Following on from my post yesterday, which looked at the latest developments in the case of Caster Semenya, I have two very quick links to provide you with. I’m rushing off to do a presentation on the issue for a local scientific organization, so I have little time to comment, but the links will come up and you might as well see some comment here first.
IAAF position: Semenya will find out in November
First, the IAAF have announced that the results will be available in November only, because this is when they have an executive council meeting. According to Pierre Weiss, Secretary General of the IAAF, “there will be nothing before that”.
You can read the article here. It includes some really interesting quotes, most notably this section:
Weiss said Semenya’s case was the eighth dealing with sexuality issues the IAAF had handled since 2005. “Four athletes were asked to stop their career,” he confirmed, without giving further details.
That is very interesting, because it serves to highlight that this current issue is in fact nothing new. Unusual, yes, but the big difference is the leak and the subsequent uproar over unfair treatment.
The article also highlights the fact that the IAAF have been trying to get hold of Semenya over the tests, but that ASA are keeping them from her, which is extra-ordinary behavior, but not out of character given the last few weeks and ASA’s behavior. Why the rush to reach Semenya? To tell her the verdict? Or maybe a health-reason (as discussed below)?
Regardless, the IAAF have stated that she is unlikely to lose her medal, which puts an end to at least some of the speculation (for now). Read on to have it re-ignited…
“Caster Semenya is a hermaphrodite” – news reports
Almost by design, at about the exact same time as the IAAF said that results would wait until November, newspapers in Australia are reporting that “Caster Semenya is a hermaphrodite – a person with both female and male sexual characteristics”. You can read this piece here.
This issue was always going to inspire massive speculation, leaks and rumors, which is why I wrote yesterday that the idea that this would be kept confidential (as it should be, according to IAAF policy) was a dream. It took only one day for the rumors to start flying.
I don’t know what to make of the article. It’s unproven, of course. There are also statements in the article that are directly contradictory to the article I linked to above, where the IAAF said that Semenya’s medal would not be taken away – the Australian piece says it may be. Also, some of the science is likely over-simplified – the use of the term “hermaphrodite” is probably not entirely accurate, since the classification of intersex conditions doesn’t use the term much anymore, except in very rare cases, and this seems unlikely to be one.
More to the point, there are a lot of claims that are not necessarily true. For example, in the article, it says the following:
The tests, not yet publicly released, show the 18-year-old has no womb or ovaries.
The International Association of Athletics Federations is expected to disqualify the South African from future events and advise her to have surgery because her condition carries grave health risks, The Daily Telegraph reports.
And she could be stripped of the gold medal she won in Berlin in last month [as mentioned, this seems unlikely based on the IAAF comments]. Semenya has three times more testosterone than a normal female. A source closely involved with the IAAF tests said Semenya had internal testes – the male sexual organs which produce testosterone.
Even if all this were true, it still does not necessarily mean that she will be disqualified from future events. There are conditions which are allowable, which would see Semenya being able to compete after surgery (the surgery, by the way, is for health reasons. If you have internal testes, then they can become cancerous, and so must be removed. This might explain their desire to get hold of her, with ASA standing in the way).
The point is that even if the article is accurate, and the source is reliable, the actual decision around Semenya would not necessarily be disqualification. Unless something is known and is not being disclosed by the source. The crux is that they have to establish that she has some sort of performance advantage as a result of the condition.
Now, let’s just very quickly look at the claims – the presence of testes, and the absence of a uterus, would suggest that she is genetically male (has a Y chromosome, possibly XY, possibly XXY). In order to develop as a female, she may be insensitive to androgens, or have a deficiency in an enzyme in the androgen pathway. This means that if the reports are accurate, she may have AIS (Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome) or alpha-5-reductase deficiency, or possibly a genetic abnormality that is much rarer than these (which are pretty uncommon themselves) and results in the development of an under-masculinized male (there are three categories of condition – under-masculinized males, masculinized females and hermaphrodites).
What people need to know is that AIS, if complete, as well as alpha-5-reductase deficiency, are both conditions which the IAAF policy says are “allowed”. The problem is with partial AIS, where it becomes a decision around whether she has an advantage or not. And that is exactly the same position as we were in before, though now we have a possible biological piece of the puzzle to add to yesterday’s debate.
Still waiting – as you were…
So the point is that all these reports, regardless of their accuracy, still reveal nothing of the action that may or may not be taken. While it may be suggested that being an intersex individual, or someone who is “not entirely female” is grounds for disqualification, it is not. In Atlanta in 1996, 8 women “failed” the sex verification test because they had a Y-chromosome (strictly speaking, they had the SRY gene on the Y-chromosome). All eight were allowed to compete.
So Semenya may well have a condition, but may well continue running. The decision would be made based on whether the degree of a condition (assuming it is there) gives her an athletic advantage. The testosterone level, as we saw yesterday, is part of this, but by no means the only factor. Nor is the presence or absence of male or female organs, rather bizarrely.
What I do find very intriguing is the possibility that she has internal testes that require removal – what is the magnitude of the effect this would have on her performance? An intriguing question…
And then of course, she may have nothing at all – there are enough question-marks in the Australian report to wonder about the accuracy of the article. I am reminded that they were correct the first time around, when the story broke. It certainly does not seem good for Semenya, as the issue gets deeper and deeper.
I’m sure once the rest of the world’s media picks up on this, there may be more to say. Until then, as you were…