Friday, August 19, 2016

Update on Caster Semenya's quest for 800 meter gold

Last Wednesday the South African runner qualified comfortably for the final in the Olympic 800 meter race, her specialty. I continue to marvel at the difference in tone from major media since she first broke through in international track in 2009, dominating as an 18-year-old. Back then, too many commentators made her a tabloid freak. This year, Jere Longman in the New York Times attempts an understanding perspective on the issues raised by her suspected hyperandrogenic body. So what if she simply has naturally higher level of the hormone testosterone than most other women? The Court of Arbitration for Sport realized it could not say.

Did elevated testosterone provide women with a 1 percent competitive advantage? Three percent? More? Available science could not say, the court ruled. It gave the I.A.A.F. two years to try to discern that advantage. The ruling was based on the case of Dutee Chand, a sprinter from India.

The court ruling was the correct one.

As the arbitration panel noted, science has not conclusively shown that elevated testosterone provides women with more of a significant competitive edge than factors like nutrition, access to coaching and training facilities, and other genetic and biological variations.

All Olympians have some exceptional traits. That is why they are elite athletes. A level playing field for everyone remains elusive, perhaps unattainable.

... In a sport once dominated by white Europeans, said Madeleine Pape of Australia, who competed against Semenya in the 2009 world championships, women who have fought so hard for the right to compete and for sustainable financial support can feel threatened by the rising success of a faster competitor. Especially, Pape said, if that athlete is non-gender-conforming and is married to another woman, as Semenya is.

In truth, [women's marathon world record holder Paula] Radcliffe is more of an outlier than Semenya. Radcliffe’s marathon record of 2 hours 15 minutes 25 seconds is about 10 percent slower than the fastest men’s time of 2:02:57. Meanwhile, Semenya’s best performance at 800 meters of 1 minute 55.33 seconds, which is not the world record, is about 12 percent slower than the men’s record of 1:40.91. ...

I remember when women had to fight to be allowed to compete in races longer than sprint distances in the Olympics; the years when women running hard and far was a novelty weren't so long ago. The 800 meter distance was not added to the meet until 1960; longer races had to wait another couple of decades. As distances were added to major track meets, records fell. While men will almost always have a muscle advantage, there is no reason to think that women's records can't fall further, though that may take an athlete with a rare mix of genetics, training, and physical and emotional grit.

I'll be rooting for Semenya to make history in Rio on Saturday night, 8:15 EDT. I'll also be rooting for a world that can appreciate her unique abilities and, whether she wins or loses, marvel at her with respect and grace.

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