Semenya gender riddle rumbles on after Commonwealth double blitz
Controversy: Olympic champion’s career could come to an end if IAAF pushes through with new policy on hyperandrogenism
No female runner in the history of athletics has courted so much controversy than the South African superstar.
On Friday, Mokgadi Caster Semenya completed her Gold Coast 2018 middle distance double after crushing the field to coast to the 800m crown adding to the 1500m title she stormed to on Tuesday.
On both occasions, Semenya smashed Commonwealth Games running 4:00.71 in the 1500m (also a national record) and 1:56.68 in the 800m with the 27-year-old simply unstoppable as she became the third woman in the history of the event to clinch the mid distance double.
She was simply unstoppable at the Carrara Stadium, with her rivals Beatrice Chepkoech (1500m) and Margaret Nyairera (800m) ‘honoured’ to have played role of escorting her to the altar of greatness since there is no other bigger reward in the presence of such force.
Watching events unfold from home, Olympic and world 1500m champion; Faith Chepng’etich Kipyegon who sat out Gold Coast 2018 to attend to maternal duties must have wondered how she was scorched Semenya at the 2017 London Worlds on their first head-to-head face-off.
Club Games champion
So, to recap, Semenya now stands as a two-time Olympic (2012 and 2016), three-time world (2009, 2011 and 2017) and now a double Club Games champion but her career could screech to a halt if world body, the IAAF pushes through its new policy to deal with hyperandrogenism.
Hyperandrogenism is when the female body has high levels of male sex hormones such as testosterone with Semenya the poster girl of the condition following her phenomenal success in athletics.
Any time the South African embarks on her trademark routine of flexing her muscles and dusting off her powerful shoulders to celebrate victory triggers furious debate on whether she should be allowed to compete against fellow women.
Gold Coast 2018 is no different and as she basks in the afterglow of her first middle distance double in her career, many in the sport are banking on the new proposed guidelines to hyperandrogenism to end a controversy that has rumbled on for a decade.
It all started at the women 800m final of the 2009 IAAF World Athletics Championships in Berlin, Germany that to date endures as one of the most controversial races in the history of the sport.
Semenya, then a breakout teenage star, motored around the blue tartan track with her powerful frame to take the gold in a jaw-dropping 1:55.45 world lead to dethrone Kenya’s Janeth ‘Eldoret Express’ Jepkosgei (1:57.90) from the title in silver as Jennifer Meadows (1:57.93) of Great Britain followed home bravely for the bronze in a Personal Best. Being the first ever track medal at the Worlds for the Rainbow Nation since being readmitted to international competition following the collapse of Apartheid in 1994, Semenya was quickly draped in the country’s flag and with Jepkosgei and Meadows in tow, went about her lap of victory honour.
Then all the drama started. Just as she approached the home-straight with majority of the crowd at the jam-packed iconic 90,000-seater stadium (famously constructed for the 1936 Olympics by Adolf Hitler as a sign of German and white race sporting might) booing persistently, Semenya was whisked away by officials from the track and hauled to the bowels of the building, never to be seen again.
It was the final shameless act that robbed Semenya of whatever shred of dignity she had left following the earth-shaking scandal that broke out when leaked tests proved she was hyperandrogenic from birth- meaning she has elevated levels of male hormone testosterone-just before the start of Berlin 2009.
The incident generated such huge interest among the thousands of press hounds at the championships and the women 800m medallists’ press conference was fuller than the ones that followed Usain Bolt’s dumbfounding 9.58 in the men 100m and the 19.19 seconds over 200m world record lightning blasts.
However, the gathered reporters were in for a rude shock. Sandwiched between the silver medal winner Jepkosgei - who wore a wry devilish smile - and Meadows who also spotted a sarcastic grin, was not the gold winner but former IAAF Secretary General, Pierre Weiss.
The press pack did not even give the moderator enough time to grill the comments of Osaka 2007 winner Jepkosgei and Meadows on their podium achievement as is the tradition.
As soon as they mumbled a few words on the microphone, the journalists immediately set about tearing Weiss to shreds over the Semenya affair.
To his immense credit, the veteran French-born administrator put up a stoic show of guile, poise and calm to bat away the inquisitive and sometimes stinging questions bordering on whether the IAAF would invalidate the result, strip Semenya of her medal and ban her from the sport.
Others went ahead to enquire whether officials involved in the leak, including the world body’s top brass including Weiss should resign due over the fiasco that immortalized what was a rip-roaring Berlin 2009 for all the wrong reasons.
Ordered to undergo a gender test, Semenya who was then reported to be undergoing treatment for her inter-sex condition, did not run again for 11 months when she went on a self-imposed exile from the sport that turned her into a pariah overnight - a figure of scorn, derision and subject of crude jokes- before being cleared to run against women on July 6, 2010.
Two years after Berlin, Weiss, the quiet Frenchman who was the chief scandal firefighter stepped down from the role he rose to in 2006 ahead of Daegu 2011 and later played a pivotal role in unearthing inside details of the biggest indignity in athletics history when the systematic state-sponsored Russian doping programme became public.
Speaking earlier while waiting for the press conference to start, Jepkosgei and Meadows made no secret to reporters from their countries of feeling cheated out of bigger medals by an athlete they felt did not deserve to compete against them due to the advantage she enjoyed owing to her condition.
Some of their comments and descriptions of Semenya were so acerbic that sensibly, no journalist present, ever published because after all, there was the general consensus in the international Media Tribune that the athlete who had won the Africa Junior Championships just a month before Berlin had been thrown under the bus by blundering officials and she did not set out to compete unjustly.
Almost a decade later, Semenya, now 27, and other hyperandrogenic athletes continue to raise a storm in athletics and the issue of how to deal with such cases was one of the subjects of the landmark 213th IAAF Council Meeting that concluded in Birmingham, United Kingdom last month.
Since coming to power in August 2015, IAAF President Sebastian Coe has embarked on a four-pillar plan to repair the tattered image of the sport in an attempt to level the playing field and give all competitors an equal crack at glory.
While much global focus is on doping, the issue of hyperandrogenic athletes and switch of allegiance are other key agents of an uneven competitive field.
Semenya went on to retain her 800m title at the Daegu 2011 Worlds before winning her nation a first Olympic track gold since the end of segregation at London 2012 but the IAAF stepped in to put in place rules that barred female athletes with her condition from competition until they artificially lowered high male hormonal levels medically.
As a result, the South African could not hit the heights during the Moscow 2013 and Beijing 2015 Worlds where the women 800m title was won by Kenya’s Eunice Sum and Belarussian Marina Arzamasova in that order until Indian sprinter, Dutee Chand, who has the same condition challenged the IAAF rules at the Court of Arbitration for Sports and won, suspending them for two years.
“In July 2015 the Court of Arbitration for Sport asked the IAAF to provide further evidence as to the degree of performance advantage that hyperandrogenic female athletes have over athletes with normal testosterone levels.
“Based on the evidence that’s been collected, Council approved a request to revise the competition regulations for track events whose distances range from 400m up to and including one mile.
“Following some further drafting the regulations will be communicated to CAS before being released. It is anticipated that the regulations to go into effect on 1 November 2018,” the IAAF wrote on their website this week after the Council - the supreme decision making organ in the sport-accepted the draft new Hyperandrogenic Regulations.
President Coe was keen to stress that no hyperandrogenic athlete had cheated their way to victory like drug cheats but it was the responsibility of the governing body to ensure a level playing field.
Having been accused of unfairly targeting women under the old set of rules, the IAAF chief said the draft new guidelines would apply to both male and female athletes.
After the rules were suspended, Semenya stormed back to win women 800m gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics and at last year’s London 2017 Worlds, inviting more furious debate in international media that questioned the veracity of her victories with some articles even branding her-maliciously- as a cheat.
Last year, the IAAF published a report from a study conducted by the British Journal of Sports Medicine that detailed Hyperandrogenism Regulations.
“Among other things, the study found that in certain events female athletes with high testosterone levels benefit from a 1.8 per cent to 4.5 per cent competitive advantage over female athletes with lower testosterone levels,” the IAAF said at the time.
Should the new policy be adopted; regulations that will limit testosterone levels in female athletes by November this year mean Semenya will either have to take medication that will bring her body’s levels down, or quit the sport.
There is little denial that when running in her condition Semenya is virtually untouchable when fit.