01 July, 2018

The Semenya scandal

I have been planning to write this post on Semenya for quite some time. While preparing for it I decided to learn more about sex verification in athletics and I wrote a whole post on this subject. I have been also following the question of hyperandrogenism, regularly reporting on the evolving situation. I was confident that after the recent IAAF regulation on "differences in sexual development" the matter would be settled. But then C. Semenya introduced an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (which in 2015 had overruled the previous IAAF regulation). And I decided that enough was enough. I could not continue postponing the article on Semenya. 


Semenya winning in Rio

Let us start at the beginning. Semenya made her first appearance in the international arena in 2009. Improving her personal best over 800 m from 2:04.23 to 1:55.43 she went from an almost unknown runner (to be fair, she had won the World Junior Championships in 2008) to world champion in just three races. That's when the controversy started, the women who competed against Semenya claiming that she was a man. (In fact the controversy started even before the final and for a moment there was a possibility of Semenya being disqualified on the grounds of she not being "entirely female"). She went on to win the 2011 World's and she finished second in the 2012, London, Olympics. behind Savinova. Colin Jackson, commenting for the british television was of the opinion that Semenya "threw the race". Having watched the final several times I am of the same opinion exactly. Semenya had decided, in view of what was brewing in the IAAF concerning hyperandrogenic athletes, to be low-key. (A sample re-test resulted in Savinova's disqualification for doping offence and Semenya found herself gold medalist). There followed the dark (for Semenya) years. She missed the 2013 World's and at the 2015 ones she finished last in her semi-final. 

What was the reason for the debacle? The IAAF hyperandrogenic regulation came into effect obliging Semenya (and others) to follow a hormone treatment so as to keep their blood testosterone level below 10 nmol/L (We don't know the exact value of Semenya's testosterone concentration, since it was never made public, but we know that she is part of a group of 5 athletes with concentrations ranging between 15 and 30 nmol/L, i.e. 5 to 10 times higher than that of a normal woman). As a result of the hormone treatment, Semenya's performances registered a spectacular drop. She could manage a 2:02.66 in 2014 and a 1:59.59 in 2015. From top-of-the-world she became an "also ran".

But in July of 2015 the Court of Arbitration for Sport decided that there was a lack of evidence that testosterone increased female athletic performance and notified the IAAF that it had two years to provide the evidence. In the meantime the hyperandrogenous athletes did not have to follow a hormone treatment anymore and thus Semenya could leave her testosterone unchecked. She went on to win the 800 m in the 2016, Rio, Olympics  and she did even better in the 2017, London, World's where she won the 800m and placed third in the 1500 m. 

At the head of IAAF Sir Sebastian Coe stated that "No hyperandrogenic athlete has cheated". I vehemently disagree with him. Semenya does cheat. (And the same applies to the remaining hyperandrogenic athletes). Had Semenya continued taking hormones in order to keep a low level of testosterone I would have admitted the "no cheating" argument. But once she knew that she had an unfair advantage and profited from the legal imbroglio in order to keep this advantage, she is cheating. And things are getting worse now that Semenya is trying to annul the IAAF regulation concerning disorders of sex development. It is clear that she wishes to keep her unfair advantage over women runners. Ross Tucker (a sports physiologist whose writings are a permanent inspiration for me) has estimated this advantage to be of the order of 5 to 7 seconds. Losing it would mean that she'll become an over 2 min runner, i.e. essentially a nobody on the international scene.
So Semenya has nothing to lose or rather she has everything to lose, hence her desperate move.


Masculine body language (but video is better)

I have always been astounded by the masculinity of Semenya. The fact that she has a man's muscles is not the most important one. It's her voice and her body language who are 100 % masculine. Hell, she is even married to a woman. Taken separately from everything else this last point wouldn't mean anything, but when you see Semenya, when you hear her, when you see her dressed like a man, when you know that she has internal testes producing testosterone at rates encountered in men, then you start doubting as to the real sex of Semenya. She maintains that she is a woman but as E. Vilain, a geneticist, said in an interview, "if we push this argument, anyone declaring a female gender can compete as a woman" the predictable result of this being that there will be no women winners in competition.


Semenya and her wife

Contrary to what Semenya is claiming I am not sure that she is quite clear as to her gender. But gender refers to how an individual perceives him or herself and is essentially a social construct. Sex, on the other hand, is biological and it is on the basis of this that athletes can be allowed to compete as women. In the case of Semenya her gender is not what matters. The question is that since Semenya is not "entirely female" her participation in women's races makes them unfair for the other participants. And Semenya's initiating a legal battle that would allow her to overturn a rule that is meant to level the field is something I perceive as dishonest.

So what would have been a honest attitude from Semenya? Well, what is done is done. She gets to keep her victories and gold medals. She could profit from some meeting or event the African Championships this year in order to break the world record over 800 m. There is no point in staying in low-key any more: she can break Kratoshvilova's record any time. Then in October she could announce her retirement from competition (an example that could be followed by Wambui and Niyonsaba). Had she decided to do this I would have been the first to applaud her. But she didn't. So I can only hope that the CAS confirms the IAAF regulation which will push Semenya and the remaining hyperandrogenous "women" out of competition. For good.

PS After I had finished writing this post and while waiting for a few days before publishing it I  became aware of a pernicious argument people are using in defence of Semenya: attacking her means that you are racist. This is a "below the belt" blow. My position is perfectly clear: I would have written the same article whatever the skin colour of Semenya. Her being black does not change a thing. It's her hormones I am caring about and not her complexion. 

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