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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Caster Semenya set for return

"I hereby publicly announce my return to athletics competitions" - Caster Semenya

The above quote is attributed to Caster Semenya, South Africa's 800m world champion from Berlin last year, and the athlete who, for all the wrong reasons, dominated the world scene towards the end of 2009.  Her story, and the web of lying, corruption, cover-ups, leaks and gender verification tests were perhaps the big story in athletics, if not sport, in 2009.

And for the IAAF, the story seems set to continue, as she has announced her intention to compete again.  Reading a statement prepared by her legal team, Semenya declared that she would be working with her coach and agent to select and compete in a limited number of races over the coming season.

This follows only a day after the IAAF requested that she NOT run in a local meeting in Stellenbosch, South Africa, after it was reported that she would be returning for the first time since her Berlin victory last year.  That was blocked only by a late request, but the ball has still found its way firmly into the IAAF's court, as they must now surely make some kind of decision on her eligibility to compete as a woman.

Policy, performance and proof

It's a difficult subject to discuss, because the boundary between speculation, fact and violation of a person's privacy rights is non-existent.  However, I think it's pretty safe to say that the testing conducted on Semenya revealed significant questions over whether she should compete as a woman.   This was all but confirmed when the South African Minister of Sport said publicly that he would support Semenya despite her condition.  This was confirmation of the leaks and allegations which had suggested that Semenya had internal testes.

However, physiologically, proving that having an intersex condition confers an advantage is a difficult proposition.  And there is no policy, at least that I am aware of, that states when an athlete should be barred from competing.  The only IAAF policy that I have been able to find states that certain conditions are allowable.  However, in the frenzy last year, it was revealed that eight athletes had been asked to either seek medical treatment of discontinue running as a result of such conditions.  So clearly, there are precedents and some means to determine whether an athlete should not run.

So is this the sticking point?  Why has it taken this long to announce a decision, when the test results would have been known many months ago?  We have to be clear - the actual testing produces a pretty obvious answer.  A person either has internal testes or they don't.  They either have a Y-chromosome or they don't.  Once you get beyond that surface assessment, things become complex, because there are varying degrees or grades of conditions, for example.  However, even this would have been resolved by now, and the medical diagnosis and picture of Caster Semenya will be very clear and obvious to all concerned.

The stumbling block.  And is Semenya undergoing any medical interventions?

However, the policy regarding performance is the stumbling block.  High powered lawyers (they got Pistorius off, after all, despite a massive advantage), lawsuits, media glare and a political backlash last year all factor in, but the bottom line is that the IAAF must now commit to a decision.  This has taken much too long.  Is she allowed to participate without medical treatment to remove the internal testes?  Or is that to be enforced?  Can it be enforced?

And most interestingly, would that medical treatment affect her performance?  No follower of athletics failed to notice that in 2009, Semenya, still a teenager and following a structured programme for only a few months, managed to run 1:55 looking like she was jogging in the Berlin final.  There was little doubt among athletic followers that had she desired, she could have increased her pace even more, and run close to 1:53 in that race.  For a first year teenager, that is remarkable, and suggests that with maturity, more training and the right race, she would be capable of 1:51.

Those who know the history of the event are also aware that of the top 20 women in history in the 800m event, at least 16 are known to have doped, and few athletes get down to 1:55 without doping.  So a 1:51?  I have stated this before, and believe that a 1:50-something would be a very real possibility.  That is a fact many dismiss as irrelevant, but the fact is, if Semenya does compete and does run unaffected by last year (either training or medically), we will see processions, not races.

So would the medical treatment prevent this?  Certainly, removal of the testes would have far-reaching consequences, not only for performance, but for her health, since she'd be obliged to seek hormone replacement for the rest of her life.  It's thus not a decision to be taken lightly.

There are other options.  If not surgical, then there are means to reduce the testosterone levels, which may be a compromise of sorts.  Is that being done?  These options will have been discussed, and Semenya may well be on a course to reduce testosterone levels non-surgically.  In fact, I strongly suspect she is, for that would have been part of the "negotiations" and compromises reached last year when the IAAF, ASA, SA government and legal team were discussing Semenya's future.  So I suspect that something is being done, if not surgically, then medically.  It's anyone's guess how the IAAF will enforce this, because all the athlete needs to do is miss a week of treatment and they're effectively benefiting from the same effect as doping.

Of course, none of these details should ever be announced, for they infringe on patient rights.  However, what does need to be announced is whether Semenya's statement is rhetoric, or whether the IAAF are going to allow her to run.  If she is cleared, will any of the meetings invite her, and if they do, will any of the competitors she races against object, or even withdraw?  That will depend on how well she performs - if she runs 1:55 while jogging, the fall-out may be difficult to contain.

That verdict, provoked by Semenya's statement, should come soon.  Semenya herself stated that "these processes have dragged on for far too long with no reasonable certainty as to their end".  Let's hope that her statement inspires action, so that the issue can move beyond this big question mark, and onto the next one - performance.



Alan Sleath said...

It is good to see that Caster has help to tackle this issue.Pressure needs to be put on the sports bodies to make a decision which can have huge consequences.Would be
nice for SA to have a 800m world record.

Anonymous said...

Ross, I have to take issue again I'm afraid with your use of the term "gender". In all fairness to Semenya, it's essential in this matter to repeat that as far as Semenya is concerned, her gender is and has always been female. Yes, I know that there are many who should know better and who nevertheless insist on muddying still further the issue, but since when does The Science of Sport feel a need to follow the rantings of halfwits and idiots?

At issue is NOT Semenya's gender. At issue is where Semenya currently stands on the continuum of male to female Homo.

Now, I'm not an expert here by any means, but a brief search of PubMed indicates that it's not as simple as you claim it to be, that "A person either has internal testes or they don't."

See the abstract below from a paper published almost thirty years ago (in 1981)to learn that a hermaphrodite (note not "intergender" person, even back then) may have an ovary, a testis or an ovotestis.

And that the ovotestis is not only the most common gonad of the true hermaphrodite but:

"An analysis of the ratio of ovarian and testicular tissue within ovotestes showed a continuum from very little ovarian tissue to a small portion of testicular tissue."

Hum Genet. 1981;58(1):117-22.
The gonads of human true hermaphrodites.

van Niekerk WA, Retief AE.

Gonadal distribution in 409 cases of human true hermaphroditism is reviewed. An ovary was found on the left side of the body in 62.8% of the cases and the testis on the right side in 59.5%. The ovotestis is the most common gonad of the true hermaphrodite; amongst 806 gonads in 406 cases it was found in 44.3%. In this paper we give a detailed description of the morphology of ovotestis, testis and ovary in the true hermaphrodite. In addition we discuss the effects of fetal androgens and Müllerian inhibiting factor on the Wolffian and Müllerian ducts. Correlations between chromosomal complement and gonadal distribution are presented. True hermaphrodites with a 46,XX karyotype most commonly have an ovary on one side and an ovotestis on the other side; those with a Y-chromosome have a testis in 61% of cases. An analysis of the ratio of ovarian and testicular tissue within ovotestes showed a continuum from very little ovarian tissue to a small portion of testicular tissue. Each type of tissue was clearly demarcated. Hypotheses for gonadal induction in the true hermaphrodite should take cognizance of these facts. True hermaphrodites with a 46,XX chromosomal complement were characterized by a male phenotype in 54% of cases. This group may suggest a greater testicular induction ability in the genome as compared to the 46% with a female phenotype.

PMID: 6895206 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Colenso

You're wasting energy pursuing what is actually not an "essential" issue. I've read the papers, I know the definitions and I still believe that "gender verification" is not incorrect to use. The term "gender" is social, you are quite correct. But the issue in question is whether Semenya's gender (which is female, as you point out) is appropriate for her sex (which is in question) and most importantly, appropriate to allow her to compete in a very clearly defined GENDER categories. Therefore, they are verifying that the two match - gender or sex verification.

My point is that the whole debate here revolves around whether the gender and sex are matched appropriately given the categories of competition she takes part in. They may well need to call those sex categories, but the convention is gender and I haven't applied the term wrongly, as you have suggested they have. I believe therefore that either is correct in this instance.

As for whether a person has testis or not, I stand by that too. A medical exam will conclude that you have testes. They may fully developed, they may underdeveloped, they may be absent. They may even be accompanied by an ovary (as in the case of ovotestis), but once again, you are picking apart a semantic argument here. I haven't ruled this out - I've stated one thing, and you've fabricated a straw man to argue against. You're not wrong, but you've created an argument that is not right either.


Tgirl said...


I think that Colenso's post adds value to the discussion and that maybe I can suggest some middle ground for you two.

Frist off it is undoubtly true that her "social" gender is female but the question at hand is what is her gender for the purpose of sport?

While there are multiple factors that affect her "sport" gender, the most important one is her testosterone level. The IAAF has to decide if her T levels are too high to allow her to compete against women.

I also agree with Colenso that your choice of the phrase "internal testes" is troublesome. I think you reinforce the myth of a gender binary by doing so.

I think you could better educate your readers by letting them know that there are many variations of humans who are neither truly male nor female.

She has gonads and they could be overies, testes or ovatestes or some combination thereof. In the end the crucial question is how much testosterone do her gonads produce?

It is truly unfortunate that the IAAF has taken so long to make a decision. Politics certainly plays a role in this delay.

But what if her T levels are right at the point where the IAAF would draw the line between male and female?


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Joanna

Agreed on the sports-specific defintion of gender.

I don't agree that her testosterone levels are the key though - there are many conditions, AIS being one, where having very high T levels is meaningless, because the cells are insensitive to it. That's the whole basis of the condition. So the iAAF can't make that ruling exclusively on the basis of the level. That's why the whole picture, genetic, physiological, molecular has to be taken into account.

Regarding the internal testes comment, one thing I must point out is that this post is about the 20th one I've written on Caster Semenya. When this story broke back in August, i covered it in enormous detail. i explained the conditions, why they were important, how they developed, what the possibilities were, and so forth. THis post is an update, and I'm not about to repeat all that.

You can read that series here:

You'll see eight posts. There were at least 15 more, so I've done all that you suggested already.

I stand by the testes comment, because in the context of the post, the point is that the medical picture is clear. It is without doubt true that Semenya either has testes or she doesn't. Yes, those testes may take various forms, and they challenge the gender binary. But I wasn't commenting on that - I've done it already, a few times.

Whether they are ovo-testes, ovaries and testes (highly unlikely), is not the point here, which is why I feel that Colenso (and you) are missing the point in favour of semantics.

As for the T levels, as I said above, that is complex, and doesn't hold the answer, so it's not the crucial question. It's part of the picture, an important part but by itself, not definitive.


tgirl said...


You are completely right about AIS people and their T levels being meaningless. However, it is extremely unlikely that Caster is AIS.

AIS people almost all fit a specific body type. They are tall and angular with very little muscle.(after all they are insensitive to T.)

It is rumoured that many "female" models are actually AIS. Caster simply does not look like an AIS person.

Her musculature indicates that her body is sensitive to T. I suppose it's possible that she has partial AIS, but again I think it's unlikely.


Anonymous said...

Ross, over many years of arguing with scientists and non-scientists alike about scientific and non-scientific issues, one unfailing device I've encountered is that when all else fails, one's opponent insists that one’s arguments are a waste of energy, breath etc, because they are based on “semantics”.

True, perhaps as someone who chose to read both physics and philosophy at university I do have a bias towards semantics, but if you were to actually study semantics in any depth you would discover that, contrary to the pejorative way in which you choose to use the term, semantics is all about the meaning of utterances. Important? Yes, I should say so!

Now, in physics at least, the meaning of a scientific term depends always upon using a given term precisely, in accordance with its agreed definition.

You are simply, fundamentally wrong in insisting that “testicular tissue” and “testes” have the same meaning. They don’t. And if you did research the topic properly then you would know that they don’t. It is precisely because they do not have the same meaning that careful researchers do not use the term “testes” unless they mean just that - testes – instead, they use the term “testicular tissue”. And for very good reason.

Further, I’ll say it again and I’m going to keep on saying it for the simple reason that it’s true: gender has a different meaning from biological sex; the terms are not interchangeable at the whim of uneducated sports writers and their ilk– one cannot test scientifically for gender, and it is simply inexcusably misleading on your part to imply that one can by using “gender” as a synonym for “biological sex” in the way that you have chosen to do.

Anonymous said...

You have to be just as fair to Semenya's competitors as you are to her. Testosterone levels are directly measurable and if a person has levels that none of their competitors do then how these levels happened is irrelevant.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...


Thanks for the follow up. I will leave the issue of gender testing at your last word.

But please, don't preach to me about doing my research properly on the topic - I have written nearly two dozen posts on this topic, plus two scientific papers in peer-reviewed journals where I have clarified all these terms and conditions. I know the difference, and I am happy with the context of this post making my statement accurate and appropriate. I did NOT insist that testes and testicular tissue have the same meaning; rather, you interpreted that by taking my words out of context. My point in the post was very clear.

So as an uneducated sports writer, thank you for the follow up.


Trevor said...

To Colenso:

Really, I have to say - get a life, my friend. You're nit-picking like I've never seen, and you're so high and mighty in the way you do it, it's unbelievable. I mean, you come here and basically insinuate that this blog is written by "an uneducated sports writer" who is "inexcusably misleading people" with the posts. Seriously? Have you read anything else on this site, ever? I subscribe to the comments and usually let them slide, but I had to respond after your last one.

You're one of those guys who wears his qualification like a badge of manhood, "look at me and how clever I am". Shame...

The post was obvious - it was talking about the result, and it used gender in a way that can be interpreted in one of two ways. One is the way Ross tried to explain it to you, that the process involves the verification of the person's entered gender being the same as the person's biological sex given the two gender categories in sport. There's nothing wrong with that explanation, it's appropriate. The second way is yours, but you've chosen to construct a wonderful argument about it, presumably because you're so clever. Yes, gender is social, sex is biological. You're right, well done. Good for you. But to argue it as inexcusable and then personally call the guy "uneducated" based on your own fabricated argument shows you up.

You're everything wrong with science, and I say that as a scientist (organic chemist, since you're so fond of your qualifications), because you exist purely to gloat your vast knowledge over others. Well, newsflash, you may not be as wise as you think.

I mean, really, this is just flexing your academic muscles. What a waste of time and energy, I'm amazed you even get a response and debate after that last go of yours. It's ridiculous.

Oh, and one last thing, next time you want to win a debate, try not to fabricate your own opposing arguments. No one said gender was a synonym for biological sex, and no one said that testes and testicular tissue were the same.

Spare the world your soap box. Don't visit this site if you find it "uneducated", I'm sure Mensa has puzzles to occupy your mind.


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi again

Had to chime in after getting the last response.

Trevor, thanks for the encouragement and support, but let's keep it away from personal attacks on one another. Debate is always good - like I've said, I never aim to have the final word on any issue, but rather the first, and so I'm happy to debate.

Yes, it's not great having it implied that I'm "uneducated", which I find annoying and disappointing given that Colenso has been a regular reader of the site. But still, everyone's entitled to their opinion, and while I agree with your content in principle, I can't condone insults.

So anyway, I'll leave this issue now, it's taking what I consider too much time over a triviality now.

Thanks again for the comment, Trevor.


Trevor said...


Thanks for the reply. You're right, I should have waited before sending that comment, because I was irate when I wrote it and said things I shouldn't have. So apologies to you and Colenso for any personal, "below the belt" attacks.

But it is a pet hate of mine when people debate this way and clamour for the soap box on what is, as you have rightly said, a question of semantics in this particular post. That entire section could have been deleted and the post would still have been sound, which Colenso doesn't seem to apply.

What annoys me most about your comments, Colenso, is that you're an "expert", a bombastic know-it-all who then resorted to cheap insults of your own in grouping this as "uneducated", when I believe you received a reasonable explanation or discussion in response to your first post. The issue that testing is done to verify that an athlete is competing in the correct GENDER category is so obvious to me that I'm stunned Colenso still insults you because of it.

Not only that, but Colenso, you effectively made up the arguments you argued against. I've read it five times - Ross did not once say that gender and sex were synonyms, and never once said that testes were the same as testicular tissue.

So apologies for over-reacting, but you guys do great stuff on this site, and Colenso touched a nerve with his ridiculous post.

I'll continue to watch posts silently in the background and refrain from commenting, as I have before now. I may require restraint because I know that guys like Colenso have to have the last word, but I'll check out now.

Thanks, keep it up.


Alan Sleath said...

Unfair Advantage isnt that the biggest issue in this whole saga.Surely its competitors that eventually make the race.Has anyone consulted or got feedback from the competitors that will take part in this race and how they feel.Everybody is debating gender,semantics etc etc what about who currently takes part in the event and makes it happen.

Ray said...

Just to add my 2 cents. We could speak whether gender verification or sex verification or another term is the best, but I understand, under IAAF rules, she can compete as a women, even if she has an "intersex" condition.

The main issue is neither to determine her sex, nor her gender, nor what we should call it, but how to apply the IAAF rule. Does her condition give her an unfair advantage over other competitors?

In my opinion, the IAAF has only made one mistake: accidentally making public, that which should have been handled privately and discreetly.

Maybe a second mistake is in the making -- I agree waiting until June seems like an awfully long time, when the data is available (unless there are things happening which aren't being made public -- and rightfully so).

We often see that Semenya is an innocent victim, and her rights are being violated. It's true, she was a victim of the ASA's handling of the whole situation, and the IAAF leak.

What the IAAF should concern itself with, is if the IAAF allows her to compete, or worse, are compelled to allow her to compete by an appeal to the CAS, do all her competitors become victims of a bungled application of the rules, contrary to intent and fairness? The IAAF is likely being extra cautious, after the Oscar Pistorius affair.

Football wallpapers said...

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Mark Boen said...

To Alan:

"Has anyone consulted or got feedback from the competitors that will take part in this race and how they feel."

What are you suggesting?

Should the Race Director ask all of Caster's potential competitors prior to the race about how "they feel" about racing Caster? And if they all say, no problem, then everything is okay? Issue resolved?

Oh, I get it, April Fools...right?

Ray said...

To Mark,

I was thinking the opposite. I didn't ask, but I suspect they don't agree.

A lot of coverage about Semenya is about her rights being violated, and she now has lawyers who will fight for her rights.

I think a lot of her competitors don't agree that she runs, because it means money out of their pockets. They are professionals, and competing is their livelihood too.

Who will represent the rights of the competitors?

Anonymous said...

The issue of Semenya's status may prove somewhat moot. Given there's little doubt she'd be able to run a time that has hitherto requires blatant doping, few top-class 800m runners are going to be prepared to compete against her. Which means that race organisers will struggle to find compelling fields, which in turn reduces Semenya to the status of the Harlem Globetrotters, condemned to eternally beating second-rate opposition.

It's possible she could force an entry in the Olympics, but the IOC are acutely aware of the potential for controversy. The IOC might suggest that were Semenya selected by the SA federation, there might be deep scrutiny of the eligibility of every other member of the team, followed by the leaking of the actual state of play. A wildly uncompetitive 800m final accompanied by the stench of 1970s-style sex verification scandals isn't worth the possible risk of a legal row with one athlete of one federation.

Marie said...

Thanx for the update on Semenya, I'm happy to read she'll come back. I was worried she would be banned for good.

I'm sorry to go WAYYY off topic.
But I wish you guy's would do another post on doping, I have soooo many questions..lol
(English is not my first language so I'll apologize in advance for the mistakes I'm sure to make)
I recently read about how the HGH IGF-1 was undetectable from doping tests, and the only way to catch someone using it, was a muscle biopsy, which they wont be allowed to do on athletes anyway. So is it THAT easy to dope!?
Why not do a muscle biopsy, they only take a microscopic part of the muscle with a tiny needle right? Is that really too invasive?
And it makes me wonder, is this drug a real problem for the anti doping agencies, or is it all hype, and it's not as common as you would think with an undetectable drug?
(That last sentence makes me sound terribly naive, lol)
And how effective is it really?
It's supposed to be at least 10x more effective than previous HGH, or so the hype goes.
Now, I know there has been studies about how HGH is not at all performance enhancing the way athletes and bodybuilders previously thought.
You get a HGH gut, but no real muscle gain. So can we expect super fast times on the track or just 10x bigger HGH bellies?

I did a search on IGF-1 on your blog and came up short, but when I searched for HGH I did find the post: "How a sprinter takes drugs" with Victor Conte's letter included, really enjoyed that. Sneaky basta@rds those athletes, with a little help from the USADA who's not paying proper attention, maybe on purpose? Do I sense some conspiracy here, or am I completely wrong and there is no cover-ups? Let's say a sponsor steps in and pays a heavy sum to keep a failed doping test under wraps, could this ever happen? Or is it just fiction?
It ALMOST looks like athletes can just dope to their hearts content, ESPECIALLY if they use drugs that cant be detected without a muscle biopsy. Which makes me wonder if the anti-doping forces out there just want to throw their hands in the air and loudly proclaim: "I quit!"

And what would be the consequences of allowing doping and waving the white flag? What would happen then? Would we see many athletes dope themselves to an early grave? Or is doping not as dangerous as we have been told?
I'm not an athlete myself (a bit late in life to start now), so I'll never face the decision "to dope, or not to dope". But I do wonder what that's like, and how common it is, and if the athletes themselves even consider it cheating or want it legalized. I could Google this stuff some more, but I would be interested in reading your take on some of this stuff, as sport scientists.

Well, I wont go on forever (oh, but I could).


Unknown said...

Hi Rodss
In http://www.mg.co.za/article/2010-04-06-ill-be-back-in-june-says-caster
the piece ends with "I reiterate that based on medical and legal advice, I am firmly of the view there are no impediments to me racing in female athletics competitions".

This would seem to disagree with most of the opinions expressed here in terms of her medical condition.

Or is it just some clever legal wording?

Your thoughts

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Smurf

Good question, and thanks for the link. I think they're "bluffing". Or perhaps that's not the right word for it - maybe "posturing" is better.

There's definitely a medical AND legal "impediment" to her racing, otherwise we wouldn't all be in limbo, so it's just plain incorrect for her to say there isn't. If there were no barrier, then I think it's safe to say the IAAF would have cleared her - remember that they want this issue to go away more than anyone, so if there was no problem, they'd have popped champagne corks and celebrated her being cleared by now!

So, if I had to speculate, I'd say the delay confirms the problem, and that they are trying very hard to find a resolution that satisfies all parties. Let's not forget that the IAAF also have to consider what the other athletes will do if they clear her to run without any medical intervention. Semenya's problem may be resolved, but the IAAF will be stuck with it for a long time yet! So they have this dual challenge to work at, Semenya is only concerned (naturally, of course) with her participation.

So I think they're leaning on the IAAF, just putting their word in that they want her running (maybe she has already begun on medical treatment and they've factored that in, who knows).

I've got no doubt that the delay has something to do with finding a compromise between letting her run and seeking the surgical treatment that they usually enforce in situations like this. I guess they can't enforce it, hence the hold-up.

One thing I do know, this has no satisfactory ending, no matter how they go...