POSTED: July 5th 2017
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NEIL WILSON: No level playing field in Olympic sport

 © Bigstock
© Bigstock

THE NEIL WILSON COLUMN / An exclusive, authoritative series from Sports Features Communications

(SFC) Let's be blunt - life is not fair. If life had a level playing field we would all be as rich as Trump. It is never going to happen because it is not possible.

So we come this week to the matter of the IAAF-sponsored research into hyperandrogenism which it re-produced from a paper in the current issue of the British Journal of Sports Medicine under the head-line Levelling the Playing Field in Female Sport.

That research was sponsored by the IAAF in an effort to overturn the decision of the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruling that suspended its regulation limiting female competition to those with a testosterone level of under 10nmol/L.

That is the arbitrary level that the IAAF arrived at on scientific advice. They arrived at it when it was established that 99% of women are below 3.08 and as few as 16 in 1000 women would exceed a level of 7.5. By adding 2.5 they established a level that only a tiny number of intersex women would exceed.

That tiny number had too great an advantage, the IAAF decided. They must take a drug to reduce their testosterone, the first occasion in history when sport has forced athletes to take drugs.

CAS outlawed that decision because it ruled there was insufficient proof of a performance advantage. This week's report will form the IAAF response when it appeals that decision this month.

The case was brought on behalf of Indian sprinter Dutee Chand but it would most affect several runners at 800 metres, most notably Caster Semenya, Francine Miyonsaba and Margaret Wambui, the three Olympic medallist in Rio suspected of hyperandrogenism.

The BJSM paper claims that the advantage of a naturally elevated testosterone level at 800 metres is 1.8%. Not much in general but decisive at Olympic level, the difference between a medal list and an also-ran. Yet none of the three are among the fastest 10 800 metres  runners of all time.

Oddly, the same paper seems to suggest that no advantage existed at 100 or 200 metres, and that it might even be a disadvantage.

Another problem for the IAAF is that a simple level above 10 does not prove naturally enhanced performance. Apparently science has found another small group with elevated levels whose bodies do not have the capacity to utilise the extra testosterone.

So by levelling the playing field to exclude the one per cent, the IAAF might be unfairly excluding another fraction of the athletic fraternity. General legal opinion seems to be that the IAAF will fail to convince CAS on appeal. One scientific writer opined that the IAAF study "should be greeted with the same scepticism as an Exxon study on climate change..."

Personally I think the IAAF is seeking the impossible. There is no level playing field. There are those with faster twitch muscle fibres who become sprinters and those who are 6ft 6in/1.98m who play basketball. I doubt Kobe Bryant thought long and hard about trying gymnastics.

Respected sports scientist Ross Tucker dismisses these arguments as "whataboutery".  Conversely, it would be reasonable to assume that all elite-level athletes are freaks of nature. All have advantages denied the rest of us, whether it is a steely determination, extra long legs, hand-eye coordination or massive oxygen uptake levels.

My memory goes back to the 1968 Olympic Games and Bob Beamon's long jump. Now there was a freakish performance by a freak of nature, a man who was all legs from ankle to arm-pits. Defending Olympic champion Lynn Davies admitted he gave up all hope after Beamon's initial jump.

 What Davies did not argue was that Beamon's jump was unfair.

Life may have given Semenya a natural advantage in one event denied the majority. But why pick on that single natural advantage for legislation. Why not just accept that life's a lottery. There is no level playing field.

** NEIL WILSON reported his first Olympic Games in Munich in 1972. He has since covered another nine summer and nine winter Olympics for various newspapers, including The Independent and the Daily Mail with whom he has worked for the last 19 years as Athletics and Olympic correspondent. He was Britain's Sports Journalist of the Year in 1984 and is the author of seven books.

****The views expressed are the author's own and do not necessarily represent the views of Sports Features Communications.


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