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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Semenya wins at a canter

Caster Semenya wins the 800m gold by a country mile

Well, Caster Semenya has delivered South Africa's first medal in a World Championships since 2005, and becomes only the second women to win a title for SA. Her time: 1:55.45., some 2 seconds ahead of former world record holder Jepkosgei of Kenya, is a new PB, her second in a few weeks.

If you tuned in earlier today, you'll know about the controversy surrounding Semenya. There will be much more written about this, that is for sure. If you have some time, I'd encourage you to go to this post, and then read the comments at the bottom - such a fantastic range of opinions, from the outright upset at the terrible situation Semenya is in, to thought-provoking questions on the matter, to opinions on what should be done. It's a great read - thank you for your time and consideration, everyone. I wish I could do more justice to your comments!

The 800m final - an unpleasant affair

The general atmosphere of the race was unpleasant - as Conrad put it in his comments to that last post, there really was not a scenario with a positive outcome in all this, and we saw that tonight.

There was almost nothing in the way of congratulations from rivals, race commentary was stilted and 'strained', and there are reports of booing from the German crowd. Among athletics websites, there is a general resentment and anger (people take the sport seriously, they feel this makes a mockery of the event), and it is directed mainly against Athletics South Africa, but also against Caster Semenya (which I don't believe is fair - the governing body, sure, as mentioned, but not the athlete, for I don't believe she is wilfully cheating).

Added to this, we've now started to see the usual mud-flinging, accusations of racism levelled against officials and athletes, discrimination against entire nations (an ASA official effectively accused Australia, as a nation, of conspiring against Semenya...seriously, on live radio).

There have been multiple denials (two separate officials contradicted each other on the same radio station over here today - one said "no test had been perfomed", the other confirmed the tests), and the President of the South African Olympic Committee, Gideon Sam, has demanded that the IAAF either release results or stop making "malicious" comments. That's just to give you the perception of what is happening here in SA, where we have reacted as one might expected when a first gold medal in years is challenged...

Having posted earlier this afternoon that things would get nasty, I expected a few days, but it has not taken very long, and it's already ugly.

A future world record holder?

But all speculation aside, watching the race, and looking at its numbers, let me throw out a prediction:

Caster Semenya will break the world record of 1:53.28 (Kratochvilova) within the next 12 months, if she continues to improve and train effectively. It could even come this year. All she needs is a pace of 55 through the bell, and another 14 seconds through to 500m, and I believe she'd be able to finish in 1:53 or faster.

To take a race out in 26.9 seconds, then press through the next 200m in 29-odd seconds (to hit 400m in 56.83s), take the third 200m in about 29 seconds, and then still kick off the final 170m the way she did, and put two seconds on opposition over the final 200m - that suggests that 1:55 is a sub-max effort. And she did this looking well capable of speeding up if required. It was, had you not known any of the controversy, a quite astonishing performance.

And I honestly will predict that Kratochvilova's record will fall. Of course, people said that last year, when Jelimo dominated, and that has not come true, so there are no sure things. But Semenya looks well capable of that record.

This is a soap opera and a situation that has few positive outcomes, not for Semenya, not for those she competes against (who are now racing with such doubt and controversy hanging over them too) and not for people who watch the event and cannot make sense of the politics and denials and confusion.

Based on your comments, I have a few thoughts still to express, but that must wait for another time, so join us then! Oh, and there is other athletics too - Usain Bolt goes for number 2 tomorrow, though I'd be surprised if he breaks 19.30s. Then again, who knows...


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BridgeportJoe said...

Out of curiosity, is there any "evidence" that Semenya is less than 100% female other than her appearance?

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi BridgeportJoe

Thanks for the question. The appearance is the obvious one, and to date, the only one anyone can talk about as fact (the picture is just a picture - I guess interpretation is subjective).

Back in the 1960s, appearance was the first criteria, then a physical exam. That exam will now have been done, but results not yet released.

there are also reports of this hermaphrodite condition, which have been confirmed by a number of people, but denied by just as many.

This is why I was at pains previously to point out that any 'judgment' should NOT be of Semenya, because there's no evidence. We can't condemn her based on facts. Unfortunately, it's too late, because perception is reality, and the governing bodies, her coaches and so on have not managed this at all well...

So to answer you, no, that's what everyone is waiting for...


Mike said...

This article explains quite well the problem of male/female definition regarding sports. Only is it in german :-). In short, one can have male chromosomes and still be allowed to compete among women, if the tests show that the body doesn't respond to testosterone levels as males do and the characteristics of the body are female. That is probably the reason why so many tests and specialists are necessary in the case of Casper Semenya. If she had female-only chromosomes, she could compete, but male chromosomes don't automatically mean that she can't.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

hi MIke

Thanks for that! I really want to spend some time doing a post on just this, because you're 100% right - there are conditions where the presence of an XY still produces a female, and others where having XX does not produce a male. There are also mosaic conditions where some cells are XX and others XY, and that can cause male attributes in a female. So it's a very complex area.

Unfortunately, I'm at a conference and so I just can't sit down with an hour or two to do this post. But rest assured, I really want to and I'll try, once things have settled down a bit more!

Thanks for the link!


Frans Rutten said...

Set the gender issue aside.
Picture this:

Hardly 16 months ago she ran a 1500m in 4'33"25. Hardly one year ago she ran 2'11"98 in a heat during the World Junior Chmps and hardly 10 months ago (Pune 16-10-08) she bettered her 800m PR to 2'04"23. This year she bettered her PR first to 2'00"58 at altitude in March and after a phase of three months of hard training came this 1'56"72.

I didn't see the whole race, cause sitting for me PC I mentally shut down so to speak and I cannot recall seeing the last 100 meters.

This was worse than my awful Chinese 1993 Stuttgart WC 1500m Final experience, watching three Chinese women gear up as if they sitting in a Maserati. Back then I was of cause still unaware from that Chinese WR orgy to emerge in september 1993.

From what I've seen she indeed can threaten the ominous 800m WR of Kratochvilova.

This kind of progress in such a short time is humanly impossible IMO, unless she faltered (fraud) in the many races before. Then the next question would be: can you reach World Level in merely months. Pamelo Jelimo executed this though.

I began with postulating: let's put the gender issue aside.

We saw that according the clock that she's capable of running these times. We are still in reality, not in a SF computer simulation.

Therefore, I can only conclude the obvious answer!

Frans Rutten said...

The Age in Australia comments with regard to Semanya.

What scares us?
Someone who's different.

In general this idea is true.
But I think not in this case.

The brain reacts within a split second and sees the obvious. Not that you can ALWAYS rely on your brain, but in this case...

You don't picture some women shot putters on a catwalk, but look carefully, and you could just see someone out of your street, a plain ordinary citizen.

Philipp said...

The article Mike mentioned also says that at the 1996 Olympics 8 women were positive for the Y-chromosome but 7 of those were legible to compete as they have AIS (Androgen insensitivity syndrome) - so despite them being partially male their bodies don't show reactions to the produced testosterone (that's what the article says, not sure how scientifically accurate this might be).

Although not a good comparison for Semanya I'd like to mention Erik(a) Schinegger* who was raised as a girl, competed in women's alpine ski racing (World Champion 1966 downhill) and found out through chromosome testing that (s)he was actually a man. This case was the one that prompted chromosome testing on athletes on a larger scale.

* I don't think this is a good comparison because Schinegger was actually all male and even fathered children, but he was deemed female because his genitalia grew inwards instead of outwards, therefore also passing the "pants check".

Anonymous said...

Not to belittle the serious issues of gender and physiology but...

If the tests result in disqualification for this athlete, Semenya will always be welcome in equestrian sports. In the Olympic disciplines of showjumping, dressage and eventing, humans compete against each other regardless of gender.

The same goes for the horses -- you'll have mares, stallions and geldings all out there competing at the upper limits of equine performance.

Mike said...

Jarmila Kratochvilova is being mentioned on this great site quite often recently. She comes from my country, so I will make some points about her: she is a very decent and modest woman, trains children and obviously believes that she was clean. I have my doubts, as anyone, but my perception is that she was given a coctail of stuff she believed was legal, only it probably wasn't. But, who was clean in the 80's? Last year I hoped that Pamela Jelimo would brake that damn record because it's painful listening to our commentators who never say publicly that it is tainted. Still, of all the dubious record of the 80s it looks as the most vulnerable and unfortunatelly is being mentioned most often. Palima looks to be out of the game for a while but if Caster Semenya proved to be a woman and broke her record it would be quite a situation.

Anonymous said...

@ Frans Rutten:

Improvement is not an indicator of gender...unless you assume that some sort of enhancement was done before she started improving, i.e. she changed from female to male then rapidly improved by virtue of that.
That is most certainly the case, so I don't know why people use the improvement angle.
Improvement may indicate some sort of enhancement, or even just training more from a low base...but does not indicate gender.

And re the ASA accusation of Australia. He has a point. The accusations after the semi final were reported in the Fairfax media (Age/SMH)firstly and Google searches, yes, did pick up a lot of 'other' reports but that was due to the viral nature of internet because none of the reports actually traced back to a confirmed source other than the Aussie reports.
No IAAF news report, no official reports on her at all.
Then The Age reported that "she will be DQ'ed" ...how is it that they are the only ones that knew this. So either they have someone (presumably Aussie) close to IAAF or they are making it up.
If it's the former, then is it a deliberate attempt, either by IAAF or Aus or both, to stir this up at this particular time.

Yes of course the questions were asked before..obviously. But not to the deliberate extent and with such 'inside info' as has been done here.

BrynRunning said...

Just a quick comment that in the opening sentence it mentions Jepkosgei is the former world record holder- she's actually the former world champion- sure it's just a typo.

Great work guys- always really enjoy reading the blog.

Anonymous said...

Sorry...no 'edit' function.

Typo in above:

"That is most certainly NOT the case, so I don't know why people use the improvement angle.
Improvement may indicate some sort of enhancement, or even just training more from a low base...but does not indicate gender."


Anonymous said...

I'm disappointed but not surprised at all the responses (not necessarily on this site but from the general population) that try to simplify it down to the "what's in the pants" argument or the XX/XY argument.

It seems to be much more complex due to different responses to testosterone. I'm not sure of the relationship between the WC and the IAAF versus the Olympics and the IOC but clearly if 7 women with XY chromosomes were approved because they had AIS, then it stands to argue that the overall test is going to be extremely complicated. AFAIK, even transgender women are allowed to compete in the Olympics from the 2004 ruling.

On the other hand, what do we do with the XX women that process testosterone particularly well so that their performance is improved but they still have enough leftover hormones so they can give birth naturally? These types of people might set all kinds of world records, probably look like a man, but they're engaging in the ultimate female act -- childbirth.

No matter what the final resolution is, the IAAF and ASA didn't really handle the situation very well. Semenya, barely an adult, is up for incredible scrutiny that could have been prevented if they took earlier steps.

The alternate theory that I hate to even bring up is that doping from a young age could exhibit similar symptoms. I suppose time will tell about what is really going on right now.

DrPete said...

Wish there were more balanced articles around and I agree wholeheartedly with everyone about ASA's poor show here.

However, the IAAF are also on a hiding to nothing here. We have long left behind tests for sex in sports other than to ensure someone didn't cheat - that is a man masquerading as a woman.

Remeber the publicity surrounding the notorious case of the Spanish national champion hurdler, Maria Patiñ in the 1980s which prompted calls for the elimination of sex controls in elite sports. Maria Patiño, who was publicly humiliated when she failed her sex verification test due to androgen resistance, was stripped of her titles and disqualified from competing in women-only sport events, only to be reinstated 3 years later. By then, however, her career as a professional athlete was over. Maria Patiño's case and those of other athletes who had been unjustly excluded from competitive sport prompted changes in the regulations regarding sex verification which brought them in line with the development of elite sport and biomedical science. Women athletes with rare sex-related genetic abnormalities, such as 5-a-steroid-reductase deficiency, complete or almost complete androgen insensitivity, and chromosomal mosaicism, have no unfair gender-related advantages and should not be disqualified from competing in elite sports events.

Others with CAH may have clear advantages but have competed for years. Ovostesticular DSD (previously know as true hermaphroditism) will be the most difficult case to 'rule' on, which is why I wonder whether that's the case here. I am susprised bit I can't find a 'ruling' amywhere on such a case, and ultimately 'medical science' is unlikely to be able to make a ruling here and it will come down morals and human rights ultimately.

Al Data said...

sensationalism, feeding the need for sensation, that's what it all boils down to

I notice Ross mention, I have been quite silent on the issue, and will continue to do so because at this point, there is nothing but rumor to go on, with no confirmed (and independent) facts.

Yes, the whole front page shows just how silent.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

To Al Data

You're being very unfair. By the time I did this post, there are literally tens of thousands of news articles alleging that Semenya is a man.

The purpose of my articles, which I can only surmise you have not read, was to dispel some of the myths around Semenya, sex determination and the current process.

Nowhere in these articles have I done anything even remotely sensationalist - I have not judged, in fact, if you read them, you'll see that I have asked for patience before condeming Semnya's sex.

I have therefore been silent on the issue of her sex. However, I would challenge you to find an article that tries to explain the complexity of the case and the background to it - that was needed, hence these posts.

Therefore, I think you're being very, very unfair.


Frans Rutten said...

To Anonymous: Improvement is not an indicator of gender.

The all time list of 1000 best performances will be now slightly under 1:59. I guess there will be no statistician who could tell how the standard might be at 2:05.
To improve as a female from 2:09 / 2:05 or 8 à 9 seconds in one season is legitemately clearly impossible. Is she however a person "in between" she suddenly faces another gap of maximal 15 seconds. Surely then the law of exponentiallity would be at work.
Or why do you think comtemporary athletes in the 800m suffer even to reach 1:45.

6000 said...

A South African point of view from sunny Cape Town:
The Caster Semenya debate.

We're so proud of Caster.

Roy Schwartz said...

You can read more about intersex (hermaphroditism) here:

Chris said...

I feel bad for her, she can't help her condition and she probably has been mocked all her life. At least she can be finally do something that she can be proud of.

Zoe Brain said...

I can't be objective here.

I'm Intersexed. Born with a body fitting neither a wholly male stereotype, nor a female one.

It's not a real great situation to be in. Psychologically speaking, I'm just a woman with a rather distressing congenital medical condition. Biologically speaking, it's fascinating, and watching others try to determine which of the two sexes I "really" am is like watching people argue about whether yellow is actually a shade of red or blue.

As far as I know, there *is* no hard-and-fast set of rules for determining sex in borderline cases. They appear to make them up as they go along, pretending that the question has an answer good for all cases.

While I can appreciate a reason for levelling the playing field, anyone who watches an Olympic class running event can't help but note that people of African descent are disproportionately represented. Should they be eliminated because of their natural advantage? I think not.

Humans vary. Our gene pool is heterogenous. Genes give a plan, but environmental conditions in the womb can give very different somatic outcomes even with identical genes. For some outliers like myself, it's a vexed question as to what advantages we have in some areas, compared to the very real disadvantages in others.

Context: We report herein a remarkable family in which the mother of a woman with 46,XY complete gonadal dysgenesis was found to have a 46,XY karyotype in peripheral lymphocytes, mosaicism in cultured skin fibroblasts (80% 46,XY and 20% 45,X) and a predominantly 46,XY karyotype in the ovary (93% 46,XY and 6% 45,X).
Patients: A 46,XY mother who developed as a normal woman underwent spontaneous puberty, reached menarche, menstruated regularly, experienced two unassisted pregnancies, and gave birth to a 46,XY daughter with complete gonadal dysgenesis.

So much for XY=male, XX=female. XXY males have fathered children, and XXY females have given birth.

As for genital appearance, those with 5ARD or 17BHDD appear somewhat, mostly, or completely female at birth, but masculinise later in life, to appear somewhat, mostly, or completely male.

Great if they were born transsexual boys, as the change cures that. A nightmare for girls though, who become transsexual as the result.

It's really not simple, and we have enough problems with legal systems that don't recognise reality without additional discrimination that amounts to persecution in sport too.

BTW my own condition is dichogamy, one of the truly rare conditions. Perhaps 1 in 50,000 humans are dichogamous, but perhaps only 1 in 10 million are protoandrous pseudohermaphrodites like me rather than protogynous. It's so rare we have no good estimate. There's little research, as many people find our existence an embarrassment, and often against the tenets of their religious beliefs.

Mic said...

It seems that some older South Africans have a very short memory and many South African youth are not being taught much about political history. I am of course talking about the expressions of anger and accusations of racism from many South Africans towards Australians because they believe it was an Australian media organisation who first broke this story about Semenya.

During the apartheid era in South Africa there was a strong peoples movement in Australia pushing for freedom for all South Africans. Many young Australian students put their bodies on the line in clashes with police while protesting during the 1971 Springboks Rugby Tour. With a change of government in Australia and Australia joining the boycott of South African international sport, there was more pressure put on the then South African Government to reform. There was also strong support for South African exiles.

So to say that Australia, a modern multicultural nation, is a racist country and against South Africa is very wrong. Australia does have a long and strong sporting rivalry with South Africa, but our competitiveness on the sporting field does not reflect Australian attitudes towards South Africans.


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Mic

I confess that I did not know that either, and so my reasons for saying we shouldn't just go and blame Australia were not related to this.

I think though, that people just want someone to blame, and their emotion and anger finds its target on the people who published the report.

It's ridiculous, completely inappropriate as you point out, but it serves the purpose of distracting people from the real issue which is the botched/corrupt management of this by ASA.

This whole thing of a rivalry between SA and Australia is also so funny, because here in SA, we don't seem to understand that sporting rivalry need not mean personal insult, and so it seems to happen a lot. Just today, an editor of a respected newspaper here in SA wrote that we should protest against Australian rugby, because last time SA played Australia, they played like girls.

Really, it's so embarrassing and stupid I am mortified by it...

But you're right, and let's hope more people realise this than not!


maryka said...

Zoe Brain, thanks for the post and the personal viewpoint. What you said about people having different advantages reminded me of a case in Germany a few years back of a 4-year-old boy who was super strong for his age. Turns out he has a rare condition where his muscles do not produce myostatin, the protein that regulates muscle growth. Clearly this kid could grow up to sweep the competition in events like weight-lifting, shot put, etc. Should we not allow him to compete because he has a genetic advantage? Interesting question...

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A10196-2004Jun27.html for the story

Unknown said...

I think that it is absolutely outrageous, people should be congratulating Semenya on a wonderful achievement. Instead she is being discriminated against, by the whole world. One should empathise with her, feel exactly what she's feeling about this whole thing.It is a very sensitive thing to be alone in the world and feel as though you dont belong, so please people grow up and learn to take responsibility with your actions.This is pathetic!