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Thursday, January 14, 2010

Semenya to run again? Claims and counterclaims

Caster Semenya to run next month?  Some thoughts on what is really going on

I know I said that I'd be tackling weight loss and exercise, but we always try to cover breaking news on science-related topics, and so I felt compelled to shift that series back by one day (don't worry, it's on the way!) to comment very briefly on the latest in the murky world of Athletics South Africa and Caster Semenya, since it is big news here today.

It is today being reported that Caster Semenya WILL race in the local season, starting in a few weeks, here in South Africa.  Her coach has further stated that she will compete internationally, and he is preparing her to race in the Commonwealth Games at the end of the year.  His position is backed by statements from ASA which yesterday supported that Semenya was clear and eligible to compete.

Unfortunately, as has been the case on numerous occasions in this ongoing saga, another day brought with it denials and confusion.  First, the IAAF and Semenya's own lawyers denied that any decision clearing her had been reached.  To them, the matter is still under discussion and they will only comment once the decision is made.  Then ASA acted by distancing themselves from the issue, saying that it is a matter for Semenya and her family, and that they have not received any clearance from the IAAF. 

Not suspended, and therefore eligible to compete

Legally, of course, the IAAF have not banned her.  No suspension was ever handed down, and so in theory, she can run, as ASA recognized at the recent launch of the local track season.  However, there is more to this than a simple legal issue, and were she to race locally, it would once again stir the hornet's next of allegation and counter-allegation that erupted last year in August.  Unfortunately, people have not seemed to recognize that a failure of a ban is not necessarily an endorsement of her eligibility to compete.  Meanwhile, her coach has clearly decided that he will plan the season without factoring this in, and perhaps this is all he can do - the alternative is to sit around waiting for a verdict, by which time 2010 may be beyond salvation as a competitive season.

So Semenya can go ahead and run, because legally, there's no barrier.  Whether this is the best for her does not seem to factor in the decisions of those in charge.  Remember, prior to Berlin, the medical advice was that she should not run pending further testing, and this was specifically to protect her against the potential fallout.  That advice was ignored.  Now, five months later, a similar situation exists - there is no concrete reason why she should not compete.  But given the doubt, the enormous question mark over her, does it really make sense to put her back into competition?  Is it really in her best interests to run until the verdict arrives, or is the prudent, wise approach not to wait on that decision and then run without any questions at all? (assuming this is possible)

Only a few possibilities

The latest round of statements and counter-statements does suggest some interesting possibilities, however.  As I see it, the latest reports strongly suggest that Semenya IS intending to run again - her coach may be wrong about her being clear to compete right away, but he certainly wouldn't speak so openly of her plans if she did not have the intention of running again.   To plan a season, and then communicate it means that the option of early retirement is not on the table, for now.

This then has a couple of interesting implications.  Because she has decided to attempt to run again, there are only two possibilities:

a.  She has (or is in the process of), with the help of her lawyers, managed to cast enough doubt over the possibility that she has a performance advantage that the IAAF have to allow her to compete without any requirement for surgery or medical treatment.  She will have effectively done the same as Oscar Pistorius, but behind closed doors, and that is to force the IAAF to prove that her condition (assuming it exists) gives her a performance advantage.  Failing to do that would mean that the IAAF would have to allow her to compete.  If this scenario is the case, then all that is still needed is an announcement, but I cannot see the reason for the delay.

The second possibility - medical treatment to clear her to run

b.  She has gone ahead with the surgery to remove the alleged internal testes, and now the way is clear for her to compete.  The question is "when"?  And this may be the debate currently holding up the announcement.  We know from IAAF policy that a male can undergo sex re-assignment surgery, becoming female, and then be eligible to compete as a female after TWO YEARS of hormone replacement therapy.  

The same standard, applied to Semenya, means that IF she has gone with the medical option and removed the testes, then hormone replacement therapy (with primarily estrogen), combined with a mandatory period of non-competition, would allow her to return to action without any questions over her eligibility.

Now, the question is, does she sit out for 2 years, or is that period shorter because she is not a 'male-to-female' re-assignment?  Unquestionably, she was able to derive some physiological effects of testosterone, but not all, which would suggest the period should be shorter than 2 years.  Is this the reason for the delay in an announcement?  There are all kinds of physiological effects of reducing the testosterone levels - changes in muscle mass, body fat distribution, strength and recovery ability, but those are speculative at this stage, best left until the topic is directly in the news.

For now, all I am left with is the thought that either she is proving that she has no advantage from whatever condition existed, or she has gone ahead and cleared the way to compete according to IAAF policy by having medical treatment.  All that remains in this second scenario (which I find more likely) is to agree upon the time to return to competition.  And of course, if this is the case, then the statements made by coaches and officials that she will run locally suddenly become even more irresponsible, because the IAAF may very well return with a decision that says that she can run from the 1st of August, or some other date in the future.  For now, those in positions of influence would do well to hold out and make sure they're not responsible for producing Episode 2.0 of the same drama we saw last year.

If I am missing anything, please feel free to comment!

Weight loss begins tomorrow!



Mark Boen said...

I think a third and perhaps more probable possibility exists. I also think that Caster and those around Caster feel that she is a girl and surgery is not needed. Caster's camp may feel that without any sort of ban or suspension, they have a good chance of racing this season. With no final IAAF decision in November or December, they are tired of sitting on their hands. That said, they may still be hedging their bets and announcing to the world that they are proceeding with their running season ‘in a few local races’ followed by racing internationally. This may be their way of encouraging (forcing) the IAAF to finally finish their investigation of Caster. Lastly, it is hard for me to believe that Caster has already had any kind of secret surgery not already reported to the media.

Tommy Booth said...

Hi Ross & Jonathan,

There might also exist possibility c, which goes like this:

Caster Simenya has been reading the Science of Sport blog and knows that there is no good ending to this story for her. She basically had 2 options: 1 - she goes for the treatment, loses her competitive edge and never features as a competitive athlete again. This option would suit the IAAF perfectly, as I suspect they are trying their hardest to figure out how to handle this situation without ending up with another costly law suit. This is due to the tremendous pressure facing the IAAF, from political pressure to fears of embarrassing pour Simenya again. This would also explain the IAAF's lag to bring out a finding for Simenya. Option 2 - Simenya, seeing the IAAF's lack of a ban, does not go for the treatment, and carries on running, giving it all she's got. She knows this will not end well for her as the IAAF will be forced to speed up & reveal her gender verification tests which we all suspect will render a ban for her to compete under her current condition.

I must just break from this point to put my concience at ease here: I am saying some pretty serious things here, but this is purely my own point of few, nothing can be taken as the truth. I am expressing my own personal thoughts, interpretations and forecasts.

There, that said and done, I can bring you my conclusion:
The reason, I believe, Caster Simenya would go for option 2 is poker, yes you've got it poker. I learned to play poker recently and it's a marvellous game: some bluffing, some luring others out to go big when you know you've got a winner. And I believe Caster Simenya know she's got a winner here: no matter what happens, she knows that changes are good her lawyers can get a sizable amount from suing the IAAF. I say this because I don't know how the poor IAAF can get out of this mess without upsetting a couple of interest groups which will just add more support to Simenya's case against the IAAF. You can probably see what I'm getting at here. Simenya's ploy for going for option 2 is to lure the IAAF out & raise the stakes. She's going 'all in' as the poker players say.

Please, I am open to a lot of critique. I know I probably made so many mistakes, but tremendous fun putting my thoughts/conspiracy theory down.

Enjoy & please comment!
Tommy Booth

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Mark and Tommy

Thanks for the thoughts.

I'd considered this third option, which both of you are effectively putting forward, that Semenya is trying to force the IAAF's hand by announcing her racing schedule.

However, I'll give you my thoughts on why this is less likely. Remember that Semenya's lawyers are currently in negotiations with the IAAF, pretty much daily. That means that Semenya already has their attention, they are not sitting on their hands. Far from it, they're working all the time.

And those lawyers occupy the "moral high ground". I know a little about what's being discussed there (through contacts and journalists who are close to the situation) and the lawyers would not wish to jeopardize their position of strength by playing games. It would make little sense for them to be discussing Semenya's future so intensively, and then make a second play (sneakily) to force the IAAF to act. Can you imagine the negotiation the next time? It would be very testy, and I can't see this law firm playing those kind of games. It's possible of course, but I think least likely.

With regards to the surgery, it's very feasible in this country, because we don't have the kind o intense media scrutiny that exists in Europe and the USA. In the first few months after this story broke, August and September, I agree, there was so much scrutiny of her that it would have been impossible. But from October until December, nothing was happening, and the media had zero access. So she had a choice of dozens of good hospitals to do this procedure, and with legal support, confidentiality would not have been a problem. So I can see that it happened.

And then finally, to Tommy's point about her "no lose" - there is one way that she loses, and I think it's significant. The answer lies with competition and opportunities to race. If Semenya makes this play, going all in, she risks an impossible situation, because no-one would wish to compete against her, and therefore few meeting agents would wish to invite her. She cannot afford to foster ill-feeling among the athletics community, because it would jeopardize her participation, even if the IAAF never ban her.

However, I think the IAAF would issue the ban in the interests of the sport. Their delay so far is based on the leak and their handling of the situation publicly, but there is precedent for banning athletes - if memory serves me, 6 athletes have been asked to either seek treatment or discontinue their careers. So Semenya could well face that, with confidentiality around whatever decision is made.

I think both parties will be striving to seek compromise, with Semenya's objective to race again, and I can only see that if she has medical treatment, because she can't limit her game of poker to the IAAF only - there are other players! To continue your analogy!

Thanks for the comments though, great food for thought!


Ans said...

Caster Semenya to run again? Against whom?? She is going to run away from all the local woman, and international one's for that matter....

Will she race with the men then she might come stone last or it might just improve her times, but she won't win(if she win well it proves her male vs female issue), thus she won't have a career in sport.

The big issue is the money involved in sport, no money no lawyers to drag the process out.

By now I think that the fact that she has got testes must underline the fact that she has got an advantage over other woman, and that was she a man, she will not have been good enough to be an international athlete, why they dragging the process out is actually pointless. If I was in her shoes, get the extra parts remove, train hard, see if I can still take part in the sport as a woman, if not, make something of your life...all parties (read lawyers) are actually wasting her time, but I guess they want to sue for emotional or any other distress caused to her due to Chuene's lies.

GerdjanKi said...

Yes you're missingsomething. The testosteronlevel of exceptional women cannot be compared to that of ordinary women. That's what we call talent. Having an advantage that non-talented do not have.This is 2010. http://www.scienceblog.com/cms/higher-level-testosterone-women-linked-choice-risky-careers-24391.html

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Gerdjan

It's interesting that you've said "This is 2010" in your post, because the debate you've brought up is one that we had in 2009. A lot!

The issue of Semenya's testosterone levels and whatever performance advantage she may have was done in massive detail last year, and I'd encourage you to have a look at those posts (there is a tab on top of the page for 2009) and then consider your views.

The link you've provided has zero relevance, none whatsoever, because it looks at women in the normal range. This case could not be more different.


Anonymous said...

With regards to the surgery, it's very feasible in this country, because we don't have the kind o intense media scrutiny that exists in Europe and the USA. ... But from October until December, nothing was happening, and the media had zero access. So she had a choice of dozens of good hospitals to do this procedure, and with legal support, confidentiality would not have been a problem. So I can see that it happened.
I don't dispute that it couldn't have been done confidentially or that she couldn't find a clinic somewhere in the world to do it hidden away in the future, but what will happen when she runs next? Unless Arbeit gives her some cocktails to match the hormonal advantage she lost with the surgery, she would never be able to race again as she did. And that would be visible to the entire world. And it would also prove that she broke the rules when taking home the medal and the money.

Given that we, the public, do not have any further insider information as you do, we can only conjecture who has what dirt on whom. My impression continues to be that there is quite a bit of dirt involved on both sides or a clear, transparent report would have been furnished in November 2009. Simple. To me, the fact that both sides are hiding a lot of cardinal information is a red flag the size of the new Dubai tower.

And it's nice to hear that you think that Semenya's lawyers aren't twisting the IAAF's arm any which way, but lawyers are known to do exactly what in their negotiations? Somehow it escapes me at the moment.

Have a good day,

Anonymous said...

I have read the newest info on the Castor case and have read about the 2 options.My question or statement regard the second option that conclude that she can undergo an operation to remover the internal testes.I believe she must still not be allowed to race- beacuse all of the years her body produced more testosterone than an normal female, her body gained an unfair advantage. You can remove the testes now, but the advantage will still be there because her increase muscle mass and so forth which are resulted from her higher test levels. It like doping with test- you gain advantage and afterwards if you manage it correctly, you can maintain most of the advantages. Just a thought

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi anonymous

Fair point, except the effect of that testosterone is not indefinite. Yes, some are longer lasting than others - the shape of the skeleton, which confers a biomechanical advantage is one, but the rest, even the muscle mass, are reversible.

So within a few months of having testes removed, she would no longer have the same muscle mass, and nor would she be able to sustain the same training volume or intensity as before, and so that advantage would erode. Similarly, her body fat percentage and distribution would change over time, and the benefits will gradually be reversed.

So in my opinion, based on the physiology that the effects of testosterone would not persist, she should be allowed to compete, just not right away - the IAAF usually have a 2 year period off, in this case, I'd say 1 year would be enough.


Zoe Brain said...

If she has testes, and has them removed, will she be allowed to take performance-enhancing testosterone to bring her t levels up to that of other women (who have ovaries, which also produce testosterone, and do not have a partial immunity to it as she must do)?

Pardon me. I'm Intersexed and right now I'm pretty fed up of the way this teenage girl has been treated.

Pronouncements like this one don't help:

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.

That's from His Holiness the Pope in his New Year Greetings to the Diplomatic Corps.

We're already starting to get fallout from this in other areas than sport. We had had some major advances in human rights for IS people in Europe and the Americas.

Progress in rights for Gays continue, but those for IS and TS people have now stalled.