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Saturday, August 11, 2012

Women's 800m: Analysing Semenya & other insights

London 2012: Women's 800m perplexity, analyzing Semenya's race 

On Thursday night, David Rudisha led home the greatest 800m race we've ever seen - he pulled the field to a world record for every single finishing position, 7 personal bests and three national records.

Tonight, Mariya Savinova led home the women's 800m final, but it leaned more towards the curious and peculiar than the spectacular.  That is primarily because of the manner with which Caster Semenya, South Africa's flag bearer, ran to win the silver medal.  Savinova was, as usually, tactically superb, fast and timed her effort perfectly.  She won in 1:56.19 to add to last year's World title.  The real story, at least for me and all those discussing it on Twitter, was Semenya, and so let's talk about that a little.

If you saw the race, you'll know what I'm referring to - she dropped into 8th place by 300m, and stayed there for the next 300m.  At the bell, she was 1.38s behind the leader.  Down the back straight with 280m to go, when Pamela Jelimo made the race's first move, Semenya was perhaps 12m back, in last place, and not even close to responding, as you can see in the screenshot below.

With 200m to run, Semenya had moved into 7th, picking up a tiring Niyonsaba, but was still well off Jelimo, a pre-race favourite.  Meanwhile, Savinova had by now begun to make her move too.  This was the move that Semenya must have known would determine gold and silver, and in her semi-final, she'd shown the ability to respond to those tactics.  Tonight, in the final, she was distant from the action.

With 140m to go, Savinova was making the race's decisive move, but still Semenya had not responded - she was by now up to 6th place, however, picking off the fading Jepkosgei.  I kept waiting for a move, because she'd shown in her semi that she was not tactically unaware, but it just never came.

Savinova would go on to open a commanding lead, and with 50m to go, the race was over.  Only Poistogova and Jelimo went with her coming off the final bend, while Semenya was still in 6th.

Jelimo's legs imploded around 60m from the line and she went backwards.  By now, finally going forward was Semenya who would move incredibly rapidly through the field and close down everyone in front of her with the exception of Savinova.  Semenya ended with a season's best of 1:57.23, marginally faster than the 1:57.67 she ran to win her semi-final, but it was a race run in a totally different manner.

This led Sports Illustrated's Tim Layden to tweet the following immediately after the race - Semenya was "disengaged".  He's not accusing her of anything, but it's not difficult to see where the next step lies, and that's exactly what has happened since the race.

History repeating itself with Semenya - a common allegation

Unfortunately, this kind of speculation is becoming all too familiar for Caster Semenya.  Last year in Daegu, the race strategy was different, but the result was identical (Savinova-Semenya), and the speculation after the race was the same.  There, Semenya was attentive and ran near the front, before moving into the lead with 180m to go.  Savinova followed, but Semenya looked strong enough to win until the final 30m, where she suddenly slowed and Savinova swept by to win.  The forums were soon buzzing with allegations that Semenya had lost on purpose.

This year, the same has happened basically every single time Semenya has run in the European meetings.  At Diamond League meets, she was often seen languishing at the back, looking "disinterested" but running solid 1:59 to 2:00 times while her major rivals - Jelimo and Fantu Magiso in particular - were running 1:56 to 1:57.  People were accusing Semenya of running slowly on purpose, so that she avoids too much scrutiny, that she is 'scared' to win because of the intense allegation it may bring.

Semenya - evaluated differently because of her past

You see, Semenya is not "judged normally" in athletic circles, and that has everything to do with the sex verification controversy involving her after she exploded onto the world scene in Berlin.  Since being questioned, she spent nine months away from the track, before returning amid much secrecy and with slower times than before.  The speculation bandwagon kicked off, and when she was winning, she was accused of cheating, when she was losing, she was accused of not trying.

She was, and remains, in an impossible situation, because every result and every move is looked at through a filter.  It is a filter that colors her performances according to male vs female, cheating vs throwing it on purpose, and when she produces racing performances like tonight, that filter is rather vivid.

The prevailing "allegation", ever since her return in 2010, is that she is running slowly to stay under the radar, avoiding winning and the questions this would undoubtedly bring.  If that's the plan, then it sure isn't working, because what we saw today (and in Daegu) draws more allegation than a "typical race", in my opinion.  But more on that shortly.

Possibility # 1: Semenya may simply not have the speed

The current speculation (and before accusing people of ignorance and stoking the fires of controversy, just have a look at the forums and Twitter to see the reaction to Semenya's race) is thus fueled by Semenya's history.  Within the ten minutes of the race finishing, I got 34 tweets asking whether she'd "thrown it", or "tried to avoid winning gold".  One person demanded a full investigation into why she was jogging. Another said that he'd never seen someone look so "aerobic" at the finish of an 800m race.

Of course, this may all be a totally misplaced accusation.  Maybe Semenya just didn't have the physiological capacity to run the race tactics people are accustomed to seeing.  Maybe she was just not good enough to go with that early pace, and to respond to those surgest.  Perhaps there is nothing to her performance other than that she runs a more even pace than her rivals.

A comparison between her semi-final and this race is interesting in this regard.  In that semi, she went through 400m in just over 58 seconds, 600m in about 1:28 and then closed the final 200m in 29.5s, looking like she had something in reserve.

Tonight, she went through 400m in 57.69s, then through 600m in about 1:27.1, and then closed in a touch over 30 seconds.  My point is, her performance in the final was slightly faster at every stage than the semi, until she closed slower over the final 200m.  To finish SLOWER than she did in the semi implies that she has little reserve and that she is closer to the limit than she looks.  She wasn't actually that fast over the final 200m, it's just that everyone else was very slow!

It's possible that she doesn't have the speed (or psychological capacity and confidence) to be able to run a 56-second first lap, or a 28 second 200m split, regardless of when in the race it happens.  If you look at Semenya, her running style is very laboured - the commentator described her as "lumbering" and that's about right.  She lacks a knee lift, and her heel-flick is also very limited, so it is possible that she lacks the ability to change pace much, and so I have to put forward the possibility that she may not actually have the capacity to respond to surges, and maybe a 28-29-29-30 race breakdown is as fast as Semenya can go.

The rest of the race, incidentally, went 27s to 200m, then 29s to 400 (56.3 at the bell), and then 29.2s for the next 200m, and closed, for the most part, in 32s.  So, you have Semenya with a 28-29-29-30 (57.69s & 59.54s), running against everyone else with a 27-29-29-32 (Jelimo, for example, was 56.66s & 60.93s).  In this regard, Semenya actually didn't finish the race fast, as much as everyone else finished it really slowly.  The one exception of course was Savinova, who closed the final 200m in just under 30 seconds (57.29s and 58.90s halves).

The rest, Jelimo in particular, were terribly slow over the final 200m.

Not that I'm trying to say that Semenya ran a good race - you simply cannot allow the moves of your two main rivals to go completely unnoticed, but I am saying that it's possible that Semenya does not have the ability to run the race any other way - she may well be at her limit and unable to run those 28s 200m splits mid-race.  The fact that she looks so easy doing it is neither here nor there.  Go on YouTube and look up her race at the World Junior Championships in Poland in 2008.  She finished second last in her semi-final, and looked the same as she did today.  That was long before any controversy, or any need to avoid scrutiny.  Semenya is just a very 'casual', disengaged runner.

The other speculation - let the guesswork begin

That said, there is still much to be debated about the case.  Once you have dealt with that possibility that her apparent "throwing it" and "sandbagging" tactic may just be that she can't match the speed of the first 600m in the race, then you get on to dealing with the other speculation.

I'm going to simplify my answer as much as I can, and then try to go into detail to explain some thoughts and insights.  The simple answer is "I don't know what happened.  Your guess is as good as mine.  And I understand the questions, but there are no answers, we just do not know".

Right, now, having dealt with that, let's discuss the current discussion!  For this, a brief history lesson on her case, which most of you will know, so jump ahead a section.  If you're new, read on.

The history and secrecy fuels speculation

Since day one, Caster Semenya has presented an insoluble problem for the sport.  The biggest problem, aside from the resolving the obvious debate about her performance, is the secrecy which has surrounded her story since the case first broke.  I suspect there is no satisfactory answer to this story, at any level.  Even going back to 2009, when debate first began, it was impossible to say what should be done.  Did she have an intersex condition?  That part would be easy to find out - the science and biology is not that complicated.  In 2010, I wrote a scientific review paper on the subject with geneticist Prof Malcolm Collins, summarizing the history, the physiology and performance implications of sex verification in sport, for those interested.

But, does the condition provide an advantage?  And if it does, should that be the basis for excluding her from competition - it's a natural advantage, after all?  That's a whole lot trickier, and it's an ethical, moral and social debate for which I think there is no consensus.  Each will have their own opinion.

However, the debate still exists, and rather than allowing radical speculation, I hope it is helpful to consider the story in a thoughtful manner, hence my thoughts below.  

A point on context - being in South Africa, I'm exposed to more news and speculation about Semenya than perhaps most, and so my views are kind of informed by years of conversation with people, reports, information from people connected to the case etc.  But I want to stress upfront that just like the rest of the world, with maybe a few exceptions, we are all guessing here.

If you were to right the summary version of this history, it would go as follows:  Q:  "What happened to Semenya in 2009/2010 to allow her to compete?"   A: "We don't know".  Next question: "How do we explain the huge variability in Semenya's performances in 2011 and 2012, where she goes from the back of the field in a Diamond league event and struggling to break 1:59 to being utterly dominant in the major championships?"  Answer: "We don't know.

The short version is that we just don't know anything about anything, and so we speculate as much as possible, maybe in an informed way, weighing the possibilities, but very few people know the truth, and they are not talking.  Should we speculate at all?  Probably not.  We should, in theory, "trust" the IAAF, who were involved in the process from Day 1, and say that if they have cleared her to run, then we should just accept that.  And officially, that would be the correct position to take.

Significant improvements in a short time ask the questions

However, the reality is that just as we SHOULD question performances that we regard as suspect, I think it's naive and 'deliberately ignorant' to ignore the questions that arise from Semenya's case.  Here, it is her performance that asks the questions, not the history of her case.  That history tells us that the IAAF worked with Semenya, cleared her, and she should be treated as any other athlete.  The case is closed, it was resolved and is in the past.  The problem is that the performances re-open that door, and because nothing is known, it leads to speculation and accusation.  The root cause is the secrecy around the case.

The first problem arises out of the sudden improvements Semenya makes at championships.  Or put differently, it's how well off the pace she is in European races, before she arrives to championships looking close to unbeatable (by all but Savinova, it turns out).  This year, Semenya had been "stuck" in the 1:59 to 2:01 range since April, and had run half a dozen races where she was unable to get faster.  Then suddenly, she runs 1:57 looking rather easy, and it is going to cause questions.  

Remember, this is exactly the same thing that was done for Ye Shiwen of China and for Makhloufi of Algeria - they improved significantly in a short time, it was deemed "peculiar" and the speculation of doping began.  Semenya's improvement is similar, if not larger in magnitude over a shorter period, and so the same logic leads to questions.  The difference is that once asked for Semenya, the question will not have us zoning in on doping as has happened for Ye Shiwen or Makhloufi, it will return to the gender controversy, and we will unfairly make accusations about gender, all over again.  Is it right?  No.  It is understandable?  Yes.

The secrecy - the root cause of speculation

And the reason it's going to happen is because of the failure in management of the message, not only by the IAAF, but by Semenya's camp.  To explain, the two key points, which I think are more important than the performance:

1)  The case should never have been leaked in the first place.  Obviously.  That was a mistake for which Semenya will "pay" for the rest of her career, and it has exposed her to the most invasive scrutiny I think anyone can imagine.  I think it is remarkable that she has continued to compete, and how she has stood up under that kind of pressure.  Most would not cope at all, let alone resume their athletic careers.  She's done that, and she was rightly given the honor of being our flag bearer, and the courage and character she shows to run at all is amazing.

2)  Having said this, once the story broke, and the athletics world knew there was a question, then in my opinion, it had to be followed through to its conclusion and made known what the outcome was.  And simply clearing her to compete many months later is not the same as saying that the matter was concluded.  People are notoriously mistrusting of sports governing bodies, and they're even more mistrusting of athletes.  There are too many dishonest athletes to believe what we see with no small dose of skepticism.  So, when Semenya resumed her career in 2010, I felt that it would be important for her to make some kind of announcement to say that the matter had been resolved, and how.  Perhaps this should have been done by the authorities.  But it should have been done by someone, to at least control the message.

But what happened instead was that a veil of secrecy fell over the story, and all of a sudden, nobody was saying anything.  The secrecy grew and grew, until she began running again.  But she was not dominating - having destroyed the best in the world in 2009, she was now 4 to 5 seconds slower, looking sluggish and losing races.  Her subsequent performances was gone up and down wildly and it has been absolutely impossible to predict what is coming next.

Everyone can see this unusual situation, they know that they are seeing 'abnormal' variations in performance, but nobody can say why.  And so they speculate.  The problem is that when you fail to tell people the truth, they tend to make up the truth.  And the made up truth is almost always worse than the reality.  And so now, we sit in a situation where people will either allege that:
  1. Nothing happened in the first case, and she is still a man (this is ignorant, because that clearly was never true to begin with - the biology of sex is far more complex than this), or 
  2. She got treated but it's not working, or
  3. She got treatment but is able to manipulate it to optimize her performance whenever she wants to - it slows her down in a predictable way, so she can use treatment as she pleases to find those improvements, or
  4. She is deliberately losing races to avoid suspicion, as is happening after the Olympic Games

To repeat, we simply do not know what transpired, and therefore we cannot know whether any of the above options is true.  If I were forced to give my thoughts, I'd say that option 1) is impossible - we know something happened.  Reading between the lines, based on the time it took, I'd fairly confidently speculate that she received medical treatment, and probably still is.  Thus, the next three options are possible.  I don't know what treatment might involve, or whether she can manipulate it.  I suspect that it would be possible, just as any doping is possible.  But I'd be surprised if it was this simple.  

I simply cannot see option 4) being true - why would you try to avoid detection by going from last to first?  The contrast in performance is just so enormous that people will notice it EVEN MORE!  If you are going to fly under the radar, then your approach would be to look as normal as possible.  Going from nowhere to dominating is not "normal", and so if they are deliberately slowing down to lose races, then it's a strategy that is not only bizarre, but also foolish.  I just can't see it as being possible.

Unfair, but understandable suspicion and speculation

There is also a fifth option, namely that nothing is wrong, and that she's just getting her training right when it matters, and that her "bizarre" race strategy is nothing more than typical even-paced running, as I explained above.  But people won't make that allegation.  Why?  Because they don't know anything, and they are driven by mistrust.  Therefore, they will settle on one of the four options that 'feeds' their mistrust.  

So they'll go with option 3 or 4 as most likely, and Semenya will face accusations that she is either cheating by manipulating her "advantage" through medical means, or she has been deceiving everyone for months leading up to the Games, and continues to NOT win on purpose. 

Both are unfair, and, I suspect, incorrect.  As I explained earlier, I think it's plausible that Semenya is running as fast as she can, and that 1:57.2 is the "limit" for her, in a more or less even race.  Maybe with a little more confidence, she'll be able to get her fast lap down into the low-57s range and break 1:57 for the race this year, but it's not impossible that a 57.69s and 59.94s is Semenya at her limit.  The sudden improvement in performance is more difficult to explain, but like any other debate based on performance, we must recognize that performance alone is not sufficient to reach a verdict!

It's also not difficult to see why people think differently - they don't know any better.  And that's because of the secrecy around the whole thing, and it forces people to speculate.  We shouldn't.  We should accept the control of the IAAF and trust that they have identified and managed a potential problem. In an ideal world, that would happen.  But I think it's naive to expect that of people.  Until people know, they'll make it up and everyone loses in that equation.  

If Semenya is to win people over, as she should - look at her interview after winning silver in Daegu, and tell me that this is not an athlete who is warm and genuine and worthy of positive sentiment - then the secrecy must be lifted.  Easier said than done, of course.  But what the future holds with these wild variations in performance, given the history of Semenya in the sport, is just not something to look forward to.

The marathon to close it down

The marathon tomorrow - join me at 11am London time for live splits and comments as it unfolds.  It's Kenya's last chance to rescue what has been a miserable Games, highlighted (in a big way, of course) by Rudisha's golden world record and Kemboi's gold.  They'll want gold in the marathon, but Ethiopia will be a stern test.

My money is on the Ethiopians - I think the Kenyans, who raced more recently, will struggle on the twisty course, and Kenya will regret not picking Geoffrey Mutai.

But join me tomorrow to see what transpires!