Later today, it is being reported, Caster Semenya will hold a press conference to announce, in all likelihood, that she will be returning to the sport having been cleared to compete as a woman. This brings, potentially, to a close, many months of what must have been serious negotiation and behind-the-scenes activity to discuss whether the 800m world champion can compete legally as a female.
My opinion on this has been stated many times, and I believe that the women’s 800m event will become the least watched of all events if Semenya is going to compete with the same dominance she showed in Berlin. It is quite clear that she will be unbeatable, and should in fact knock up to seconds off a drug-heavy world record that has stood for 27 years. Because TV viewers and followers of the sport know this, her performances are guaranteed to be met with huge skepticism. People, who are mostly decent, will also acknowledge that she has been through a very trying time, an incredibly unfair scrutiny that no one deserves. That sympathy will not extend to her IF she continues to dominate the sport with what seems clear is a hormonal ‘advantage’ as a result of some condition we may never know about, but which seems to push her into the grey area between male and female, if not right across it.
The reason I say “if” she continues to dominate is that I am not convinced that some medical action has in fact not been taken. I believe it has, and I believe this has been the source of the delay. If this was simple to dismiss and to allow her to compete, then the IAAF would have done so in October last year, because they’d have known the results of the tests by then, in great detail. Thinking about it would not take a further 8 months. Getting expert opinion would not take 8 months. Even dealing with bombastic and aggressive politicians, and lawyers, would not take 8 months.
So the delay can only be put down to negotiating some kind of compromise between allowing Semenya to compete right away, and wanting surgical intervention to remove testes (allegedly present). The IAAF wanted the latter, the lawyers the former. The compromise may have been medical/chemical and I suspect her response to it has been the delay.
I read a very interesting interview with one of the promoters of a massive Diamond League meeting, in which he said that if Semenya was cleared by the IAAF, then it would be because the authority was sure that her participation would be on fair grounds. The long delay, I believe, represents their efforts to ensure fair grounds.
What will be very interesting then is to see how she races. Will she be as untouchable, and how will her level evolve over time? Depending on what she announces later today, we may not know enough to even understand what is happening – there have been many rumours around other athletes, most notably Pamela Jelimo, who has dropped dramatically down in level since her 2008 dominance. But no one knows the reason, there is only speculation.
If Semenya slows down a similar amount, then the rumours will be far more targeted and specific. There will be no doubt among athletics followers about the cause of a poor performance. She will be scrutinized and questioned for the wrong reasons. And it will be interesting to see if she reveals anything at all to give some kind of ‘re-assurance’, or whether she will simply say “I’m cleared, now I’m running”, without any revelation of the last 9 months of work.
The global reaction – fellow athletes, meeting organizers, sports followers
One other thing that will happen, here in South Africa, is that politicians who had found other meaningless sports to pursue (for example, the Springbok logo) after the initial hype died down will now re-emerge and proclaim “victory”. The Minister of Sport, who very diplomatically declared World War 3 on the IAAF for questioning Semenya, has already said that “we won”.
Sadly, Mr Minister, nobody wins in these “wars”, and time will show that for Semenya as well, as her career is destined to go one of two ways. She continues to run, faster than any woman in history, and her success builds and builds resentment among competitors and fans, skepticism among fans, and a career that is forever blighted by the great asterisk alongside performances. You may believe this to be victory – let’s find out in 10 years.
Perhaps it will happen this year – a big question remains: What will her competitors do? I’ve said before, I would stand together and simply refuse to race her unless full explanation of what has transpired is provided to me. I believe they would be entitled to know this, because their livelihood depends on their success, and the IAAF’s management of this issue may be undermining their potential success. They might reasonably ask for justification, failing which, they refuse to run. And if they do, what do meeting organizers do? Does Semenya get the big invitations? Probably. Or does everyone bow down to the IAAF and simply accept that they will be running for silvers for the next 8 years? I don’t see this as a victory, I must confess.
Or, on the other hand, she never reaches those same levels, and follows the career path of Pamela Jelimo – unbeatable to unwinning in one season.
No victory there – but congratulations.
Perhaps the diplomatic, humble, professional approach (not three words typically found in SA Sports management/administration, admittedly) would be to say “We are relieved and satisfied at the conclusion reached by the IAAF. We fully respect their authority over their sport, and regret the animosity with which this situation was initially handled. However, now that we have worked with the authorities, we are proud to support the efforts of Caster Semenya as she continues her running career. She has managed the situation bravely and with dignity, and her wishes to run should be respected by all those in international athletics. We wish her well, and trust that she’ll be fully supported by others, just as she receives our full support”. I really wish that the italicized section above was actually a quote. Sadly, it’s a figment of my imagination…
The positive – social, human and gender rights
Finally, I must point out that there are social, human rights and other issues in play here, as Prof Tim Noakes alluded to when he was interviewed on the matter. And from those points of view, allowing Semenya to compete is a step forward. Those people, I have found over the last 9 months, usually have zero interest in the sport, and view it only as a platform for other matters. This is of course acceptable – each to their own. However, my thoughts in this post are performance related, and I speak from within the sport of athletics on performance. I realize many are addressing this from another point of view.
Time will tell what comes of this. I look forward to seeing Semenya run again this year, out of interest in what she will achieve. I look forward to watching her break a 27 year old world record, slowing down over the final 100m as she does so. I do not look forward to the global reaction that awaits from within the sport’s athletes and ultimately, its followers.
Football fever continues later. I gave a presentation last night in Cape Town and later today, I will start deconstructing that talk and continue with our series on The Science of Football!
Join us then!