Now the dust has settled since the women’s 800m Olympic final, I thought I’d take a moment to discuss the recent comments made by the British 800m runner Lynsey Sharp, who placed sixth in the Olympic final, behind South Africa’s Caster Semenya.
There has been on-going debate surrounding the South African star, Semenya. She shot to fame as a teenager in 2009, coming from virtually unknown to winning the women’s 800m World Championship Final. Controversy followed her win, with reports claiming she has a condition called hyperandrogenism, which means she has elevated testosterone levels that are three times the average for women.
It should be noted however, that Semenya has had an incredibly hard few years. It is impossible not to sympathise with her, after being publically shamed for being intersex whilst still a teenager. But above all, she can’t help the ability she was naturally born with and is just trying to do what she loves. She has also been subjected to all sorts of sex tests and whilst having her private life spread across the media.
However, since the 2009 storm, Semenya (and other hyper-androgynous athletes) had to take testosterone-suppressants, leading her performances to drop. However, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) has temporarily overruled the recent law, now allowing athletes to avoid taking testosterone-suppressants.
This was due to Indian sprinter, Dutee Chand, who failed a gender test prior to the 2014 Commonwealth Games. The Indian government appealed to the CAS decision on behalf of Chand, and in July 2015 the CAS issued a decision to suspend the hyperandrogenism regulation for female track and field sports for two years, stating that there was insufficient evidence for the ruling. Since the reformed law, Semenya has been unbeatable.
So what kind of advantage has Caster Semenya gained through her naturally elevated testosterone levels? It’s worth mentioning first of all, that testosterone is the very substance athletes use to cheat or ‘dope’ within the form of anabolic steroids. If any of the other competitors in that final were found to have artificially elevated their testosterone levels to that of Semenya’s, they would be disqualified.
In a recent article, The Science of Sport stated: “Caster Semenya could, and should, break the 800m world record. It’s the oldest record on the tracks, held by one Jarmila Kratochvilova, and if you know anything about the sport, you know that whoever it was who broke that record was going to be faced with a few probing questions” – essentially insinuating that Kratochvilova was highly suspected of doping throughout her career.
So exactly how much higher is Semenya’s testosterone levels? Well, 99% of female athletes, had testosterone levels below 3.08 nmol/L and as I previously mentioned, the recent ruling in place said that women could compete only if their testosterone levels were below an upper limit 10 nmol/L. So the upper limit of 10 nmol/L was three times higher than a level that applies to 99% of female participants, meaning Semenya’s levels would have been over the upper limit of 10 nmol/L.
Semenya’s performance dropped off as expected when taking the testosterone-reducing drug. Last year, she failed to advance beyond the semi-finals in Beijing, and hadn’t even made the qualification mark for the preceding year’s Commonwealth Games, proving that running sub 2:00 had become a significant barrier, when the world record had been plausible at 18.
However, going back to the Rio Olympic final, Semenya was not the only athlete to have hyperandrogenism, two other competitors in the Women’s 800m final, Margaret Wambui of Kenya and Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi, were also rumored to have abnormally high testosterone levels, making three our of eight women in the Olympic final potentially hyper-androgynous. As expected, the medalists were all the previously mentioned; Semenya, Niyonsaba and Wambui, full results can be found here.
During a post race interview, Britain’s potential medal prospect Lynsey Sharp, completed a tearful interview with the BBC. In the interview she states:
“I have tried to avoid the issue all year. We know how each other feels. It is out of our control and how much we rely on people at the top sorting it out. The public can see how difficult it is with the change of rule but all we can do is give it our best.
“I was coming down the home straight, we were not far away and you can see how close it is. That is encouraging. We will work hard and aim to come back even stronger.”
Following that interview, Sharp was subject to a wave of online abuse over social media, many from furious South Africans who came up with the hashtag #HandsOffCaster along with fellow British people, both branding her a ‘sore loser’ and a ‘racist’. Neither of which, to me personally, seem fair.
The allegations of her being racist, I found incredibly disheartening and made me lose faith slightly in humanity. The issue was elevated testosterone levels, not race, it just so happens the medalists this year were all of African origin, and the remaining finalists Caucasian. How that makes Sharp a racist, I’ll never quite understand.
And in regard to her being a ‘sore loser’, she just finished an Olympic final, emotions everywhere, having run the fastest she’s ever ran and then be interviewed, tears are hardly surprising.
I personally felt Sharp had come across as diplomatic and it has to be said, that had the prior mentioned ruling remained in place, Sharp could be calling herself an Olympic medalist right now.
To conclude, the truth is Caster Semenya is the rightful Olympic champion and I am incredibly happy for her, after what must be and extremely hard few years. The losers in this are all the athletes, both with normal and elevated testosterone levels, and the IAAF and CAS need to put this issue to bed, with a concrete and clear cut set of rules for these athletes, whatever they may be.
This post is not to attack or support Semenya, but to merely show support for Sharp and the other side of a very complex story, that is far from finished.