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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Caster Semenya - Verdict Imminent

No one wins wars, Mr Minister

Later today, it is being reported, Caster Semenya will hold a press conference to announce, in all likelihood, that she will be returning to the sport having been cleared to compete as a woman.  This brings, potentially, to a close, many months of what must have been serious negotiation and behind-the-scenes activity to discuss whether the 800m world champion can compete legally as a female.

My opinion on this has been stated many times, and I believe that the women's 800m event will become the least watched of all events if Semenya is going to compete with the same dominance she showed in Berlin.  It is quite clear that she will be unbeatable, and should in fact knock up to seconds off a drug-heavy world record that has stood for 27 years.  Because TV viewers and followers of the sport know this, her performances are guaranteed to be met with huge skepticism.  People, who are mostly decent, will also acknowledge that she has been through a very trying time, an incredibly unfair scrutiny that no one deserves.  That sympathy will not extend to her IF she continues to dominate the sport with what seems clear is a hormonal 'advantage' as a result of some condition we may never know about, but which seems to push her into the grey area between male and female, if not right across it.

The reason I say "if" she continues to dominate is that I am not convinced that some medical action has in fact not been taken.  I believe it has, and I believe this has been the source of the delay.  If this was simple to dismiss and to allow her to compete, then the IAAF would have done so in October last year, because they'd have known the results of the tests by then, in great detail.  Thinking about it would not take a further 8 months.  Getting expert opinion would not take 8 months.  Even dealing with bombastic and aggressive politicians, and lawyers, would not take 8 months.

So the delay can only be put down to negotiating some kind of compromise between allowing Semenya to compete right away, and wanting surgical intervention to remove testes (allegedly present).  The IAAF wanted the latter, the lawyers the former.  The compromise may have been medical/chemical and I suspect her response to it has been the delay.

I read a very interesting interview with one of the promoters of a massive Diamond League meeting, in which he said that if Semenya was cleared by the IAAF, then it would be because the authority was sure that her participation would be on fair grounds.  The long delay, I believe, represents their efforts to ensure fair grounds. 

What will be very interesting then is to see how she races.  Will she be as untouchable, and how will her level evolve over time?  Depending on what she announces later today, we may not know enough to even understand what is happening - there have been many rumours around other athletes, most notably Pamela Jelimo, who has dropped dramatically down in level since her 2008 dominance.  But no one knows the reason, there is only speculation.

If Semenya slows down a similar amount, then the rumours will be far more targeted and specific.  There will be no doubt among athletics followers about the cause of a poor performance.  She will be scrutinized and questioned for the wrong reasons.  And it will be interesting to see if she reveals anything at all to give some kind of 're-assurance', or whether she will simply say "I'm cleared, now I'm running", without any revelation of the last 9 months of work.

The global reaction - fellow athletes, meeting organizers, sports followers

One other thing that will happen, here in South Africa, is that politicians who had found other meaningless sports to pursue (for example, the Springbok logo) after the initial hype died down will now re-emerge and proclaim "victory".  The Minister of Sport, who very diplomatically declared World War 3 on the IAAF for questioning Semenya, has already said that "we won".

Sadly, Mr Minister, nobody wins in these "wars", and time will show that for Semenya as well, as her career is destined to go one of two ways.  She continues to run, faster than any woman in history, and her success builds and builds resentment among competitors and fans, skepticism among fans, and a career that is forever blighted by the great asterisk alongside performances.  You may believe this to be victory - let's find out in 10 years.

Perhaps it will happen this year - a big question remains:  What will her competitors do?  I've said before, I would stand together and simply refuse to race her unless full explanation of what has transpired is provided to me.  I believe they would be entitled to know this, because their livelihood depends on their success, and the IAAF's management of this issue may be undermining their potential success.  They might reasonably ask for justification, failing which, they refuse to run.  And if they do, what do meeting organizers do?  Does Semenya get the big invitations?  Probably.  Or does everyone bow down to the IAAF and simply accept that they will be running for silvers for the next 8 years?  I don't see this as a victory, I must confess.

Or, on the other hand, she never reaches those same levels, and follows the career path of Pamela Jelimo - unbeatable to unwinning in one season.

No victory there - but congratulations.

Perhaps the diplomatic, humble, professional approach (not three words typically found in SA Sports management/administration, admittedly) would be to say "We are relieved and satisfied at the conclusion reached by the IAAF.  We fully respect their authority over their sport, and regret the animosity with which this situation was initially handled.  However, now that we have worked with the authorities, we are proud to support the efforts of Caster Semenya as she continues her running career.  She has managed the situation bravely and with dignity, and her wishes to run should be respected by all those in international athletics.  We wish her well, and trust that she'll be fully supported by others, just as she receives our full support".  I really wish that the italicized section above was actually a quote.  Sadly, it's a figment of my imagination...

The positive - social, human and gender rights

Finally, I must point out that there are social, human rights and other issues in play here, as Prof Tim Noakes alluded to when he was interviewed on the matter.  And from those points of view, allowing Semenya to compete is a step forward.  Those people, I have found over the last 9 months, usually have zero interest in the sport, and view it only as a platform for other matters.  This is of course acceptable - each to their own.  However, my thoughts in this post are performance related, and I speak from within the sport of athletics on performance.  I realize many are addressing this from another point of view.

Time will tell what comes of this.  I look forward to seeing Semenya run again this year, out of interest in what she will achieve.  I look forward to watching her break a 27 year old world record, slowing down over the final 100m as she does so.  I do not look forward to the global reaction that awaits from within the sport's athletes and ultimately, its followers.

Football continues

Football fever continues later.  I gave a presentation last night in Cape Town and later today, I will start deconstructing that talk and continue with our series on The Science of Football!

Join us then!


Alan Sleath said...

Well said,time will tell.
I suppose the best question is.
IS SHE MARKETABLE.Up to now she hasnt done too badly.There is a long list of athletesthat have attracted viewing audiences even though they have had questions hanging over their heads,Caster might fall into that category.

Anonymous said...

It is an unfortunate situation. Caster Semenya, if successful and dominant, individuals within the sport will most likely cry foul. If she is unsuccessful, she can continue in the sport, but may lose her livelihood through loss of endorsements/sponsorships and prize money.

Zoe Brain said...

The conference and announcements have been cancelled. The IAAF is still studying the problem, and a decision may be reached in the indeterminate future.

Two recent speeches by the Pope may have impacted the issue. They've certainly had an effect in the USA and Indonesia, over legal issues involving Intersexed people there.

(The Church) must also protect man from self-destruction. What is needed is something like a human ecology, correctly understood.

If the Church speaks of the nature of the human being as man and woman, and demands that this order of creation be respected, this is not some antiquated metaphysics. What is involved here is faith in the Creator and a readiness to listen to the “language” of creation. To disregard this would be the self-destruction of man himself, and hence the destruction of God’s own work.

And to emphasise the point that not discriminating against Intersexed people is a no-no,
To carry our reflection further, we must remember that the problem of the environment is complex; one might compare it to a multifaceted prism. Creatures differ from one another and can be protected, or endangered, in different ways, as we know from daily experience. One such attack comes from laws or proposals which, in the name of fighting discrimination, strike at the biological basis of the difference between the sexes. I am thinking, for example, of certain countries in Europe or North and South America.

Hence the recent prosecution of an Intersexed man in Indonesia, where because he has "an extra X chromosome) ie is 47XXY...

The Indonesian Bishops' Council (KWI) has declared the controversial marriage of transgender Alterina Hofan illegal, kompas.com reported on Monday.

KWI secretary Benny Susetyo said the Catholic Church could not accept the marriage and suggested that Alterina should seek medication rather than changing her sex status.

“The Catholic Church bans marriage between people of the same sex,” Benny said, adding that the KWI deemed Alterina had defied her nature.

Alterina has the rare Klinefelter’s syndrome which gives him an extra X chromosome, making him look more effeminate. After years of operations, he documented himself as a man and even married Jane Hadipoespito.

Benny said the health problem could not justify the change in sex status. “Her DNA and genetics prove she is female, therefore she can be medically cured,” the priest said.
Alterina is facing a seven-year imprisonment for the alleged fraud.

And in the USA... the American Catholic Bishops have said:
We write to you regarding the Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA), H.R. 3017, and Senate (S. 1584). Our purpose is to outline the serious concerns we have with these bills in their current form and why we cannot maintain the position of neutrality we held in 2007.
In addition to ENDA’s protection of same-sex conduct, its threat to religious liberty, and its contribution to the cause of same-sex “marriage,” there are other obstacles to its passage. The bill’s treatment of “gender identity,” which was not in the 2007 bill, would have an adverse effect on privacy and associational rights of others.

It's not about the "Religious Liberty" to persecute. It's not about conduct they consider immoral. It's not even about same-sex marriage.

They are against legal rights for trans and intersexed people on the grounds of "privacy" and "freedom of association". That's all. Exactly the same grounds that were used to justify segregation, separate facilities for "Whites" and "Coloreds", or in Suid Afrika, "Blanks" and "Nie Blanks".

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Zoe

I guess I can see how the mindset portrayed by some of those quotes may exist, certainly.

But to make the link between recent speeches by the Pope and the cancellation of the press conference is a massive, inconceivable leap of faith. And I'm sorry, i just don't see in the Pope's message what you are implying, that to "NOT attack intersex people is a no-no". I just cannot see it in that second quote. Perhaps I am lacking context, but I think you're doing the equivalent of tilting at windmills there.

I don't know why the press conference was canceled. I'll find out from the lawyers and maybe I'll be able to post something. But I can assure you that a speech given by the head figure of a church that has no authority in SA has less than nothing to do with it.


Zoe Brain said...

Ross - it's not the SA authorities that give two hoots about what the Pontiff says, at least, as far as I know.

But certain members of the IAAF do.

The latest Vatican line is that homosexuality isn't a bad thing per se but that it is objectively disordered, as it confuses the strict division between the sexes.

Anything that does that is dangerous, and to be suppressed.

Now Gays are to be persecuted not for being Gay - that's indefensible - but for being too much like us. We've had to become demonised as a byproduct of course. Ratzinger's faction was always a big proponent of the doctrine of the theology of the body, and our existence contradicts that.

Zoe Brain said...

Tangentially, I must disagree with you on another point too. Sorry.

It's not about advantage. The IAAF has made repeated statements about that. For one thing, natural advantage opens up a whole can of wriggly worms with other genetic anomalies.

It's about appearance, and whether other competitors would be upset by that or not. The same argument as 65 years ago.