Semenya: Will announce her results  //  and thoughts on natural vs unfair advantages

15 Apr 2010 Posted by
It should come as no surprise that latest reports are indicating that Caster Semenya will release the results of her sex verification tests herself.  This was reported in local news yesterday, according to an Athletics South Africa (ASA) administrator.

This was an inevitable step, something that we’ve been suggesting all along – Semenya, assuming she is cleared to compete by the IAAF (on certain conditions, perhaps) has little choice, because her position will untenable unless she is able to convince meeting promoters, sponsors, other athletes, and the athletics world that her participation is reasonable.

All of this is pointing more and more to the likelihood that Semenya will be cleared to compete as a female by the IAAF.  There would be no reason to release these results if the IAAF prevents her from competing, unless of course she wishes to appeal a ban.  However, the results would then be announced only later as part of the appeal process.  And since it was announced a few days ago that ASA already had the results, I believe their latest statements support more and more the likelihood that Semenya will in fact be cleared to compete as a female.

So this is how it is likely to play out, if I am as cynical as possible about the global reaction to that possibility:

Semenya’s lawyers and the IAAF release some “legalese” statement that hails the co-operation between the parties in a “difficult and complex situation”, and then announces that exhaustive testing has “provided no evidence to prevent Semenya from competing as a female”.  She will thus be permitted to compete, because an understanding/co-operation regarding her condition has been reached.

That “understanding” is likely to involve some form of medical intervention, ranging all the way from surgical removal of testes (I’m assuming they are present, as this was all but confirmed by the Minister of Sport in a speech last year), to nothing at all.  I highly doubt that surgery has happened, but my belief is that Semenya is likely to look at chemical options to reduce testosterone levels.  That should, I believe, have been the bare minimum insisted on by the IAAF, unless the lawyers who so deftly managed to get Oscar Pistorius cleared to compete have worked the same template again.  Assuming she does seek some form of medical intervention, what that will do to her performance, I don’t know, and nor do I know where on the medical spectrum this “understanding” is likely to lie.

The global reaction

This is what Semenya releasing her results will hopefully reveal.  And at this point, we should get a clearer idea of what is likely to happen next, but it is perhaps the most crucial variable in determining how the global reaction will develop.

In a worst-case scenario, where nothing is done, most of the athletics world will shake their heads in disbelief as all this goes down, making a mental note that for the forseeable future, the women’s 800m is one not worth watching.  It’s clear that most athletics followers (athletes, coaches and fans) don’t believe she should compete as a woman.  Her first few races will of course produce massive interest, to see whether she is able to maintain the same dominance as last year.  If she is, and it’s clear that she is running 1:55 with minimal effort, most people will conclude (understandably) that a grave mistake has been made, and they’ll completely ignore the women’s 800m procession when she runs, out of protest against what is viewed as a farcical state of affairs.

The rest of the worlds’s female athletes will have little choice but to shut up and compete, regardless of their position on the matter.  Some may refuse to compete against Semenya, regardless of her statement of her results, putting meeting promoters into the difficult situation of having to choose whether to invite Semenya or risk seeing their field thinned down by protests.

Meanwhile, the lawyers and politicians of SA sport will celebrate a “victory” for Semenya, either ignorant or willfully oblivious to the fall-out they have created for the sport.  Semenya, meanwhile, will do her best to compete as openly as possible, carrying herself, I am sure, with the same pride and  strength that she has since arriving back in South Africa.  Hopefully, she does not adopt a defiantly aggressive attitude to everyone, as she did immediately after the final in Berlin, where she said that those who questioned her should “go to hell” (though it is understandable, I’d be surprised if anyone didn’t do this).

Chuckling over seeing the top woman beat the top man in a 100m sprint

Anyway, the point is that this whole affair is highly unlikely to end well, for anyone.  I cannot even see where the best compromise will be reached.  One thing I am certain of is that Semenya competing as a woman without any intervention is not the best compromise for the sport, for fellow athletes, and for the athletics following public.  It is in fact the worst situation, but all this will be revealed if and when the results are eventually released.

The deft legal firm will have done their bit though.  I might add that this past weekend here in South Africa, the Department of Sport and Recreation South Africa (SRSA) and the SA Sports Medicine Association (SASMA) jointly held a workshop to craft a position stand on sport and gender.

At this meeting, a representative of Semenya’s legal team gave a presentation in which he chuckled over his dream of one day seeing “the top woman beat the top man in a 100m sprint.”

This is the perverse understanding and level of insight that has been introduced to this debate from the very beginning.  From day 1, when esteemed politicians danced at the airport, insisted that the public “look under her skirt”, and refused to acknowledge medical science and sports performance, this affair has been overshadowed by idiocy.  Now, the lawyers are added to this list of stupid remarks, for their complete lack of understanding of the complexities of male and female performance, and their disregard for the sensitivities of high performance sports.

Having testes as a female is the same type of advantage as having fast twitch muscle fibers as a sprinter – inside the argument

Just so you know, the key argument in this whole debate is that of what constitutes a fair adavantage as opposed to a unnatural one?  A dangerous idea that we’ve discussed before on this site, and which was proposed at the SRSA meeting this last weekend (I wasn’t invited, by the way, I just have this on good authority), is that that any unintentional advantage through whatever disorder be allowed participation since it represented no intent to cheat, and is similar in nature to the athletic “advantage” enjoyed by all athletes.

In other words, any ‘natural’ advantage is just that, and our politicians, lawyers, and I assume some scientists, are now suggesting that all these advantages are equal to one other, and should thus be allowed.

Under this logic, stature (an advantage for basketball), strength (advantage for shot put athletes), percentage of fast twitch muscle fibers (advantage for sprinters) and the presence of testes in females are considered equal advantages, the same physical or physiological advantages that ‘normal’ top athletes enjoy over the less-good ones. In the absence of any health concerns, a fair group of the audience at the recent conference also suggested no treatment or sex reassignment should be requested.

Winning the genetic lottery

So, what we are now working towards is a position that says that anyone with a genetic advantage, who is born with some physiology that gives them a greater chance of success than another athlete, should be allowed to compete.  And of course, this happens all the time.  Usain Bolt undoubetdly has physiological (as a result of genes and training) advantages over me.  I have no claim that his advantages should disqualify him from competing.

The position that is emerging says the same about Semenya – because she was born with whatever condition it may be, one which produces testes and high levels of testosterone in a female, she should be allowed to compete against women.  I hope the problems with this idea are obvious to everyone…

First, we don’t compete in categories of height for basketball, strength for shot put, or muscle fibre composition for sprinters.  We have never categorized people using those variables.  We have however categorized them by gender/sex.  Therefore, a physiological difference that also happens to shift an athlete from one category to another (as happens when a female has testes) simply cannot be dismissed as equal to those other advantages!

Imagine for example that you introduce height categories into basketball – everyone shorter than 1.75m plays in one tournament, those taller play in the “open” division (analogous to female for the shorter, and male for the open category, by the way).  Now, if you have these categories, then you absolutely must defend them.  You cannot allow John, who is 1.80m tall, to compete in the shorter division, with  the justification that “he was born that way, it is not his fault and he has no intention of cheating”.  The categorizations are there for a reason, and once you start blurring the lines, then you may as well erase them altogether.

One race – the open division in the genetic lottery

Let me illustrate how ludicrous this becomes.  Start from the position that athletes are “born”, as a result of some physiological advantage – they are taller, stronger, heavier (or lighter), with greater endurance or speed capabilities.  Then, consider that those without these advantages are “discriminated against” by the very nature of sport, which recognizes and rewards the exceptional few.

Now, let’s call the “advantaged” athletes “MALES” and those without the physiological advantages “FEMALES”.  The very best females are not as strong, not as fast, and lack the speed and endurance capacity of the top males.  This is a physiological fact, provided you are comparing the very best to the very best, one which the lawyer clearly didn’t know.

But, let’s apply their own logic and say that all these athletes, males and females, should be allowed to compete against one another, since men did not choose to cheat when they were born with these potential performance advantages.  One division, the “open” race, no discrimination.  Because after all, when it comes to who can run the fastest over a certain distance, being male is just another “natural” advantage…

Not surprisingly, those advocating for Semenya do not themselves support this.  But the reality is that if Semenya competes as female, we may as well get rid of the categories and let everyone take their chances in the “genetic lottery”.


Just a final word, since I realise I’ve said in this post that females cannot outperform males – the VERY BEST female performance in the history of the sport does not even make the top 500 male performances each year.  In other words, the world record for women in the marathon does not make it onto the list of the 500 best men’s performances in 2009 alone.  The same is true in all other events.

The reality is that we have female and male divisions to allow women to compete on an equal ‘playing field’ against competitors of similar physiologically determined ability.  To quote Giordano and Harris in the book “Genetic technology and sport: ethical questions, “the fact that there are male and female sports activities is in no way discriminatory or an offence to equality“.

Within each group (male and female), of course, there are differences (we can’t all be Olympic champions), but the concept is to ensure equality at the very top level.  Hundreds of years of competition have shown this to be true – look at the margins between victory and defeat to see just how narrow gaps are and how well the system works at maintaining equal competition at the very top.

Again, to repeat, this should in no way be seen as discriminatory or an offence to equality – watching Paula Radcliffe run a 2:16 marathon, or Tirunesh Dibaba kick a 60 second lap at the end of a 5,000m race is as impressive as anything a male athlete has ever done.  They’re absolutely on par, but in a direct comparison, at a different level according to the clock.  The quality is often in the race, and some of the greatest sporting moments I can remember (Tulu vs Meyer, Dibaba vs Defar, Hingis vs Williams, Henin vs Clijsters) are no less impressive because of the clock.

The whole drama of Semenya, her treatment at the hands of all the sports authorities has been deplorable.  But one cannot allow that to blur the line between male and female participation, and to obscure the necessity for equal and fair competition for ALL female 800m runners, not just the one who we are interested in here in South Africa.

This post is part of the following threads: News/Controversies, Caster Semenya – ongoing stories on this site. View the thread timelines for more context on this post.