Caster is back on track — but will the world champion return?

2010-07-10 00:00

THIS week saw the Caster Semenya saga with the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) finally reach the finish line after 11 months of exile for the 19-year-old who potentially stood to have an extremely lucrative career after winning Gold in the World Athletic championships.

It is fully a year since Semenya’s smouldering volcano of gender-questioning began with the complete domination of the African Junior Championships in Mauritius in July 2009. This initiated the rumbles that erupted into a public outcry by the World Senior Championships in Berlin in August.

The combination of a one minute and 55,45 second clocking for two laps of Berlin’s blue Olympic Stadium track, a deep voice and a few upper-arm muscle flexes ensured the lava engulfed the world’s media. Unfortunately, this became the headline story of the championships, eclipsing many of the other world-record performances in terms of media coverage.

Ironically, the notoriety that has haunted Semenya may well have become her saving grace as it exposed the ineptitude of the current gender-testing process.

In athletic terms, the adjudication of gender case boils down to whether the athlete has “an unfair advantage or not”.

Despite the array of tests and specialist opinion that forms the current gender-testing process, there are no clearly defined limits or boundaries to determine whether an athlete is deemed to have an unfair advantage over other women.

In many cases the elite athletes are elite primarily because they have a physiological (and /or psychological) advantage, such as the flipper-sized feet of Olympic swimmer Ian Thorpe or the massive stride length of Usain Bolt, who needs four to five fewer strides to eat up 100 metres than any of his competitors.

It’s a conundrum of endless proportions, which is why no rules, only guidelines, exist: and you can’t ban an athlete on guidelines.

Attempts to do so would surely end in the court of arbitration with the likelihood of even greater settlement figures being claimed for human rights abuse, prevention of trade and a host of other aspects that would make the multi-million rand Butch Reynolds pay-out look like bus fare money.

Previously, it seemed the fear of public exposure of the testing and results had been sufficient for athletes to simply withdraw from the sport under medical advice.

In Semenya’s case, this ceased to be an option when information, said to have been leaked from within the IAAF, was published by an Australian coach and journalist. The initial leak was followed by unconfirmed test results that revealed both male and female characteristics, and high levels of testosterone.

Semenya had done nothing wrong other than being one of a percentage of women born towards the midpoint of the spectrum that defines men from women. Similar percentages exist at the other ends of the spectrum. If there is a limit to how much naturally produced testosterone a woman can have to compete in women’s events, surely there must similarly be a percentage of the male population who naturally produce so much testosterone that they have an unfair advantage over other men?

The detailed public interrogation of Semenya’s private life has correctly been described by her lawyer, Greg Nott, as “deplorable”, but left absolutely no room for further public degradation and, ironically, nullified any potential pressure to be used to force her to quietly slip away from the sport. No doubt it was a card well-played by her legal team in the negotiation of a settlement that Nott considers as being “landmark”.

While the federations, politicians, and sports have spluttered and floundered to come to terms with her case, the abuses of civil rights and the potential of the precedents it sets, the leading lady has stood like the Statue of Liberty with her head held high and bearing a torch to provide light in a sport that seems to have lost its way.

In essence, the IAAF structure had three potential outcomes based on the results and their interpretation of unfair advantage:

•The athlete has no unfair advantage so she can return to competition.

•The athlete has an unfair advantage and must not be allowed to compete.

•The athlete has an unfair advantage but with medical treatment or perhaps hormone therapy, this can be brought to acceptable levels.

The media statement implies that the first option had been adopted; however, the protracted length of the case, and the numerous false starts in terms of media conferences has initiated speculation about deals and the possibility that the last option was implemented.

Understandably, the IAAF has been restrained in the details of the case. Not only must Semenya’s privacy be protected, but there must be concern that a door could be opened for litigation if any previous cases were handled in a questionable manner.

If indeed Semenya has dual genitalia, then some medical experts have suggested treatment or surgery would be advisable on a health concern. If over the past months there has been medical intervention, then presumably there has been some form of monitoring, which now indicates a more acceptable set of results which has opened the door for a return to competition.

As any increased levels of testosterone may not only have helped with recovery between sessions, but also allowed for greater intensity of training, there will be considerable interest over the next months to see whether she can regain her performance level, if indeed there has been some form of hormone manipulation.

Given the 11-month competitive lay-off, too much credence should not be given to Wednesday’s failed attempts over the 600 metres time trial where she failed to beat one minute and 32 seconds (equivalent of 2:04 qualifying standard). However, her 1:35 appears to put her current ability around 2:09 for 800 metres, a massive 13 seconds slower than her last performance in Berlin.

If indeed treatment has been undertaken, it could provide an interesting contribution to debates as to whether coaching or genetics maketh the champion.

The IAAF had originally given June 30 as the announcement date, but the six-day fine-tuning and Greg Nott’s description of the settlement as “landmark” could imply that the 19-year-old has been suitably compensated for the poor handling of the case, the open admission by the IAAF that she was being subjected to gender testing, and the leaks that were said to originate from IAAF structures or laboratories commissioned by the organisation.

Another theory promoted by sceptics suggests that there has been a deal behind closed doors that will result in Semenya’s early retirement. The 2010 season has no Olympics or World Championships, but her return to the track is an important step to rebuilding her reputation and credibility.

This would leave Semenya with the Commonwealth Games and a few “exhibition” type races in the IAAF Diamond and World Challenge, before perhaps taking an early, negotiated, retirement.

If either of the above scenarios is true, it is argued that even those international athletes who have said they will boycott races where she competes will have little to lose this season.

In the next months, the bigger question for Semenya may not be, “Can she return to being the world’s best over 800 metres, but does she want to?”

Both the IAAF and Semenya’s lawyers have made it clear that neither the details of the settlement nor the medical results will be put in the public domain. This has only given sustenance to the sceptics and conspiracy theorists who lay much of the blame on political interference.

Importantly, on the athletics side, the IAAF ruling has given true enthusiasts the opportunity to appreciate the return of the Caster Semenya, who entered the sport with the simplicity, ambitions and dreams of an 18-year-old hopeful.

But then again, one only has to look at the homecoming welcomes of the Nigerian and French football teams to see how divorced sport and politics are.

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