‘Flawed’ research should see Caster’s return

Caster Semenya seems set for even more spectacular success now that the research that some wanted to use to remove her from the track has been found to be seriously flawed.

To Caster Semenya’s multitude of fans breaking the national 400m record and winning the event at the recently held African Championships in Asaba, Nigeria, fell into the bulging box marked “unprecedented” when it comes to the country’s serial winner and record-breaker.

Semenya’s new mark of 49.96 seconds for the one-lap sprint means she is now the national record holder at the 400m, the 800m (1:54.25 seconds) and the 1 500m (3:59.92 seconds), a truly unprecedented range given that it includes a sprint and two middle-distance races. Usually, athletes display proficiency at either the former two or latter two events, not at all three.

While the rest of us marvelled at her incredible range, the IAAF, the world athletics governing body, felt vindicated in their belief that her “hyperandrogenism” (higher than normal levels of testosterone) is giving her an unfair advantage over her fellow competitors.

The fact that Semenya has not lost a single 800m race – her favourite event – in 39 outings and is now the fourth-fastest athlete in the history of the race, while she continues to relentlessly close in on Czech runner Jarmila Kratochvilová’s record of 1:53.28 seconds, would have only strengthened the IAAF’s resolution to act.

Semenya improving her personal bests in the 400m and 1 500m means she can only get better at the 800m as she now has more speed and strength to improve her lifetime best at the 800m.

But the fact that she is within striking distance of improving a suspicious 25-year-old record – the muscular Kratochvilová was constantly accused of doping but said her amazing feats were courtesy of copious amounts of vitamin B12 – has to have contributed to the IAAF announcing its latest eligibility regulations for female classification earlier this year.

Controversial research

The regulations, set to take effect on November 1, include some extraordinary “remedies” for athletes like Semenya such as scratching them from the events in question (the women’s 800m and 1 500m), taking medication to lower their testosterone levels, competing in men’s events or racing in their own leper’s colony of “intersex” competitions.

Athletics South Africa (ASA) has lodged a formal appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) to challenge the implementation of the new regulations because they, among other reasons, “discriminate impermissibly against certain female athletes on the basis of natural physical characteristics and or sex”.

With their previous leadership having failed Semenya by allowing her to undergo gender testing when her “otherness” first manifested itself on the world stage at the 2009 Berlin World Championships, ASA’s challenge makes sense. But research from an unlikely source could blow the IAAF’s plans out of the water.

Ross Tucker, South Africa’s premier sports scientist, was quoted by sportsscientists.com as saying that he agrees “in principle with the IAAF’s attempts to regulate the boundary between women’s and men’s competition”.

He added: “I also believe that testosterone is a viable means to achieve this because testosterone is a root cause of many of the biological differences that give men an enormous performance advantage over women.”

But Tucker also conceded: “The present situation of women with XY chromosomes, internal testes and high levels of circulating testosterone competing without any regulation is a massively complex one for sport to deal with. It is one that has no solution that keeps all parties happy. It’s sport’s unsolvable problem.”

That said, Tucker and fellow sports scientists Roger Pielke and Erik Boye recently wrote to the British Journal of Sports Medicine requesting that it retract the research study upon which the IAAF’s resolution to enforce its new eligibility rules was based.

Apparently, in the parlance of sports medicine, asking for that retraction was going the sledgehammer route to criticism but Tucker et al feel justified in doing so because it was “affected by significant data errors and problems … we found between 17% and 33% of the data was flawed or erroneous”.

In retracing the footsteps of the IAAF research on 25% of the original data, the main issues uncovered by Tucker and his colleagues were duplicated athletes (more than one inclusion for an individual), duplicated 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).

From a layperson’s perspective, the IAAF’s study was, at best, riddled with error, hence the three sport scientists’ request that it be retracted.

This means the IAAF should have no chance of implementing its new regulations given that when CAS ruled against them and in favour of Indian athlete Dutee Chand in 2011 – a ruling that enabled Semenya to compete without restrictions and become multiple world and Olympic champion – the federation had less flawed research.

While Tucker insists that his argument is very much on the side of science and the fact that the IAAF is going pursuing what he feels is the right principle in the wrong way, one has to ask what Semenya – whose only fault was being born the way she is – is supposed to do.

Interestingly, Tucker’s colleagues disagree that the IAAF is doing the right thing, which means that not all the scientists hold the same view. So while Semenya should still be running next year and inspiring loads of “different” kids, the debate is likely to continue to follow her spectacular success.

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