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What to do about Caster Semenya

The were lots of rumours floating around Berlin during the recent World Championships about 18-year old South African female 800m runner, Caster Semenya.

It was not so much that she was so dominant in the preliminary rounds of her event, but more the way that she ran. She ran quite differently to the others in her races. She was not as smooth and bouncy as her competitors; she ran with an ungainly, low knee-drive style, but she was all power and strength which enabled her to run away from the rest of the field in the final stages.

After failing to move out of the heats of the World Youth Championships last year, and having a P.B. of over 2:10.00, she had a remarkable improvement during the last South African season. Then, just a few weeks before the World Championships, she won the African Junior Championships, in virtually a solo performance, in a world-leading time of 1:56.72.

Of course, a huge improvement by athletes between the ages of 17 and 18 is not unknown, depending on the intensity of training beforehand, but it does not usually happen in women. This improvement itself raised a few eyebrows, and her deep voice and musclely appearance did not help.

There have been very strong women 800m runners in the past. The winner of the first World Championships in 1983, Jarmila Kratochvilova, comes to mind, but that was in the days when drug testing was very rudimentary to say the least.

Before the final of the 800m in Berlin, it was announced that the IAAF had conducted preliminary tests on Caster, and that as they were inconclusive, she would be allowed to contest the final. This was hardly a rousing endorsement of her status.

As expected, she literally ran away from the others in the race on the last lap, winning easily. The crowd was quite subdued, not cheering as they did every other gold medallist. They seemed more embarassed than anything. There was no hostility to her (unlike the reaction to the woman who was first past the post in the 1500m after she committed a blatant foul with 200m to go, and before she was disqualified), but it left a bad taste in the mouth all the same.

Caster did not run a lap of honour, and uniquely, the IAAF refused to allow her to attend a press conference, the only winner not to do so.

It was a completely unsatisfactory state of affairs, which should not have been allowed to happen. It should have been resolved one way or the other before the World Championships.

In Berlin, it was reported that when travelling in South Africa earlier this year, a service station attendant refused to let Caster use the women's toilets. This should have rung some alarm bells.

The South African team doctor in Berlin, Dr Harold Adams, (who has also been the Chief Medical Officer of Athletics South Africa (ASA) since 1995), wrote a report after the Championships that was very revealing. It seems that the IAAF were concerned about Caster's status before the team left South Africa, and emailed Dr Adams on 3rd August 2009. As as a result of the email, he arranged for a gynaecologist to perform preliminary tests on her (after also arranging for counselling), which were done on 7th August in Pretoria. Caster left for Berlin with the team on 8th August.

The results of the tests became available on 15th August, and at a meeting with the President of ASA, Leonard Cheune, Dr. Adams told him that the results were “not good”, and recommended that Caster be withdrawn from the Championships, to enable further testing to be done in South Africa where she would have the support of family and friends. This was agreed by the President.

However, the following day, the President said he had changed his mind after consulting with “high-powered politicians back home”. He also said that he wanted to “politicize the whole thing, and cause confusion within the IAAF medical team.”

There was a meeting with the IAAF who said if Caster competed in the World Championships, they would do Gender Verification tests, and that if any unfair advantage was detected, she would be stripped of any medal won. If she withdrew, ASA could handle the matter of Gender Verification tests in South Africa, and report to the IAAF afterwards. Although the latter option would give Caster some privacy, confidentiality and support, it was not accepted by the President. The IAAF then did the tests on her.

After the Championships, the President firstly denied that any tests were done in South Africa, and accused all critics of racism. He also threatened to take the IAAF to court if they persisted with their testing.

His lies were later exposed, but his conduct was a disgrace, in my view.

As Dr Adams said in his report, “The IAAF have conducted a number of Gender Verification tests in the past, and none has entered the public domain. As a matter of fact, the identities of the athletes involved in the tests are not known in the sports fraternity... The athletes remain fully protected.”

In his conclusion, Dr Adams did not pull any punches. He said, “I believe that Mr Cheune made a conscious decision that the only thing left for him to do to save his skin was to resort to lying, not realizing that this had the negative effect of dragging Ms. Semeya deeper and deeper into the controvosy, thus inflicting more pain on her.

“It is obvious to me that Mr Cheune's orgy of lies had absolutely nothing to do with Ms. Smemya, but had all to do with Mr. Cheune's selfish interest to cover his back, at the expense of Ms. Semenya's welfare.”

Despite calls for his resignation, Mr, Cheune is still President of ASA! *

I do not blame the IAAF for this sad situation. Caster was entered properly into the Championships, and with the South African Association recalcitrant, nothing more could be done at that stage. Even before all the revelations about the ASA President's behaviour, I was hoping that they would do the right thing in Berlin, so that the 800m final would be remembered more for the athletic prowess of the runners than about Caster Semenya.

Of course, I do not blame Caster for any of this, and I have nothing but sympathy for the girl. Others sitting nearby to me at Berlin had the same thoughts. But it seemed to me that it was unfair to the other runners in the race, for a person of questionable status to be in the race.

The IAAF's full tests on Caster have not yet been officially released. But a leaked version of the findings that was published is very disturbing.

Without going into too much detail, it seems that Caster has some internal male sexual organs (that are external in men), and is lacking in some basic internal female sexual organs. This enables her to have a vastly increased testosterone level, compared to other females, (I nearly wrote “normal females” but this is surely unfair to her). It must be a terrific advantage to her in her running.

I cannot possibly comprehend how any 18-year old girl would feel to have her gender “issues” broadcast to the whole world, but would imagine that her psychological health would be adversely affected. This re-inforces my thoughts in Berlin, that the South Africans should not have allowed her to compete. The poor girl should not have been put though this ordeal, which could have so easily been avoided. No doubt, she wanted to compete, and win the gold medal. But it is a hollow victory, and others should have had her best interests in mind. She has been used as a pawn in South African sporting politics, and this is wrong.

There are two issues that need to be resolved now. Should she keep her gold medal, and should she be allowed to compete in women's races in the future?

Gender is not always clear-cut, not only for laymen like me, but also for the medical profession. Gender tests for all competitors in women's events were conducted 20 or 30 years ago. Initially it was a physical test, but this was considered too intrusive, and embarrasing. Then, a chromasome test was devised, but this was abandoned when medical science determined that it could not be 100% accurate.

The tests did have some effect, though. A number of prominent female athletes (mainly from countries behind the iron curtain) promptly retired when the tests were announced. And before then, the winner of the 1932 Olympic women's 100 metres title, Stanislawa Walasiewicz of Poland, known as Stella Walsh in America, was controversial. She moved to the USA as an infant, and lived there all her life, although competing for the country of her birth in the Olympics. In 1980, she was caught in cross-fire during a robbery attempt at a discount store, and killed. An autopsy had to be carried out, and it was then revealed that she had male sex organs.

I have every sympathy for people born with somewhat ambiguous gender, and agree that they should be able to live their lives as they choose. There is no doubt that Caster has been raised as a female from birth (for obvious reasons) and that she considers herself exclusively female. But is this enough to make her eligible for women's athletics events? I think not.

The deciding factor for me is the fairness or otherwise to the other competitors in women's events. For this, there has to be a cut-off point where the people who are further along the gender spectrum from this, have too great an advantage over the others. Where this point should be would have to be decided by experts in the area, but it should be the point where the advantage gained is too great. And I certainly would not consider it right if people with male sexual organs, whether internal or external, were eligible for women's events.

This would mean that people like Caster could not compete, and this would be devastating to her, but I believe that this would be necessary for the integrity of women's events.

Similarly, if she had a physical unfair advantage in Berlin, she should not keep her gold medal. If she is not eligible now, she should not have been eligible then. Of course, what transpired from the gender tests was not known when she was entered for the Championships. However, even if tests were only done after she had won the 800m, there is precedent for athletes to be stripped of their medals well after the competitions. This has occurred when it has been discovered that performance enhancing drugs were used, even if a drugs test was conducted and was negative. I can see no reason why it should be any different for gender tests.

There is also the question of the eligibility of people who have completed gender re-assignment surgery. In the past, a professional male tennis player, after various operations, sought to compete in women's events. I recall it was quite controversial at the time. Again, in my view, it should be a question of fairness for the competitors. If there was no longer any unfair physical advantage over the others, there should be no problem with eligibilty.

In the marvelous television compedy series, “The Games”. Produced in Australia before the 2000 Olympics, one of the episodes included a discussion of a (fictitious) men's skeet shooting champion form the previous Games, who had a sex-change operation afterwards, and wanted to compete in the women's event in Sydney. So this problem has been raised before, and it seems that it has not yet been solved. (At the end of the episode, it was determined that she would be allowed to compete)

There is, of course, a big difference between skeet shooting which does not involve strength or speed, or equestian for that matter in which men and women compete in the same event, and the 800m.

I hope that the IAAF experts can come up with a comprehensive set of standards soon, so that such a situation as Caster Semenya found herself in can be resolved before it has such a detrimental effect on her life.

*   Since this was written, the entire board of ASA has been suspended by the South African Olympic Committee, but it remains to be seen whether there will be any change in effective control of Athletics in South Africa.

Peter Rule

What do you think? To comment on this, e-mail to peterrule@netspace.net.au