Craig Sharp, who died recently, was such a gent that when he first contacted me in 1983, pursuant to an article I had written about Jarmila Kratochvílová, he was kind enough to say that though I may not know the tortuous twists and turns of variable sexuality, he felt that I had implicitly understood them. Of course, I had as little clue then as I do now, in an era when the infinitely more tendentious case of Caster Semenya is again making waves if not tsunamis.
Craig is best known domestically and internationally as the man who ‘invented’ sports science in Britain. And further to that initial contact, the next time I visited Birmingham, where he was an esteemed professor at the university, I went to visit him. In a 40 year career which has taken me around the world, stopping off at a score of Olympic Games and World Championships, with all sorts of superlative performances witnessed on the circuit in between, the three hours I spent with Craig three and a half decades ago remain one of my most enjoyable and indelible memories in athletics.
An athletics fan as well as a practitioner, in addition to being a mine of accessible information of all things related to sport and fitness, Craig took me on a tour of that extensive map of human sexuality and genetic difference, with graphs and photos and detailed exposition which left me infinitely better informed as well as hugely entertained by his anecdotes. My pal, Jim Harvey, long-time coach in Rhode Island tells me that the highlight of his time working in the Sports Centre at Birmingham University almost 40 years ago was attending Craig’s entertaining and illuminating seminars on exercise physiology.
I never met Craig again after that visit to Birmingham, but we kept in touch via phone then email in both of which media he was an enthusiastic correspondent, recalling international athletics events he had attended, and retailing anecdotes about the likes of Steve Ovett, Liz McColgan and Dave Moorcroft, all of whom relied on his extended physiology tests to tell them where they were in their preparation for medal winning and record breaking. And that’s just in athletics. As a former squash player, he had years earlier helped Jonah Barrington to a succession of world titles; and later was instrumental in advising multi-Olympic medal rower, Steve Redgrave, and boxer Audley Harrison.
You can find a couple of links at the bottom; firstly to a detailed obituary, written by one of Craig’s former students, Colin Boreham; and a blog giving you another taste of Craig’s expertise. But a couple of anecdotes about the time Craig spent in Kenya will give you a flavour of the man. Firstly, he represented Kenya in international squash competition, but also established one of the first record times – less than seven hours – for running up the 4000 metre high Mount Kilimanjaro. But perhaps the best example of Professor Sharp’s scientific sense of fun was to hang a juicy piece of meat out of a truck, travelling a high speed, so that he could gauge exactly how fast a hungry cheetah could run. To make sure, he repeated the 220 yard time trial so that he could get the best of three runs, and came up with 63.4mph (over 100k/hr).
Kratochvílová and Semenya are rather more sedate, at considerably less than 20mph; nevertheless, the former is still the 800 metres world record holder (1.53.28, from 1983); and the latter has long looked as if she could break that record anytime she pleases. But whereas the Czechoslovak was a well-built woman clearly benefiting from performance enhancing drugs, the South African is propelled by excessive amounts of testosterone, a result of the hyperandrogenism from which she has suffered/benefited(?) since birth.
I have written extensively on the sorry subject of Semenya in the past, and neither wish nor need to rehearse those arguments again here; thus append links below to the pieces in question. However, it is impossible to read the latest revision of IAAF competition laws relating to female testosterone levels, with their pointed insistence on events from 400 metres to the Mile as anything other than the ‘Stop Caster Semenya’ clause; although clearly there are other women who will come under the same restrictions. That there have always been competitors in the same biological bind as Semenya and her peers is no help either. They were, as henceforth they will be (depending on juridical decisions) ‘retired’ as abruptly as Philip K Dick’s replicants in the work which has come to be known as Blade Runner (although the original book bears the most magnificent title in pulp fiction – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?). But I digress.
It is a decade since Semenya came to prominence, winning the Commonwealth Youth Games 800m title in India in 2008. Since then, she has been used by her own federation, notably the lying president Leonard Chuene; and suffered abuse over her intersexuality that no one should be forced to endure. But she has acted with dignity, gone on to win two Olympic and three World titles, as well as Commonwealth and African golds. She is married, and has a university degree, so must have other fields she wants to explore; unless the compulsion to prove everyone else wrong again is so strong that she needs to continue in elite competition, as she has hinted, at 5000/10,000 metres, while fighting yet another court battle.
Despite the testosterone turbo-boost, she wouldn’t stand a chance at the longer distances; her physiology militates against her.
Maybe, Caster it’s time to retire while you’re winning?