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Thursday, September 10, 2009

Caster Semenya leaks begin

"Caster Semenya a hermaphrodite" vs. "Results in November". The rumor mill starts spinning

Following on from my post yesterday, which looked at the latest developments in the case of Caster Semenya, I have two very quick links to provide you with. I'm rushing off to do a presentation on the issue for a local scientific organization, so I have little time to comment, but the links will come up and you might as well see some comment here first.

IAAF position: Semenya will find out in November

First, the IAAF have announced that the results will be available in November only, because this is when they have an executive council meeting. According to Pierre Weiss, Secretary General of the IAAF, "there will be nothing before that".

You can read the article here. It includes some really interesting quotes, most notably this section:

"Weiss said Semenya's case was the eighth dealing with sexuality issues the IAAF had handled since 2005. "Four athletes were asked to stop their career," he confirmed, without giving further details."
That is very interesting, because it serves to highlight that this current issue is in fact nothing new. Unusual, yes, but the big difference is the leak and the subsequent uproar over unfair treatment.

The article also highlights the fact that the IAAF have been trying to get hold of Semenya over the tests, but that ASA are keeping them from her, which is extra-ordinary behavior, but not out of character given the last few weeks and ASA's behavior. Why the rush to reach Semenya? To tell her the verdict? Or maybe a health-reason (as discussed below)?

Regardless, the IAAF have stated that she is unlikely to lose her medal, which puts an end to at least some of the speculation (for now). Read on to have it re-ignited...

"Caster Semenya is a hermaphrodite" - news reports

Almost by design, at about the exact same time as the IAAF said that results would wait until November, newspapers in Australia are reporting that
"Caster Semenya is a hermaphrodite - a person with both female and male sexual characteristics". You can read this piece here.

This issue was always going to inspire massive speculation, leaks and rumors, which is why I wrote yesterday that the idea that this would be kept confidential (as it should be, according to IAAF policy) was a dream. It took only one day for the rumors to start flying.

I don't know what to make of the article. It's unproven, of course. There are also statements in the article that are directly contradictory to the article I linked to above, where the IAAF said that Semenya's medal would not be taken away - the Australian piece says it may be. Also, some of the science is likely over-simplified - the use of the term "hermaphrodite" is probably not entirely accurate, since the classification of intersex conditions doesn't use the term much anymore, except in very rare cases, and this seems unlikely to be one.

More to the point, there are a lot of claims that are not necessarily true. For example, in the article, it says the following:
The tests, not yet publicly released, show the 18-year-old has no womb or ovaries.

The International Association of Athletics Federations is expected to disqualify the South African from future events and advise her to have surgery because her condition carries grave health risks, The Daily Telegraph reports.

And she could be stripped of the gold medal she won in Berlin in last month [as mentioned, this seems unlikely based on the IAAF comments]. Semenya has three times more testosterone than a normal female. A source closely involved with the IAAF tests said Semenya had internal testes - the male sexual organs which produce testosterone.
Even if all this were true, it still does not necessarily mean that she will be disqualified from future events. There are conditions which are allowable, which would see Semenya being able to compete after surgery (the surgery, by the way, is for health reasons. If you have internal testes, then they can become cancerous, and so must be removed. This might explain their desire to get hold of her, with ASA standing in the way).

The point is that even if the article is accurate, and the source is reliable, the actual decision around Semenya would not necessarily be disqualification. Unless something is known and is not being disclosed by the source. The crux is that they have to establish that she has some sort of performance advantage as a result of the condition.

Now, let's just very quickly look at the claims - the presence of testes, and the absence of a uterus, would suggest that she is genetically male (has a Y chromosome, possibly XY, possibly XXY). In order to develop as a female, she may be insensitive to androgens, or have a deficiency in an enzyme in the androgen pathway. This means that if the reports are accurate, she may have AIS (Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome) or alpha-5-reductase deficiency, or possibly a genetic abnormality that is much rarer than these (which are pretty uncommon themselves) and results in the development of an under-masculinized male (there are three categories of condition - under-masculinized males, masculinized females and hermaphrodites).

What people need to know is that AIS, if complete, as well as alpha-5-reductase deficiency, are both conditions which the IAAF policy says are "allowed". The problem is with partial AIS, where it becomes a decision around whether she has an advantage or not. And that is exactly the same position as we were in before, though now we have a possible biological piece of the puzzle to add to yesterday's debate.

Still waiting - as you were...

So the point is that all these reports, regardless of their accuracy, still reveal nothing of the action that may or may not be taken. While it may be suggested that being an intersex individual, or someone who is "not entirely female" is grounds for disqualification, it is not. In Atlanta in 1996, 8 women "failed" the sex verification test because they had a Y-chromosome (strictly speaking, they had the SRY gene on the Y-chromosome). All eight were allowed to compete.

So Semenya may well have a condition, but may well continue running. The decision would be made based on whether the degree of a condition (assuming it is there) gives her an athletic advantage. The testosterone level, as we saw yesterday, is part of this, but by no means the only factor. Nor is the presence or absence of male or female organs, rather bizarrely.

What I do find very intriguing is the possibility that she has internal testes that require removal - what is the magnitude of the effect this would have on her performance? An intriguing question...

And then of course, she may have nothing at all - there are enough question-marks in the Australian report to wonder about the accuracy of the article. I am reminded that they were correct the first time around, when the story broke. It certainly does not seem good for Semenya, as the issue gets deeper and deeper.

I'm sure once the rest of the world's media picks up on this, there may be more to say. Until then, as you were...



DrTim said...

Always one step ahead ... good job!

Frans Rutten said...

"Weiss said Semenya's case was the eighth dealing with sexuality issues the IAAF had handled since 2005. "Four athletes were asked to stop their career," he confirmed, without giving further details."

Maybe a dreadful thing to bring up, but since her FALL this year was just as dramatic and unaccounted for as her RISE last year: Could Pamelo Jelimo have been one of the eight persons?

After all even her trainer could not (would not) confirm (private matter), that the IAAF (which was asked for) had practically dealt with the rising doubts around Pamelo Jelimo's human condition.

And (a big) IF, forementioned should be true, her dramatic decline all over sudden seems quite apprehensible.

EVEN the fact that Pamelo Jelimo in Eugene obviously still was trying to duplicate her 2008 season, by still pacing all by herself through a large section of the 2nd lap, before she completely run out of gas, fits in this "story". By which I mean, she was apparantly not fully aware of the changed circumstances. And had to find out bitterly / bluntly that "everything" changed.

Come to think of now.

In 1996 I expressed on a US forum, that I thought that Wang Junxia's performances in Atlanta didn't match quite the super performances in autumn 1993 and that as a consequence those performances IMO got even more unbelievable as they already were in itself.

What did really happen?

Anonymous said...

I didn't watch any of the 2008 Olympics and therefore didn't know about Jelimo and had to google pictures of her. Either those pictures were rather unflattering or she does have a rather male looking face. Her sudden rise and decline is certainly suspicious as well.

For Semenya I really hope that, no matter what the outcome will be, she will be strong and that people in SA will continue supporting her.

On a very different item: yesterday FINA declared that all doping tests in Rome were negative. Knowing that no blood tests were run and that the urine samples taken are/will be destroyed so that no future testing can be performed is like a slap in the face. BTW: is the information given in this article correct: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/7517332.stm ? If it is than testing for EPO seems to be a farce anyway.

Anonymous said...

This 'news' article is in a tabloid newspaper (or group of newspapers)...not the same as the original Aussie leak.

So let's wait for real news media to confirm that or pick it up...or will they just 'copy and paste'?

Chrystal K. said...

I hope Semeneya's still able to compete.

brendan said...

Anonymous: it's also in TheAge, which I don't think is a tabloid:

World champ Semenya's gender mystery solved. Unfortunately their headline is even more definitive.

Anonymous said...

I very much hope the university Semenya's at rallies around her, and helps her to find another career in which she's happy and sucessful. And the South African sports body should help pay for it!

They ignored warning signs --- such as her bone structure --- and sent her out into the flames. They owe her.

Denise Moore

Mike Newell said...

And yet i have the Sydney Morning Herald sat on my desk "Secret of Semenya's sex stripped bare" slapped on the front page which povoked me check a rather more critical approach to the case - good work chaps. Few selected quotes from the article:

" Reports indicate that she has no ovaries, but rather she has internal male testes, which are producing large amounts of testosterone"

"Last night the IAAF was trying to ontact Semenya to inform her of the results after they were leaked to News Limited"

"One possibilty would be to allow Semenya to retain her gold medal but award a second gold to the runner-up, Kaneth Jepkosgei from Kenya"

The article continues to highligh the IAAF's insistance this is not a doping case but a medical issue regarding the health of the athlete and whether she does indeed have an athletic advantage over her competitors.

Anonymous said...

Jelimo ran just fine in her first WC heat, then fell apart in the semis. If the IAAF asked her "to stop her career," why was she even in Berlin?

Right, part of the deal was that she had to humiliate herself on a world stage.

Plenty of other Beijing medalists performed equally poorly. Angelo Taylor. Stephanie Brown Trafton. Churandy Martina. Et Al.

Jelimo will be back, rest assured.

Kia said...

As a woman who has a medical condition that causes me to produce more testosterone I have sympathy for Semenya.My body also produces 3 times the normal amount for a woman. But unlike Semenya I have fully functioning female parts. I do not believe that she has an an unfair advantage.It is hard enough to deal with sexual identity without the world adding its' input.I feel bad that she has to publicly deal with what's happening to her body (which is something that should be private). Everyone should try to put themselves in her shoes and imagine how u would feel if your gender was being bantered around in the public eye.

Anonymous said...

This just highlights the ambiguity of sex, and a situation where social norms do not mesh well with emperical observations.

The only thing which makes any sense is to question the need for female competition and in fact any athletic competition at all.

Anonymous said...

If she had no ovaries and uterus it means she never had a period (menses) in her/his life... That amenorrhea in itself should have caused some questioning..

Anonymous said...

Here's a tought: Why do we seperate genders in sports? To be FAIR? There really is no true 'fairness' in sports. Different body types give an advantage, hormone levels, training facilities... My mother and sister produce more testosterone than the 'average' female and function just fine. But both tend to put on quite a bit of muscle when working out regularly. I on the other hand really enjoy weightlifting, but have proportionally long arms and legs and wide hips which hinder my progress.

Now that I think about it, this situation could have played put in another very interesting way if it were in the weightlifting sport. Many women weightlifters can lift proportionally more weight compared to their body weight; if a feminine appearing male competitor were to win the gold, I'd bet there would be gender tests ordered to make sure he was male.

Why does it matter if a winner is considered male or female, why not just celebrate that THAT PERSON is the best at their sport?

Anonymous said...

Caster should be competing as a man. If no ovaries, no uterus, but has testes, then that is of the male sex. Why do they say Caster has both female and male organs?? What organs are female? Testes are male.

Hopefully Caster can get past this and lead a good life, poor thing.