The IAAF is doing nothing to help an already dodgy reputation for making very odd decisions about athletics.
Caster Semenya, the South African 800m runner and consistent winner, has been told that she must take a form of medication to reduce the amount of testosterone in her body before she can compete again. This testosterone is not something she has artificially added to herself by taking it as a pill, or injecting herself, but the way the IAAF is pronouncing sentence upon her, you would be forgiven for thinking that she has done just that. Her levels of testosterone are entirely within her own body, produced naturally because she has some form of genetic mutation that causes this.
But is this turning her into a man? Is she therefore competing with women unfairly? This is just nonsense, and the most elementary examination of the facts will demonstrate that – together with some imagination. I can’t help feeling that the entire business has been brought about by some of the women who regularly run against her, and lose, crying on the shoulder of Lord Coe, who ought to know better.
Semenya wins her races, but by margins that are no greater than have been the case in the past before she arrived on the scene. She is not winning by 100 metres or even 25 metres. If all that testosterone were really helping her, by giving her male muscle power and perhaps a greater ability to take in and use oxygen, then she would be winning in times and by distances that would not disgrace the best of the 800m male competitors. That is not happening. If she were to compete against the best of the men at her distance – and this is where a little imagining has to be applied – she would be stone last every time. In fact, just look at the numbers. The fastest 800m man (David Rudisha) holds the record at 1.40.91. Caster Semenya’s best time is 1.55.45. That’s a difference of some 15 seconds, more than enough to ensure that she would be passed by every man in the race. She’d be last by about 50 metres.
Caster Semenya is just an extraordinary woman, but she is still a woman, blessed with the advantages of world-beating determination, and willingness to undergo a punishing training regimen that gives her the ability to win. That’s all.
How far is this going to be taken? Usain Bolt should have been disqualified because he has legs that are a lot longer than his competitors? Mo Farah should be forced to take something to slow him down because his turn of speed at the finish of his races is clearly unnatural? And, away from athletics, did anyone seek to penalise the Williams sisters, both built like brick outhouses, from competing against slim and shapely women tennis players and until recently, winning almost everything?
I really hope that Caster Semenya takes the meds she is being forced to take, and then goes on to win everything in sight anyway. I think she will, and she deserves to.
P.S. Today, Wednesday 22nd May, I have just heard an excellent short piece on Radio 4 about the testosterone situation, and it bears out everything above. Having slightly higher than normal but naturally produced testosterone in the body of a woman does not turn her into a man. Does not mean she ever had, or suddenly grew, a pair of balls. Does not mean that she is any more advantaged than a girl who has exceptional fast-twitch muscles for example.