In defence of Lynsey Sharp

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.

 

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A young Caster Semenya celebrates after winning the women’s 800m final race of the 2009 IAAF Athletics World Championships in Berlin. 

 

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.

 

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Day 15 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium on August 20, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Niyonsaba (left) Semenya (centre) Wambui (right) were the women’s 800m medalists. 

 

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.

 

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12 thoughts on “In defence of Lynsey Sharp

    1. Samenya was not a virtual unknown in 2009 .. she competed in the world juniors and commonwealth youth in 2008.

      In Lynsey’s defence she has not done anything wrong .. it was lazy journalism to set her up by asking such questions when emotions were running so high

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      1. I disagree, Semenya’s personal best in 2008 was nearly nine seconds slower than her 2009 best. To a large majority of the athletics community (perhaps discounting South Africa), she did very much come from nowhere and was unknown. A nine second PB drop in a year is incredibly rare.
        But agree RE Lynsey

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  1. In my opinion Lynsey said nothing wrong, did nothing wrong and should not be chastised in any way for her comments. She very diplomatically stated her opinion and that of many in the sport. Lynsey ran incredibly well in the Olympic final as did all the competitors, however in my opinion until the IAAF and the Olympic committees sort things out there will not be a level playing field.

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  2. Lynsey was perfectly correct in what she said, all this nonsense about racism is exactly that.. Till such times as I.A.A.F and I.Q.C get there act together this will continue. I asked someone if the other girls could increase their levels and was informed NO as it was not natural . So now I must look around for “girls” with HIGH testosterone levels who want to win Olympic medals Mm Mm

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    1. The reason women cannot increase their testosterone levels is because that is essentially doping. Nonetheless, the IAAF need to come to a decision soon.

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      1. I mean yes – you should “look around for “girls” with HIGH testosterone levels who want to win Olympic medals”. To question another athlete’s suitability to run for having genetic advantage is pretty ridiculous. What is clear is that Semanya, at least to public knowledge, hasn’t doped – therefore shouldn’t be persecuted for something she has no control over.

        To suggest that there’s parity in genetic makeup of athletes is quite frankly ridiculous. Some posses innate genetic advantages that make them better athletes – and that is something that has never been questioned till Lyndsey indirectly did by questing Semanya’s eligibility. Yes she was emotional, but I get beaten playing squash, football, boxing or whatever and still shake hands with the winners. It’s basic sportsmanship – and Lyndsey was clearly comfortable enough to embrace similarly upset women (who by coincidence happened to be white) but couldn’t bring herself to congratulate a winner who like her had presumably trained hard, but with a ‘disadvantage’ of being born with an advantage like most other winning athletes. What next? Disqualify Usain Bolt for having longer legs that allow him longer strides?

        The race question is one that is valid, even if unintentional – there’s always a racial dimension to these things. Lyndsey quite clearly bonded with people who she felt she had similar shared experiences with, be it on the grounds of race, ‘gender’, views or whatever – it just looked really bad that she wouldn’t congratulate Semanya despite the latter’s effort to give a consolatory shake of hands. Anyway, we all have our prejudices – mine currently, is to lead a charge against people in society are unfairly indignant and remarkably self-important. Lyndsey, even though may be the nicest person on earth, appeared at that particular moment during her interview with the BBC, to be both of these things.

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      2. First off, thanks for commenting on my post, you’ve highlighted some interesting points, I’m going to respond paragraph by paragraph.

        In response to paragraph one:
        The reason Semenya’s “suitability to run” for having a genetic advantage is being questioned is because her testosterone levels are at least, over three times the average of 99% of women. The reason this genetic advantage is more important then having longer limbs, for example, is because the sport of Athletics is divided by gender and not by height.
        The reason it is divided by gender is because (aside from the obvious) the difference of testosterone levels. For example trans women (former men) are now allowed to compete as women, as long as their testosterone levels are below the upper limit for women.
        I have also not claimed Semenya has doped, and I haven’t seen Lynsey or anyone else claim such a thing – and as I stated in my blog, I do not blame Semenya for the situation and neither did Lynsey, she too blamed the IAAF and CAS.

        In response to paragraph two:
        Part one of para two is completely untrue, Semenya’s eligibility has been questioned for the past seven years, ever since she won Berlin Gold. If you’re telling me that Lynsey Sharp saying “it’s difficult” – to race given the new ruling, is the first time Semenya’s eligibility has been questioned, I suggest you do further research.
        In regard to her being ‘unsportsman like’, she was sharing a moment with Melissa Bishop of Canada post race, from what I gather both seem close friends have been for a number of years. Lynsey Sharp did not refuse to congratulate Caster, Caster went over and tapped the pair on the back whilst they were hugging, re-watch each athletics event at this Olympics and tell me that every athlete in every race shook hands.
        In regard to disqualifying Usain Bolt, that is ridiculous, the silver medalist DeGrasse, is 5’10. By your logic the tallest man in the world would be the fastest 100m sprinter, no?

        In response to paragraph 3:
        Like I said before, If you’re telling me, that at the end of every race, every athlete should congratulate every athlete, no matter what performance they do, is insane. If you go by that logic, half the athletes at the Olympics are racists. Sharp has highlighted herself that Caster is a friend who she regularly talks to on the circuit, therefore I’d have to disagree with para three.

        Thanks a lot for taking the time to comment on my post, you’ve sparked some interesting debate ☺

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  3. Your response is fascinating since it takes the position of the “enlightened” whilst trying to relegate an alternative perspective. But let me respond – and this will be my last so we don’t have a protracted discussion about things we’ve only got secondary information about. But like you, I have access to public information – so perhaps instead of telling someone who has spent the past 4 year conducting ‘primary research’ to do “further research” maybe you ought to consider that we take different views on the same issue (and this is perfectly OK). All thoughts aren’t meant to be symmetrical.

    For the sake of brevity, why don’t I respond paragraph by paragraph as you have?

    1 – I think you took issue with my first paragraph because it appeared to question what you’d written above, it wasn’t intended to question you. In fact, it was in direct response to Eric Simpson’s assertion about looking ‘… around for “girls” with HIGH testosterone levels who want to win Olympic medals’. My response was that Semanya hadn’t doped – she has a genetic advantage, that’s not something she had any control over, it’s a gift and clearly a curse too. But look she is who she is (and I know you’ve acknowledge this too), and to suggest that she suppress her innate advantage to give Lyndsey or whomever a chance, is quite ridiculous (re using suppressants). In real life, I don’t ask my colleagues who have an innate ability to grasp concepts quickly to dumb down so I can catch up. I work hard and try to achieve the best I possibly can and accept that we weren’t all made equal. The IAAS and CAS have taken a decision, you may or may not agree with them – but they made the decision, it is what it is. Besides to question these institutions decisions is in itself quite paradoxical. They were involved with setting up the initial rules regarding “upper limit testosterone levels for women” – that you cited, so if they choose to change the rules, grant concessions or whatever, well they can and they have.

    Thus instead of clutching to something which could perhaps be argued as an arbitrary limit, we ought to give respect where it’s due (to Semanya – you have given respect – Lyndsey doesn’t appear to have given that respect by questing the results). We must and should move on. I do commend you, you have tried to offer a balanced and fair view and haven’t ascribed blame to Semanya, but in seeking to absolve Lyndsey of any blame at all, or even allow room to doubt her actions – you do your position a little disservice. Now you’ve admitted that you don’t know Lyndsey or any of the athletes, neither do I, so we are going by what we saw and have read. From what I saw and what I’ve read, it looks bad – and as I too tried to explain – Lyndsey might be nicest person in the world – it just looked really bad. And that’s it. But we should also respect why people might view it as racist – because lived experiences matter – without them, we can’t and shouldn’t dismiss how people feel.

    I was seeking to provide a rejoinder to all three paragraphs – but I fear I’ll end up writing a thesis – when in fact I should be spending time writing my actual DPhil thesis. But I think as you say Ben, it has been an “interesting debate ☺”

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  4. Your response is fascinating since it takes the position of the “enlightened” whilst trying to relegate an alternative perspective. But let me respond – and this will be my last so we don’t have a protracted discussion about things we’ve only got secondary information about. But like you, I have access to public information – so perhaps instead of telling someone who has spent the past 4 year conducting ‘primary research’ to do “further research” maybe you ought to consider that we take different views on the same issue (and this is perfectly OK). All thoughts aren’t meant to be symmetrical.

    For the sake of brevity, why don’t I respond paragraph by paragraph as you have?

    1 – I think you took issue with my first paragraph because it appeared to question what you’d written above, it wasn’t intended to question you. In fact, it was in direct response to Eric Simpson’s assertion about looking ‘… around for “girls” with HIGH testosterone levels who want to win Olympic medals’. My response was that Semanya hadn’t doped – she has a genetic advantage, that’s not something she had any control over, it’s a gift and clearly a curse too. But look she is who she is (and I know you’ve acknowledge this too), and to suggest that she suppress her innate advantage to give Lyndsey or whomever a chance, is quite ridiculous (re: using suppressants). In real life, I don’t ask my colleagues who have an innate ability to grasp concepts quickly to dumb down so I can catch up. I work hard and try to achieve the best I possibly can and accept that we weren’t all made equal. The IAAS and CAS have taken a decision, you may or may not agree with them – but they made the decision, it is what it is. Besides to question these institutions decisions is in itself quite paradoxical. They were involved with setting up the initial rules regarding “upper limit testosterone levels for women” – that you cited, so if they choose to change the rules, grant concessions or whatever, well they can and they have.

    Thus instead of clutching to something which could perhaps be argued as an arbitrary limit, we ought to give respect where it’s due (to Semanya – you have given respect – Lyndsey doesn’t appear to have given that respect by questioning the results). We must and should move on. I do commend you, you have tried to offer a balanced and fair view and haven’t ascribed blame to Semanya, but in seeking to absolve Lyndsey of all blame, or even allow room to doubt her actions – you do your position a little disservice. Now you’ve admitted that you don’t know Lyndsey or any of the athletes, neither do I, so we are going by what we saw and have read. From what I saw and what I’ve read, it looks bad – and as I too tried to explain – Lyndsey might be the nicest person in the world – it just looked really bad. And that’s it. But we should also respect why people might view it as racist – because lived experiences matter – without insight into other people’s lived experience, we can’t and shouldn’t dismiss how people feel.

    I was seeking to provide a rejoinder to all three paragraphs – but I fear I’ll end up writing a thesis – when in fact I should be spending time writing my actual DPhil thesis. But I think as you say Ben, it has been an “interesting debate ☺”

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