Bad science won’t undo Semenya

There are times when patriotic fervour overrides reason. This is not one of those times.

The decision by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) to introduce new regulations governing the participation of women athletes has, as expected, not been welcomed on South African shores.

There is no fathomable course in which they would have been, in truth. For much of the public, the new rules are simply the culmination of a decade-long attempt to stifle one of the country’s best and most consistent runners. Caster Semenya is a specific victim of a broad path that would see intersex individuals, or those with a difference of sexual development, rigorously monitored and forced to lower, and then maintain for six months, their testosterone levels to five nanomoles a litre (nmol/l). A competitive death sentence, most experts say.

The IAAF believes that women athletes with testosterone levels exceeding what they consider the “normal” female range have an unfair competitive advantage. In their latest justification document, they insist studies have proven that those with a level above 5nmol/1, whether from doping or natural reasons, will enjoy a minimum of 9% performance advantage.

Even to the layperson’s eyes, what the IAAF has given us is incomplete, insufficient and lacking reason. Fortunately, there is recourse available and it will be interesting to see in the next few weeks how the situation unfolds.

Sport Minister Tokozile Xasa has been vocal on the issue, dismissing it as racist, sexist and homophobic.

A ministry representative told the Mail & Guardian that Xasa is arranging to meet President Cyril Ramaphosa and expects him to take up the matter. Athletics South Africa (ASA) announced on Thursday that after consultation with the minister, and other role players, it would challenge the “skewed” regulations. The federation said it would first bring up the issue with the IAAF and failing that would approach the Court of Arbitration of Sport (CAS).

“ASA once again takes the opportunity to re-affirm our support for all our athletes who may be affected by this new ruling,” the federation said in a statement.

South Africa’s olympic sports body, Sascoc, which has been in consultation with ASA, told the M&G it was “concerned that decisions have been taken by the IAAF without taking all factors into consideration”. It promised to further engage the relevant organisations and “conduct a detailed analysis into the
ruling and the debate around such”.

Law professor Steve Cornelius told the M&G that he’d “be surprised if this thing just went to bed and continued. I don’t think we’ve seen the start of it yet”.

Cornelius made headlines this week after his resignation letter to IAAF president Lord Sebastian Coe was circulated on social media. In it he accused the organisation of acting unethically and said he could not, in good conscience, be a part of it.

Appointed to sit on a new disciplinary structure only four months ago, it would probably become his duty at some stage to enforce the new regulations. Should a dispute arise involving an athlete suspected of being beyond the testosterone limit, he would have to apply a rule he says he is deeply uncomfortable with.

“Just from an ethical and moral point of view, I can’t be part of it so I had to speak out against it,” Cornelius said. “I won’t be required to enforce regulations that I feel are manifestly unfair and most likely unlawful in most parts of the civilised world.”

It looks almost certain that the issue will find its way to the CAS. Whether it be Sascoc, Semenya or another organisation that takes it there remains to be seen. This week, Canada’s athletics federation decried the situation, insisting it wouldn’t hold up in a Canadian court, an indication that a would-be challenger might not even hail from South Africa.


Once the case does arrive before the CAS, the IAAF will likely come under severe attack on two points, the first being inconsistencies in its implementation of its own research.

The organisation’s resolution is based largely on a 2017 study that used data from the 2011 and 2013 World Championships. It concluded: “Female athletes with high free testosterone levels have a significant competitive advantage over those with low free testosterone in 400m, 400m hurdles, 800m, hammer throw, and pole vault.”

Yet the practical implementation fails to mirror that finding. The 1 500m event has found its way into the regulated list alongside the 400m, 400m hurdles and 800m, whereas the hammer throw and pole vault have not. The IAAF has offered no explanation for either the omissions or inclusion and this is largely what has pumped oxygen into the suspicions that we are watching a malicious missile intended for Semenya.

“She is the No1 female athlete in the world over 800m and won the 1500m as well at the recent Commonwealth Games,” Sascoc told the M&G. “So, Caster falls into the category as an athlete who will be affected and it’s only natural that in an instance like this, we are disappointed with the IAAF stance and are defending her. Caster has never engaged in any performance-enhancing activities.”

Cornelius finds the discrepancy puzzling. “I try to avoid the argument that this is targeted at Semenya,” he says. “But it makes it difficult to actually stick to that position, because why is it that it’s only the events that she participates in? Or that she could potentially participate in? And that’s part of the dishonesty in this process, I don’t think that this is really an honest attempt to level the playing field. I really think there’s something sinister behind this.”

Study ethics

Equally in dispute are the scientific methods used in the studies the IAAF draw upon.

After Indian sprinter Dutee Chand challenged the previous attempt at introducing hyperandrogous regulations, the CAS ordered in 2015 that the IAAF had two years to provide further substantiating evidence to avoid them being declared void.

Key to their argument is the ability to prove that athletes with higher testosterone enjoy a significantly higher performance advantage. They claim to have done so. “Taking all available knowledge and data into account, the experts estimate that the ergogenic advantage in having circulating testosterone levels in the normal male range rather than in the normal female range is greater than 9%,” the IAAF wrote.

Almost immediately, questions were raised over whether they had actually proved this 9%. Prominent sport scientist Ross Tucker has commented much in the past about the need for testosterone regulations, but has spent the past week criticising the IAAF’s methodology. Immediately after last week’s announcement he wrote: “If the new policy faces a legal challenge, this is an obvious point of contention — a 9% advantage is all good and well, but where has it actually been found?”

Cornelius also takes serious issue with the evidence offered: “To start with there’s a lot of scientific debate that show the level of 5nmol/l has no scientific basis … And the problem with these studies is they use data that is contradictory. The IAAF tries to say that there’s a consensus in the medical community. There’s no consensus in the medical community. The only people that support this always involve someone that is or was involved in the IAAF.

“So this reminds me of the tobacco industry where they would publish studies that say tobacco is not harmful to your health. Just from an ethical point of view, if you go to court, you can’t rely on studies that you conducted yourself. The IAAF conducts them so there’s no transparency and, frankly, we don’t know if all the women that participated in these studies agreed to this.”

What’s next?

Amid all the noise, Semenya has largely reserved her opinion. She has declined to give interviews and has offered only a glimpse into her thoughts through tweets: “God made me the way I am and I accept myself. I am who I am and I am proud of myself,” she wrote.

The new rules, due to be implemented in November, are unlikely to ruffle an athlete who has spent her career under the microscope of legitimacy questions. She takes to the track on Friday in the Diamond League season opener in Doha, Qatar, seeking to better her 1 500m time of 4:00.71 — already a South African record.

While she can run, she will run. And we will watch.

A challenge to the IAAF’s regulations has begun, and we will wait to see who else picks up the metaphorical baton of responsibility.

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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