… It’s another!
Barely has the furore over Justin Gatlin winning the men’s 100 metres (all of twelve years after his first world title) begun to recede into the folk memory than we are confronted again by the equally substantial problem of what to do about Caster Semenya, who came perilously close to winning the women’s 1500 metres last night in her first serious international foray into the distance.
Only a tactically superb race from Olympic champion Faith Kipyegon of Kenya ensured that Semenya, a tactical innocent at the distance was left 15 metres back with 200 to run. Nevertheless the South African made up all but half a metre, to snatch the bronze medal from Britain’s Laura Muir, while Kipyegon added another gold medal to her tally, and the frequently overlooked Jenny Simpson of the USA, a former world champion took silver.
Semenya is hot favourite to win the 800 metres later this week, at considerably shorter odds than was Gatlin to win the 100. On which score, a pal of mine who likes a ‘flutter’ opted to put a wad on Gatlin when he spotted stupidly long odds against the American. He might have won a ‘small’ packet, but his wife now treats him the way the London crowd treated Gatlin, with disdain.
Incidentally, when I say that ‘we’ are confronted by a problem, I mean the IAAF and the Court for Arbitration in Sport (CAS). ‘We’ can of course have our say, as I am doing here; and people in power may even listen. Sillier things have happened; witness the process which brought the current incumbent into the White House. Or the 52% of the British populace, most of whom live in places with barely any immigrants, legal or otherwise, who voted for Brexit. However, I digress….
As everyone should know by now, Semenya is what is termed an ‘inter-sex’ athlete. That is to say, untreated hyperandrogenism at birth has resulted in her having a surfeit of testosterone, bestowing substantial advantage in strength and speed largely denied to other women. Hence she is virtually unbeatable, though seems to do just enough to win rather than racing flat out, which would make history of even all those drug-fuelled middle distance records from the past. It is no small irony therefore that her first Olympic and second world 800 metres titles, in 2011/12 were awarded retrospectively when Mariya Savinova of Russia was disqualified for drugs!
When the South African’s indeterminate gender came to light, she was originally forced to take hormone suppressants, as prescribed by IAAF rules, in order to compete internationally; hence her absence from or muted presence at the World Championships in Moscow and Beijing 2013/15.
The current two year suspension of mandatory hormone replacement therapy (HRT) by the Court for Arbitration in Sport (CAS) is the result of a complaint, not by Semenya and her team but by Indian sprinter Dutee Chand. Now if you blinked a couple of days ago, you would have missed Chand who went out in the heats of the women’s 100 metres. But not to put too fine a point on this, Chand is demonstrably feminine, and I suspect that if Semenya were equally mediocre, this farrago would barely break surface.
I have written extensively about this in the past, and have listed a series of links at the foot of this article for those who are interested enough to read further.
CAS gave the IAAF two years to come up with a defence of their prohibitive stance, which they duly did last month, citing a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine which determined that women with high testosterone have up to a 4.5% advantage in athletic competition. However, since CAS has let it be known that they want evidence of an advantage adjacent to 12%, which is the mean of men’s superiority over women in athletics events, it seems that there is little likelihood that the IAAF appeal will succeed. In which case, the sometimes acrimonious debate will continue.
On a broader time-scale, women have been as shabbily treated in sport historically as they have in most other walks in life. In athletics, witness the nonsensical ban on women running anything over 100 metres in the Olympic Games until 1948. This state of affairs was prompted by the Good Ole Boys of the International Olympic Committee deciding that the half dozen women contesting the newly introduced Olympic 800 metres in Amsterdam 1928 finished in a state of distress. Having run a fair few 800 metre races myself, I can assure you that I was never a pretty sight afterwards, indeed if ever!
In fact, just like Semenya surprisingly did last night, only one woman had fallen to the track after the Amsterdam race. But that was sufficient to rebuff successive attempts to introduce longer races, until the 200 metres was added in 1948, with the 800 metres making a comeback in 1960 and the 400 metres four years later. The 3000 metres and marathon were introduced in 1984, the former being upgraded to 5000 metres in 1996, etc, etc. Another irony is that experts, such as Prof Craig Sharp (see final link below) is just one exercise physiologist who have demonstrated (as have results in ultra-distance races) that women ultimately have greater endurance than men.
Thankfully, those of us who live in what is unironically referred to as the First World have a far greater latitude for the LGBTQ community nowadays; but sport as ever is a bit different. For once I have sympathy with the authorities, as much as with Semenya, who has been the victim of much political manipulation in the past (see links) as well as some disgusting name-calling.
Equally, I have sympathy with Semenya’s rivals who feel they are not competing on a level playing field. Speaking of level playing fields, it’s all rather reminiscent of the drugs debate, isn’t it?
This is one I’m glad not to have to call.
(top photo: Getty Images for IAAF)