Wed | May 22, 2019

Orville Higgins | Semenya's cross to bear

Published:Saturday | May 5, 2018 | 12:00 AM

South African runner Caster Semenya is again in the spotlight. I wouldn't blame her if she feels she has been wronged by the Gods. She has been blessed with genuine ability on the track and has done well, but her career has been dogged by controversy after controversy. It is a cruel trick of fate. Not only does she have strikingly masculine looks, but her body naturally produces more testosterone than is normal for a female, giving her an unfair advantage.

As far back as 2011, the IAAF had introduced a rule that forced her to take testosterone -reducing medication, and it was quite noticeable that between 2012 and 2015, her speed had significantly fallen off. The Court of Arbitration for Sports (CAS) had called a cease and desist order against the testosterone -reducing medication after Indian runner Dutee Chand appealed and won her case though she too has what was described as a hormone imbalance. CAS then ordered the IAAF to conduct greater research on the advantages that advanced levels of testosterone gives to female athletes and the IAAF is now satisfied that if any further cases brought to CAS, they have enough leg to stand on.

So yet again, Semenya and others like her will have to take testosterone-reducing medication or be banned from competing. Well, there is another possibility they could always compete against men.




The ruling by the IAAF does beg a few questions. Why does the rule apply only to certain events? The rule applies only to events from the 400 meters to the mile, including hurdles, 800 metres, 1500m and combined events over the same distances. Why on earth would the rule not apply to sprinters or people in other disciplines?

Why would extra high levels of testosterone be an advantage to an 800m runner, but not to a 100m runner? How can that make any sense whatsoever? The IAAF may well have come out and call it the "Caster Semenya" rule. To create a rule that targets the areas where she competes while leaving other events to stay as is, seems a deliberate attempt to once and for all put an end to all the whispers going around about the unfairness of Semenya competing against "normal" women. I don't know who the IAAF think they could be fooling by suggesting that the new rules are designed for athletes in general.

The South African parliament has come out with scathing remarks against the IAAF, saying the regulations were "unjust, dehumanising, and should be condemned by all human rights proponents." Even Canada has gotten in on the act. They are calling for a review of the whole thing.

There are good arguments on both sides of the argument. On the face of it, it does appear to be unfair to penalise an athlete for something their body produces naturally, but I can understand where the IAAF is coming from in trying to create a level playing field for female runners.

I don't buy the arguments I have been hearing that there are other natural advantages that other athletes have for which they are not being penalised. Jamaicans - for example - are said to have a higher proportion of fast twitch fibers than anywhere else, which gives us a natural advantage in sprinting. The simple truth, however, is that sports is predominantly conducted on a gender basis, and therefore, if there is an element that creates doubt over a person's sex, then the IAAF has all right to act.

That is the crux of the matter. This is what the IAAF is not saying. Testosterone is maybe the single biggest 'ingredient' in determining male or female. The IAAF is saying, tongue in cheek, that they can no longer sit by and allow a person to compete if they are unsure to which gender the person belongs.

The IAAF is too politically conscious to say Semenya may be more man than woman (or equally so), but they can go the route they have gone without appearing to be directly saying they are unsure of her gender. Semenya's looks have not helped. Getting married to a woman was like waving a red flag at a bull.

She must have known that this would only make things worse for those who feel she shouldn't be allowed to compete with women. Though it may be completely false, rumours that her wife was pregnant may well have been the last straw for the IAAF.

Did the IAAF do the right thing in forcing her and others to reduce testosterone levels, or should they have allowed her to compete as long as she wasn't deliberately doing anything illegal? I'm still sitting on the fence on this. What say you?

- Orville Higgins is an international sports broadcaster.