It is being reported that Caster Semenya, South Africa’s 800m World Champion, will be given the all clear to return to the track. Before getting carried away at the conclusion of what seemed a never-ending saga, let’s remember that on no fewer than three occasions, the SA government have organized triumphant press conferences only to cancel them at the last minute to delay the announcement further.
However, on this occasion, a reputable source, the Telegraph, are reporting that the IAAF will make the announcement and not the SA government, which gives one more confidence that perhaps, this is the final decision. The story from the Telegraph can be read here.
If it is indeed the case, then it will bring to an end 10 months of speculation, rumour, accusation, and denial. We’ve tried to follow the story, from its beginning in August last year, and there is not too much more to be said about why it has taken this long, and what may have happened over the last 10 months.
In the report by the Telegraph, I feel the most telling paragraph is this one:
“Her coach, Michael Seme, has admitted that she has not been training at 100 per cent due to the uncertainty over her future, while it is also believed that she has been undergoing medical treatment for an inter-sex condition.”
That alleged treatment, which I also believe to have taken place, holds the key to why this has taken so long. The IAAF, you’ll recall us discussing before, find themselves in a difficult situation of having to avoid discrimination against ANY athlete (not only Semenya, as the SA sports fraternity wanted to believe). So their obligation was to ensure equality of competition without discrimination. And there are a range of issues about this, from social to cultural, even religious, all of which have been had in various forms over the last 10 months.
However, from a sporting point of view (and my bias here is sporting performance), the requirement is to manage the case to ensure that all athletes receive fair competition. Therefore, treatment, to lower the testosterone levels and attempt to reduce any advantage as a result of high testosterone, would have had to take place, and that may be the reason this has taken so long to resolve.
Legal Tug of War
Because make no mistake, actually diagnosing the condition is a relatively simple procedure. Knowing what to do about it, not as simple. So over the last 8 or 9 months, the issue has probably been how to treat (if at all) to ensure competition. The legal teams on both sides would have had their requirements. I’ve no doubt at all that the IAAF would have been pushing for surgical removal of testes, where Semenya’s camp would probably have resisted this. The IAAF will probably have pushed for surgery as a key requirement for Semenya to continue her career in athletics – I’m not sure of the legal issues around this, but that is likely to have been their desire. Semenya’s team may have argued against this as an infringement on her right to decide on her medical treatment, and also to compete without that surgery.
The eventual compromise may have been medical/hormonal treatment, and the process of the treatment and monitoring the response to that treatment would take time to track. Hence the delay.
Will the details of the process be announced? Or does speculation continue?
Of course, this is all speculation, and hopefully, further announcements will clear it up. Here again, we have another fierce debate – should more detail be disclosed, or does “medical confidentiality” dictate that no announcement is made? I’ve felt since the beginning that once the first leak happened, it would be in Semenya’s best interests announce as much detail as she could without compromising herself too much. In fact, if I think about it, the more she discloses the better, even at the risk of giving away too much information. Better to control the facts than allow them to be made up or to sow mistrust and suspicion that it was a ‘technicality’ that got her cleared. Simply returning to competition with no announcement will create mistrust and another round of speculation as the rumour mill begins to spin. On the other hand, one can appreciate Semenya’s desire for privacy, but this will be interesting to follow.
The impact of reduced testosterone on performance?
The other very interesting thing to observe is whether Semenya’s performance levels will remain where they were. This is what most athletics followers will now be looking at. If it is true that her testosterone levels have been reduced, even chemically, then it will certainly have an impact on performance, mostly because of the effect it will have on her training adaptation.
Athletes use testosterone as a drug primarily because it enables a higher level of training performance and more rapid recovery post-training. The combination of the two equals improved performance. A removal of testosterone would impair both direct responses and recovery capacity, and I feel that the recovery is the more crucial of the two in the larger scheme of things. The immediate effect of ‘testosterone withdrawal’, in an athletic sense, is to reduce the level of training the athlete can manage without either running into injury or overtraining.
Therefore, if Semenya is to return, what is more telling will be how she adjusts her training, and not necessarily her race performances, because these are the result of her training performances, and whether her coach is able to manage an athlete who may very well be going through substantial physiological changes. That will be the first big hurdle to overcome.
The East Germans had previously calculated that a doping programme (primarily with anabolic hormones, of which testosterone is one) could improve performance in shot put by 17% in one season! That is not an acute effect, mind you. Rather, it is the cumulative effect of the training that is done while doping and benefiting from higher testosterone levels. The east Germans also worked out that doping was worth between 5 and 10 seconds in an 800m event for women. In fact, for those who are interested in this research, you can read that post, based on the secret documents uncovered by Werner Franke, here.
Is the “loss of performance” when reducing anabolic hormone levels the same as the gain from increasing them? Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t think anyone does, and this case has no precedent. So there are no answers. Some of the physiological and anatomical changes induced by testosterone during puberty will never be reversed, others will. How performance, the sum of all these factors, is affected, remains to be seen.
Of course, all of this is speculation, because we still don’t know the details. And so we’re back again to the issue of whether anything will be said, other than that “she is clear to compete”.
The next steps will be interesting.