Casting a shadow over Caster Semenya

#athletics #trackandfield #running #sprinting #IAAF 4 Minute Read

It's been in the press for the last week and rightly so, the introduction of a new regulation based on a lack of evidence in elite sport is quite astonishing. Opinion's on the topic are understandably split and I can completely understand why but is the manner in which this decision has been made, the real issue here? I completely empathise the position of competing athletes but unfortunately there appears to be only one way to describe the manner in which the case of the IAAF and Caster Semenya, has been handled, a witch-hunt.


The journey that Caster Semenya has endured to this point in her career is far from normal, it's actually downright disgraceful and she herself has referred to it initially driving her towards a very vulnerable state during her original suspension a few years ago. Since this time, Caster has continued to develop both her on and off-track performances and as a result has gained champion status, as well as being a role-model to children everywhere.


Let me be really clear, I am not a gender scientist, biochemist or a lawyer but I have read several interesting pieces on the topic to provide you with a 5 minute summary, hitting the key points that other people may have mentioned in offices and staff rooms alike. I must say the work by Jaime Schultz, Associate Professor of Kinesiology at Penn State University, Roger Pielke Jr and Ross Tucker of TheSportsScientists.com has been invaluable to help us begin to understand the situation the IAAF have placed themselves in.


If you didn't know, there was a similar original case against Indian athlete Dutee Chand, which actually had 2 of the same judges as in Caster Semenya's recent case. At the time, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), concluded there was simply not enough evidence to rule against Chand and as a result the IAAF could not create the regulation. Oddly, this time with the same level of evidence, with two of the same judges, CAS have said the IAAF can create a regulation if they like, although they have concerns.


Sorry how can you even do that? Is it not better to be sure about something before potentially hurting someone's physical, mental and socio-economic health? The medical principal, 'first do no harm' comes to mind here.


Anyway, they've got evidence haven't they?

Evidence that may count as evidence in a satirical comedy or episode of South Park may be. Put it this way, if I was still lecturing, I'm not convinced they would be getting a first.


I won't go into details but I really don't think this has been said loud enough...it was funded by the IAAF, performed by an IAAF consultant scientist, for the IAAF to use in a case put forward by the IAAF. Categorically, this doesn't make the researcher's are consciously or unconsciously biased, but let's be honest an independent piece of quantitative research (objective and numbers led) would have been a little nicer. Suffice to say, due to the standard of the research conducted, it's been requested to be retracted, awkward!

Well she has elevated levels of testosterone, above those of other women. There is no other argument.

This isn't strictly true because you are right, testosterone is an incredible thing in terms of what it does to sports performance. However, in the case of women with DSD and in all humans, the ability to utilise that testosterone is largely varying. So an athlete could have increased testosterone reading's whilst their body doesn't actually use any above the standard amount.


I mean let's be honest, why on earth have they stated that testosterone only enhances performance in these 5 disciplines?! Poor research that's why, you'd believe it would be apparent in all disciplines realistically. Also, saying, "there is a benefit in 5 events" sounds very different to saying, "it has zero performance benefits in 17 events and therefore we need to really look at large-scale research to justify what steps we will take next".


Testing a bio-marker like testosterone is simply too basic for the argument that one is trying to define here. Yes, Caster has elevated levels of testosterone and is 46 XY but this doesn't necessarily define her as biologically male.


We know that elite sports is basically a collection of individuals who posses certain attributes that 99% of the population simply don't. That's why we watch them perform on TV because it's amazing, we want that biological advantage but this is what makes them so amazing to watch.


Following this, many people discuss how elite athlete's like Michael Phelps had a limb and torso length advantage and how Nordic skier, Eero Mäntyranta, had a genetic condition that allowed him to produce greater amounts of red blood cells. The line becomes really blurred to who we stop from competing and who we don't but we are trying too hard to simplify things here. I personally have learnt over the last 7 days that, despite my previous beliefs, gender has been simplified far too much and we have so much research to do before we can really start forming a decision. This brings me back to my main point. CAS from what has been released so far, have effectively allowed the IAAF to take whatever necessary steps they like, without sufficient scientific evidence of good strength. Whatever happened to basic research methods teachings at university, where a single piece of research was almost worthless but a systematic review or meta analysis was valuable to create a standpoint?! They even state their concerns over the research and potential harm but want to move forwards, then consider reversing their conclusion at a later date, although a few years ago they felt VERY differently. What swayed them? We just shouldn't be taking any formal steps or forcing the consumption of drugs to alter someone's natural make-up until we are fully educated on the two major topics at hand...the testosterone produced and an understanding of gender biology and the ability to process that testosterone.


If you want to learn more about the details, I highly recommend you Google the authors above and check out their excellent articles!


Train Hard,


Arj Thiruchelvam

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