that: “The 5k is a different question from a coaching view because it’s a tough race, it’s not the same as a 5k race on the road.
“Psychologically it’s a difficult race because of the laps. Usually you don’t know if an athlete can make the change because it’s such a tough race to run mentally. Caster winning it at SA champs proves that she has the psychological make-up to run it.”
That said, Verster questioned whether Semenya would thrive at the event as the women competing at the business end of the event ran it in between 14 and 15 minutes while her time was almost two minutes slower. But he did find a glimmer of hope not only in where she ran the race but also how she ran it.
“She ran that SA champs race in Germiston, a track which, at 1 600m above sea level, is at the highest altitude for a track in South Africa. The higher the altitude at which you run the more it takes out of you.
“So taking into account the altitude alone she should be able to take off 30 seconds from that time. The race was also a tactical one, where she only went for it in the last lap, so that shows she didn’t go into the red to win it.
“With her type of training – she does strength endurance-based training and adds speed work – if she added more mileage it’s anybody’s guess what she could do then. If she decides to do it, it would be interesting – it would be even more interesting what the IAAF would do if she ran well…”