POSTED: April 11th 2011

JOHN GOODBODY: New guidelines mean real test for Semenya is yet to come

THE JOHN GOODBODY COLUMN / An authoritative and exclusive series from Sports Features Communications

LONDON, Apr 11: Is Caster Semenya a woman or a man? How do you define the different sexes? Should she be allowed to compete in international competition?

Those were just some of the questions raised when the South African athlete swept home to the women’s 800m title in the 2009 World Championships. Her critics said that her running ability derived from male physical characteristics and certainly the controversy overshadowed both her victory and also the Championships.

The issue became an extremely contentious and sometimes ill-informed debate. However, more than 18 months later and after two conferences featuring some of the world’s leading authorities, the International Olympic Committee agreed last week to set up clear rules on the eligibility of those female athletes with hyperandrogenism in women’s competitions. And it recommended that international sports federations should adopt the same principles.

The decision has pleased Dr Liz Ferris, a long-time campaigner on the issue and vice-president of The Olympians, who describes it as “a step in the right direction.”

Ferris, a 1960 Olympic diving bronze medallist, was a successful and leading campaigner for a change in the rules on sex eligibility in the 1990s.

She defended Semenya more than 18 months ago, although she admitted she did not know any of Semenya’s medical details, saying:”From everything that I have read and heard she is a woman. She was brought up as a girl. She lives as a woman. She should be allowed to compete.”

The IOC, which abandoned the relatively simple but misleading chromosone test more than a decade ago, last week emphasised that some women did develop male-like body characteristics due to an overproduction of male sex hormones, androgens.

Sports distinction

The androgenic effects on the human body, of course, explain why men perform better than women in most sports and why there is a distinction between male and female competition in most sports.

Now the IOC has stated that a female recognised in law should be eligible to compete in female competitions provided that she has androgen levels below the male range, as shown by the serum concentration of testosterone.

Alternatively, if it is within the male range – and this is the key phrase, she has an androgen resistance such that she derives no competitive advantage from such levels. This evaluation will be carried out on an anonymous basis by a panel of experts.

The athlete may refer herself to the panel or she may have an excessive level of testosterone, which can be revealed through a standard doping test. What the panel will not do - as Professor Arne Ljungqvist, the chairman of the IOC medical commission, emphasised - is “to take any notice of fingers pointed by rivals.”

Ferris said that Professor Ljunqvist had done “an amazing job” in achieving a consensus in such a difficult area after the conferences with scientists and experts in medical and human rights, sports lawyers, female athlete and a representative appointed by the Organisation Intersex International.

“The bottom line”, she says, “is does this person have a level of androgen equivalent to a male athlete and is this functional?”

If it isn’t then the individual can compete. If it is functional then the athlete will be informed of the conditions she would be required to meet should she want to become eligible again.

The question now is whether Semenya and indeed other athletes, whose names rightly may never be known, will be able to compete in events such as 2012 Olympics.

** JOHN GOODBODY covered the 2008 Olympics for The Sunday Times, his 11th successive Summer Games and is the author of the audio book A History of the Olympics, read by Barry Davies, the BBC commentator. He was Sports News Correspondent of The Times 1986-2007, for whom he received journalistic awards in all three decades on the paper, including Sports Reporter of The Year in 2001

Keywords · John Goodbody · Semenya · IAAF · IOC · Ferris

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