IAAF World Champs: 800m women, questions but few answers

04 Sep 2011 Posted by
The women’s 800m event deserves a post all of its own. I’ll post on the rest of the day’s action a little later, but the women’s 800m gold has just been won, and it wasn’t Caster Semenya winning it. Instead, it was Mariya Savinova of Russia who won in a very quick 1:55.87, edging Semenya in the final 50m. Semenya ran 1:56.35, easily the fastest time she has done since her Berlin triumph two years ago, when the controversy began, and Janeth Jepkosgei took bronze, reward for her efforts in setting the race up with a very fast first lap.

The race was an intriguing tactical one – Janeth Jepkosgei took the pace out hard (26.61s first 200m), and led through the bell in 55.86s, with Semenya in fifth and Savinova sixth, about 5m behind. Savinova had clearly decided that she would mark Semenya the whole way, and as Semenya made her move down the backstraight, she followed. 600m was reached in 1:26.07, a 30-second interval for Jepkosgei, probably half a second quicker for Semenya, who was on the shoulder of the leaders and poised to move clear.

Coming off the final bend, Semenya had taken the lead, and it looked like a dead certainty that she would run away from the field. Given the fast pace up to 600m, a repeat or even an improvement of the 1:55.45 of Berlin looked on the cards. But Savinova held her, and with 50m to go, began to close the 3m gap that she’d held her at down the back straight. In the final, 20m, Semenya faded and Savinova come through to win gold.

Caster Semenya – the questions will continue

Semenya again looked very relaxed, casual even, when being passed for gold in the final 20m, and I am sure that there will once again be suspicions that she “lost deliberately”. In the aftermath of her semi-final, where she looked completely dominant, that theme began to reappear, with chat forums resonating with the theory that Semenya had been losing races on purpose this season to keep the attention off her.

I am sure that the questions will continue, and Semenya will again be labeled as either a cheat (if she wins), or a ‘fixer’ (when she loses, as people suggest, on purpose). I think both are slightly unfair accusations, and require some clarification and context. Certainly, she is not a cheat – she may well have had an advantage as a result of whatever intersex condition may have led to increased testosterone levels, but that’s not the same as cheating. So again, I’d caution against “personalizing” the debate, making it about Semenya. It’s not too different from Pistorius case, actually – it’s not a question of cheating, but is a question of unfair advantage. And that’s certainly a valid concern, which is why the post-Berlin process happened.

In Semenya’s case, and I’ve written this before, I am fairly certain that in the aftermath of Berlin, she did receive some medical treatment. There is no other explanation for the length of time that it took to clear her to run. A legal issue would have taken weeks, maybe a few months, but to miss nearly a year can only be explained if there was medical intervention that required observation. Also, if you look at the IAAF’s latest position stand on intersex conditions, they have clearly learned from the Semenya experience, and it’s no co-incidence that the statement includes mention of correcting testosterone to normal female levels. The IAAF, I think, knew that they had to intervene, and I believe they did, setting a precedent that they then wrote into future policy.

So I’m confident in saying that there was chemical treatment to reduce the testosterone levels. That would also explain the injury problems, the inconsistencies, and the relatively poorer performances in the last twelve months. If that is the case, then people can of course still object to Semenya’s participation on the grounds that she has “historical” advantage because of the shape of the skeleton etc. But I believe that most advantages would diminish soon, and certainly will over more time.

My opinion is that if her testosterone levels have been within the normal range for six months, and continue to stay there, then I’d be satisfied that the advantage is no longer of concern for competition. She would be at the extreme in certain respects, but not threatening to cross the ‘line’ we draw to make the distinction between male and female competition. Of course, when she runs 1:56.35, less than a second slower than the Berlin time, people will question the effectiveness of the treatment, and that will be an interesting debate to follow in coming weeks.

Monitoring of an intervention?

The big question, however, is monitoring of those levels. The irony is that if Semenya has received chemical treatment, then she may be one of the only athletes in the world who is required to use drugs. And failure to use the drugs (dope) would be the problem. If Semenya’s participation is dependent on lowering the testosterone levels, then ensuring the effectiveness is crucial.

Now I don’t know how this has been monitored. Is it possible that Semenya can stop medication and return to the Berlin situation? I don’t know enough about the process, how long the treatment would last or how effective it might be (will make some enquiries with endocrinologists) and so I’ll steer clear of speculating on that detail. But I believe that if the testosterone levels were raised (which is a near certainty), then the right thing was done in reducing them, and I have no objections to Semenya’s participation, providing it is monitored regularly.

Semenya’s racing strategy

As for the theory that Semenya is running slowly on purpose, I can appreciate why people think that, because certainly, I can’t think of many athletes who look as casual as Semenya in any race situation – it is so startling how she seems to “jog” when others are failing. But I see it differently. There are far better ways to win a silver medal, lose a race and divert attention of yourself than what Semenya did today. If she was deliberately trying NOT to win, then it would be far easier to come through late, especially in a race like today’s where early pace is fast and the gaps are large. Would a late charge from sixth to second (possible if you watch the race) not divert attention more than a fade into silver? But instead, Semenya attacked the race with 250m to go, assumed the lead, ran in front for the world to see, and looked to be going away before losing gold.

That’s a sure way to attract attention, not to deflect it, (for proof of this, see the forums which are already buzzing with allegations of “tanking on purpose”). I┬áremain unconvinced about this deliberate loss argument. I think it more likely that Semenya is just a runner who always looks casual, regardless of race situation or effort. Back in 2008, at the World Junior Championships in Poland, Semenya finished seventh in her heat and looked the same as she did today – she seems not to have it in her style to lose form and look like she is straining. It may be the shape of her skeleton, the large upper body and that she seems to ‘lope’, and I think this is more likely than the theory that she hit the front, opened up a lead in the final 50m of the World Champs, and then decided to lose the race on purpose from there.

The lack of transparency

In all this, the biggest issue has been the lack of transparency and the secrecy. The initial leak was of course wrong, and Semenya should never have been subjected to public speculation about her biological sex. But once out, once the world knew there was a problem, it was critical to resolve the situation, or at least reassure people that something had been done to ensure fair competition (even if that meant announcing that there was no advantage to begin with – people wouldn’t have believed it, but it would be something).

That was, of course, Semenya’s prerogative. The IAAF could not announce that there was a condition and that it had been treated, because the medical information belongs to the patient. So I felt from the outset that Semenya needed to disclose something. Not the full details, not a complete description, but something to assure people that her participation had been cleared and perhaps that she would continue to co-operate with the authorities in the future. Maybe even release testosterone level results today, in the same way that some cyclists have taken to making public their blood data as part of the biological passport system.

The problem we have now is that everyone knows half the story, and in the absence of facts, they will create the other half! And, whether the result of being misinformed, ignorant or hostile, the blanks that are filled in will almost always be worse than the reality. The end result is that Semenya loses either way, and the only way I can see this being overcome is to control the information herself.

But instead of truth, what we have is a shroud of secrecy, mostly from Semenya’s management. Her management team have made some extra-ordinary statements, including one that she was going to win the double in Daegu, even though she was not even entered into the 1500m. They have asked for millions for sponsorship back here in South Africa. They also hinted recently that she would be asking for money to give interviews to the media, which is astonishing.

You can’t blame Semenya for her mistrust of the media, but the moronic press releases made by her PR and management teams defy belief, and only serve to heighten the focus (and negative attention) on her. She’ll find a great deal of sympathy (as she should) for her character in continuing the sport, for her resolve, which has been incredible. But she’ll also face a great deal of hostility because of how little people know about the science and the process involved.

And she can control the flow of that information, including the public perception, by talking about it. Again, cycling has set the precedent that cyclists sometimes disclose their blood data, and Semenya could do the same. She’ll never win everyone over, but I think many will accept what has happened as the best possible resolution, provided they know it. As it stands now, few people will because they simply don’t know.

On that note, it was very good to see the smiles and interaction with her fellow competitors after this race. It’s easy to be a good sport when you’re winning, but even Savinova seemed more amiable than her previous comments might have suggested. These are good signs, not proof, but hopefully a sign that among fellow athletes, things are returning to normal.

An insoluble problem?

Ultimately, Semenya’s situation asks questions for which there may be no answer. I compared it earlier to the Pistorius case, but in truth, it’s even more complex, because a) there is less scientific evidence available to quantify the Semenya advantage than for Pistorius’ advantage and b) there seems to have been some treatment to correct the possible advantage. If that has happened, and the process has been followed, then what next? Either it didn’t work, or it should be accepted. Key there is simply disclosing it, and if that were to happen, I’d encourage people to accept the treatment and the IAAF decision. As it stands, we don’t know, so how can anyone be asked be blindly accept it?

If there was no treatment, or if the treatment has not been monitored properly, well, that’s a different situation, and goes all the way back to 2009 and the debates we had about eligibility at the time. And so I’d also love for there to be some kind of disclosure so that people at least know that this has happened (if it has, of course). And finally, I’d hope that Semenya opens up, maybe that someone saves her from her own management team, and maybe even uses this as an opportunity to inform and educate. Full transparency, testosterone levels, the truth.

This post is part of the thread: World Championships – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.