/ 19 February 2019

Meet the experts who will determine Semenya’s fate

Caster Semenya
Caster Semenya (C)is in Switzerland this week to appeal new testosterone regulations that the IAAF attempted to put in place in April last year. (Getty)

Thanks to a trigger-happy International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), we have learned the identity of the experts it intends to call at Caster Semenya’s Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) challenge.

The Olympic gold medallist is in Switzerland this week to appeal new testosterone regulations that the IAAF attempted to put in place in April last year.

The athlete’s team of lawyers released its own list on Tuesday morning.

Both sides will call on prominent researchers, professors, psychologists and legal experts. The evidence they present will play a major part in determining the manner in which Semenya competes going forward.

These are some of the leading cases that will likely be made.

This is the team of experts that Semenya’s side will call up:

Dr Alun Williams – Director of the Sports Genomics Laboratory at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Williams has published multiple academic papers examining the relationship between performance and genetic differences that arise in athletes.

Previous research that examined various gene variants concluded that while they might “influence muscle performance and metabolism in humans”, there was no evidence of enhanced performance in endurance running.

It’s likely he will argue before CAS that the genes that predispose an individual to hyperandrogenism, as in Semenya’s case, do not offer an inherent advantage on the track – especially in the longer 1 500m. It’s also important to note that the 1500m event was initially seen as an odd inclusion into the new IAAF regulations by many experts because it was not identified as problematic in their own research)

Professor Eric Vilain – Geneticist specialised in gender-based and endocrine genetics.

Vilain has a long history of discussing and analysing the regulation of athletes with DSD – including a stint consulting with the International Olympic Committee. In recent years he has been hyper critical of the apparent haphazard manner in which the IAAF has rolled out testosterone regulations and is presumably equally unimpressed by the latest attempt.

“CAS wants IAAF to demonstrate the entirety of the difference between male and female athletic performance is androgenous testosterone,” he told Sports Illustrated in 2016. “That is not going to be proven, because it’s not true. There are other factors. My testosterone level is higher than Jackie Joyner-Kersee’s, but she would defeat me in a race for many other reasons.”

Dr Lih-Mei Liao – A licensed clinical psychologist and health psychologist in the UK.

Semenya’s lawyers highlight that Liao’s DSD research has “helped highlight the negative impact of controversial medical interventions to alter women’s healthy bodies”.

If the new IAAF regulations stick, the gold medallist will have no choice but to conduct hormone therapy to lower her testosterone levels. Liao will likely present her extensive research into the potential negative social and psychological outcomes that result from such procedures.

Dr Payoshni Mitra – Researcher, activist and has worked with multiple hyperandrogenic athletes.

Mitra is no stranger to calling out the IAAF for hypocrisy on what she deems to be nonsensical gender and testosterone regulations. She will probably argue before CAS that there is no basis for regulating athletes like Semenya who are simply naturally-gifted.

“Using the same logic,” she said in 2014. “The IOC and the IAAF should provide a level playing field to male athletes like Yohan Blake, Asafa Powell and Tyson Gay and therefore should either ban Usain Bolt from competing, or recommend that he will only be eligible to play when he cuts his legs off a few inches so that he does not have any unfair advantage on the basis of his height or long strides!”

This is the team of experts that the IAAF will be calling up:

Dr Angelica Lindén Hirschberg — Professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the department of women’s and children’s health at the Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm.

Hirschberg’s area of focus is reproductive endocrinology which is the study of reproductive medicine aimed at addressing hormone functioning in reproduction and infertility. Her research is focused on reproductive disorders and gonadal development in women.

This is not the first time that Hirschberg is serving as an expert witness for the IAAF. In 2015, she testified in the case of Indian sprinter Dutee Chand who argued that a IAAF testosterone regulation, that women athletes must have less than 10 nanomoles of testosterone per litre of blood (10nmol/L), unfairly discriminated against women like her with higher levels.

Hirschberg noted that she had never seen such a high level (10nmol/L) of the testosterone in an individual with healthy ovaries and normal adrenal glands. Semenya’s testosterone levels are higher than the prescripted 10nmol/L.

David Handelsman — Professor of reproductive endocrinology and andrology and the University of Sydney. Handelsman is the head of the department of andrology at the Concord Hospital and director of the ANZAC Medical Research Institute. He is an expert in male reproductive health and doping in sport.

In his 2018 paper titledCirculating Testosterone as the Hormonal Basis of Sex Differences in Athletic Performance, Handelsman says after studying testosterone levels using mass spectrometry (a measure of the masses within a sample), he believes that the IAAF’s regulations should indeed say that women athletes must have 5.0 nmol/L or less. He writes that in reaching this conclusion, he made an allowance for “women with mild hyperandrogenism, notably women with polycystic ovary syndrome (who are overrepresented in elite athletics)”. Semenya has levels above what Handelsman prescribes.

Joanna Harper — Medical physicist for over 30 years in Portland, Oregon. Harper is also a long time athletics competitor and an adviser to the International Olympic Committee.

Harper was designated male at birth but started hormone therapy in 2004 as part of her transitioning from male to female. Her area of focus is on analysing transgenders sports performance.

Nine months after initiating hormone therapy in 2004as part of her transition, Harper says she was running 12% slower – the difference between male and female runners – and this triggered her interest in the science of gender diverse athletes.

In an interview with the Guardian, Harper said: “If you’re competing in the women’s division, you should do so with women’s hormone levels. I understand just how much difference they make.”

Harper’s running speed was slower as she took hormones to lower her testosterone, bringing her to a speed that she says is for women athletes. Her testimony is likely to be that Semenya’s testosterone levels should be brought down to level the playing field for other female athletes.

Doriane Lambelet Coleman — Professor of law at Duke. Coleman is an expert in anti-doping rules and has practiced, taught, and written about sports law.

Coleman’s current work focuses on the differences between biological sex and gender identity and the implications on sport and medicine.

In a New York Times article, Coleman wrote that “pretending that the female body doesn’t exist or that we can’t define the boundaries between men’s and women’s bodies is a bad idea for many reasons.

“Replacing traditional sex classifications with classifications based on gender identity certainly has steep costs in contexts like competitive sport, where the likelihood of success is precisely about sex-specific biology.”

Coleman also asserted in the article that “advocates for intersex athletes like to say that sex doesn’t divide neatly. This may be true in gender studies departments, but at least for competitive sports purposes, they are simply wrong.”

Coleman believes that athletes in the women’s category should have the required levels of testosterone to give them the “chance to develop their athletic talents and reap the benefits”, so with Semenya having higher levels than are prescribed by the IAAF, Coleman will argue that Semenya needs to lower her levels to compete.