Patricia Nell Warren

Caster Semenya Is Back on the Track

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | July 19, 2010 2:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Politics, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: Caster Semenya, IAAF, intersex athletes, Science of Sports

Last week in Finland, the much-discussed South African runner, article-0-061D19E9000005DC-924_306x423.jpgnow 19, kicked away from the field to win her first race after a year of absence from women's competition. On Thursday, she won the 800-meter at the Lappeenranta Games. But her time raised a big question. It was 2 minutes 44.2 seconds -- way off off the astounding 1:55.45 that grabbed her the world-championship gold at Berlin 11 months ago.

That Berlin time, along with her muscular appearance and a sudden recent improvement in her performance, was what stirred suspicions that Semenya was either genetically male or intersex. If she had undescended testes, her system might be infused with a high testosterone level, giving her an unfair advantage over other women. So the International Assn. of Athletics Federations launched a noisy investigation, during which Semenya had been compelled to stop competing while she underwent a battery of medical and psychological tests.

During her year of forced inactivity and the litigation between the South African government and IAAF over her case, Semenya had a rough time, emotionally and socially, as she fended off the tabloid media and expressed anger at the way she'd been treated. Many observers expected that she might not return to track, regardless of what the IAAF decision was. However, when the IAAF finally cleared her to return to women's competition, this teen champion didn't waste any time putting on her racing shoes. She is tougher than some people thought.

After her Finland win, Semenya commented to the press:"To come and run a 2:04 is not easy, especially after what happened. I was a little bit nervous because it has been a long time not competing. It's a new beginning."

On Sunday, as part of a low-key campaign to bring her back to world-class racing fitness, her handlers had her starting in a second Finnish 800 meter -- at the Savo Games in Lapinlahti. Despite pressure from two pacemakers, Semenya won handily, and showed that her comeback was no fluke, by knocking 2 seconds off her previous time, with 2min 2.41sec.

What Comes Next?

For the moment, Semenya has returned to her home country to continue training. Her connections say she will campaign in Europe in August, and predict she will be running times of 1 min 56-57 secs by then. They want her ready for a gold-medal run at the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, India in October.

Despite the good start, however, these winning times are still markedly slower than that landmark Berlin victory of hers. With the public now so trained to continue obsessing about controversies, and the IAAF releasing no medical details about Semenya's gender or treatment, the discussions continue. Why did the IAAF take 11 months to make a decision in her case? What really went on? Is Semenya really a case of intersex, as rumored? Why the drop in her times?

For a clue, I went to the Science of Sport, a respected and redoubtable South African website where two experts, Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas, try to make factual sense of this often-hard-for-laypeople-to-understand side of the sports world.

Tucker and Dugas had been following Semenya's case closely. They noted the rumors that she had been "undergoing medlcal treatment for an intersex condition." The two athlete/scientists concurred that this mysterious treatment had probably happened, and Tucker now explains further:

"That alleged treatment...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.

"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."

In short -- if Semenya's performance soars back to 2009 levels, or even if it doesn't, she may still face rumoring and speculations -- especially since no details of the alleged treatment have been released by either the IAAF or the South African government. As Science of Sports points out -- if she performs again at Berlin levels, she will be further harassed and questioned by some. If she doesn't improve, she will be written off as a has-been.

To put it another way -- if she continues running, this gifted athlete faces a cruel Catch 22 that will further test the toughness of her mind and spirit as well as her muscles.


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I would like some kind of absolute guarantee from the IAAF that Ms Semenya was not forced to have any surgery or forced onto any kind of medication regime. The IOC under Arne Ljungqvist has taken a far more enlightened position than the IAAF .

The IAAF has still to its enduring shame refused to return the silver medal to Indian sprinter Shanti Sounderajan, who was humiliated and disgraced because of her differences.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | July 19, 2010 10:20 PM

It is so sad for her because of the culture of Africa first and it's expectations for women. She has to live in her community...somehow.

The Gordian Knot of her genetic makeup regardless she is an amazing athlete who deserves her right to participate without gender altering surgery. I fully understand what you mean by the hormone treatments and publicity. I wonder about their mental effects as well and the all important edge in "attitude."

I wonder what Harlan and Billy would do?

It's more than just Africa I think, she's facing harsh judgment all around the world from its expectations for women. It makes me angry that society makes examples of those that don't fit into an arbitrary, artificial binary in order to validate the "naturalness" of it. Such backwards thinking.

According to this she has androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS). Which, well, means her level of testosterone means jack shit. People with AIS produce levels of testosterone typical of men, but they don't use it. Okay, biochemistry time, for a hormone to function it needs to bind with a receptor on the surface of a target cell (in this case, muscles), people with AIS do not have properly working receptors. So, even if they have a high level of testosterone it won't bind to the receptor. If it doesn't bind to the receptor, the cells don't respond to it, so they effectively don't have it. (As an aside, this is the theory behind antiandrogens that transwomen take, except those drugs compete with testosterone for the binding site and make it impossible to uptake testosterone). So, yeah, having higher testosterone levels than the typical female means nothing here, they're not going to effect her one bit.

And I do hope that the IAAF didn't force her into taking any medicine or undergoing surgery. Sadly, I can so see it happening.

Actually the article you cite (Sunday Times, Sept. 2009) doesn't specify AIS. And the story is 10 months out of date.

The IAAF have not released any details, but apparently quite a bit of study has been done on Semenya's case since then. "Intersex" is a term that covers a number of conditions, and undescended testicles can be included there. In the sports world, the male levels of testosterone generated by these would automatically be a concern, if it concerned an individual competing in the women's division, because testosterone is a factor in muscular activity and speed for athletes. This is why everybody is making such a fuss about the testosterone.

Whatever it is that the researchers found in Semenya's system, we may never know the details. But if her biochemistry profile was well outside the parameters considered acceptable for women's competition, Semenya may have had to agree to treatment as a condition of returning to competition.