18 January 2010

Caster: advantage or surgery?

Caster Semenya will reportedly race in the local season. Is she proving that she has no advantage, or has she undergone medical treatment? Dr Ross Tucker comments.

Reports this week claimed that Caster Semenya will indeed race in the local season, which starts in a few weeks. Health24’s FitnessDoc, Dr Ross Tucker comments.

As has been the case on numerous occasions in this ongoing saga, every day brings with it more denials and confusion. 

First, the IAAF and Semenya's own lawyers denied that any decision clearing her had been reached. To them, the matter is still under discussion and they will only comment once the decision is made. 

Then ASA acted by distancing themselves from the issue, saying that it is a matter for Semenya and her family, and that they have not received any clearance from the IAAF. 

Not suspended, and therefore eligible to compete

Legally, of course, the IAAF have not banned her.  No suspension was ever handed down, and so in theory, she can run, as ASA recognised at the recent launch of the local track season. 

However, there is more to this than a simple legal issue, and were she to race locally, it would once again stir the hornet's next of allegation and counter-allegation that erupted last year in August. 

Unfortunately, people have not seemed to recognise that a failure of a ban is not necessarily an endorsement of her eligibility to compete. 

Meanwhile, her coach has clearly decided that he will plan the season without factoring this in, and perhaps this is all he can do - the alternative is to sit around waiting for a verdict, by which time 2010 may be beyond salvation as a competitive season.

What's best for Semenya?

So Semenya can go ahead and run, because legally, there's no barrier.  Whether this is the best for her does not seem to factor in the decisions of those in charge.  

Remember, prior to Berlin, the medical advice was that she should not run pending further testing, and this was specifically to protect her against the potential fallout.  That advice was ignored. 

Now, five months later, a similar situation exists - there is no concrete reason why she should not compete.  But given the doubt, the enormous question mark over her, does it really make sense to put her back into competition? 

Is it really in her best interests to run until the verdict arrives, or is the prudent, wise approach not to wait on that decision and then run without any questions at all (assuming this is possible)?

Is Semenya doing an 'Oscar Pistorius'?

The latest round of statements and counter-statements does suggest some interesting possibilities, however. 

As I see it, the latest reports strongly suggest that Semenya is intending to run again - her coach may be wrong about her being clear to compete right away, but he certainly wouldn't speak so openly of her plans if she did not have the intention of running again.  

To plan a season, and then communicate it, means that the option of early retirement is not on the table - for now.

This then has a couple of interesting implications.  Because she has decided to attempt to run again, there are only two possibilities:

Firstly, she has (or is in the process of), with the help of her lawyers, managed to cast enough doubt over the possibility that she has a performance advantage that the IAAF  have to allow her to compete without any requirement for surgery or medical treatment. 

She will have effectively done the same as Oscar Pistorius, but behind closed doors, and that is to force the IAAF to prove that her condition (assuming it exists) gives her a performance advantage. 

Failing to do that would mean that the IAAF would have to allow her to compete.  If this scenario is the case, then all that is still needed is an announcement, but I cannot see the reason for the delay.

Has she had surgery? 

Secondly, there is the possibility that she has gone ahead with the surgery to remove the alleged internal testes, and now the way is clear for her to compete. The question is when? 

And this may be the debate currently holding up the announcement.  We know from IAAF policy that a male can undergo sex re-assignment surgery, becoming female, and then be eligible to compete as a female after two years of hormone replacement therapy.  

The same standard, applied to Semenya, means that if she has gone with the medical option and removed the testes, then hormone replacement therapy (with primarily estrogen), combined with a mandatory period of non-competition, would allow her to return to action without any questions over her eligibility.

Now, the question is, does she sit out for two years, or is that period shorter because she is not a 'male-to-female' re-assignment?  

Unquestionably, she was able to derive some physiological effects of testosterone, but not all, which would suggest the period should be shorter than two years.  Is this the reason for the delay in an announcement? 

Second scenario more likely 

There are all kinds of physiological effects of reducing the testosterone levels - changes in muscle mass, body fat distribution, strength and recovery ability, but those are speculative at this stage, best left until the topic is directly in the news.

For now, all I am left with is the thought that either she is proving that she has no advantage from whatever condition existed, or she has gone ahead and cleared the way to compete according to IAAF policy by having medical treatment. 

All that remains in this second scenario (which I find more likely) is to agree upon the time to return to competition.  And of course, if this is the case, then the statements made by coaches and officials that she will run locally suddenly become even more irresponsible, because the IAAF may very well return with a decision that says that she can run from the first of August, or some other date in the future. 

For now, those in positions of influence would do well to hold out and make sure they're not responsible for producing Episode 2.0 of the same drama we saw last year.

If I am missing anything, please feel free to comment.


Dr Ross Tucker, is Health24’s FitnessDoc and has a Ph.D. in Exercise Physiology from the University of Cape Town and a Post-Graduate degree in Sports Management from the UCT's Faculty of Commerce. He is currently employed at the University of Cape Town and Sports Science Institute of South Africa, and works as a consultant to various sporting teams, including South African Sevens, Canoeing, Rowing and Triathlon SA. He also blogs on



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