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10 June 2010

What next for Caster?

Reports say Caster Semenya may return after being cleared to compete as a woman. This, after months of serious negotiation and behind-the-scenes activity. Dr Ross Tucker comments.

Later today, it is being reported, Caster Semenya will hold a press conference to announce, in all likelihood, that she will be returning to the sport having been cleared to compete as a woman.  This brings, potentially, to a close, many months of what must have been serious negotiation and behind-the-scenes activity to discuss whether the 800m world champion can compete legally as a female. Dr Ross Tucker comments.

My opinion on this has been stated many times, and I believe that the women's 800m event will become the least watched of all events if Semenya is going to compete with the same dominance she showed in Berlin. 
 
It is quite clear that she will be unbeatable, and should in fact knock up to seconds off a drug-heavy world record that has stood for 27 years.  Because TV viewers and followers of the sport know this, her performances are guaranteed to be met with huge skepticism. 
 
People, who are mostly decent, will also acknowledge that she has been through a very trying time, an incredibly unfair scrutiny that no one deserves.

That sympathy will not extend to her if she continues to dominate the sport with what seems clear is a hormonal 'advantage' as a result of some condition we may never know about, but which seems to push her into the grey area between male and female, if not right across it.

Has medical action been taken?

The reason I say "if" she continues to dominate is that I am not convinced that some medical action has in fact not been taken. 
 
I believe it has, and I believe this has been the source of the delay.  If this was simple to dismiss and to allow her to compete, then the IAAF would have done so in October last year, because they'd have known the results of the tests by then, in great detail. 
 
Thinking about it would not take a further eight months.  Getting expert opinion would not take eight months. Even dealing with bombastic and aggressive politicians, and lawyers, would not take eight months.

So the delay can only be put down to negotiating some kind of compromise between allowing Semenya to compete right away, and wanting surgical intervention to remove testes (allegedly present). 
 
The IAAF wanted the latter, the lawyers the former.  The compromise may have been medical/chemical and I suspect her response to it has been the delay.

I read a very interesting interview with one of the promoters of a massive Diamond League meeting, in which he said that if Semenya was cleared by the IAAF, then it would be because the authority was sure that her participation would be on fair grounds.  The long delay, I believe, represents their efforts to ensure fair grounds. 

How will she race?

What will be very interesting then is to see how she races.  Will she be as untouchable, and how will her level evolve over time?  Depending on what she announces later today, we may not know enough to even understand what is happening - there have been many rumours around other athletes, most notably Pamela Jelimo, who has dropped dramatically down in level since her 2008 dominance.  But no one knows the reason, there is only speculation.

If Semenya slows down a similar amount, then the rumours will be far more targeted and specific.  There will be no doubt among athletics followers about the cause of a poor performance.  She will be scrutinised and questioned for the wrong reasons. 
 
And it will be interesting to see if she reveals anything at all to give some kind of 're-assurance', or whether she will simply say "I'm cleared, now I'm running", without any revelation of the last nine months of work.
 
The global reaction

One other thing that will happen, here in South Africa, is that politicians who had found other meaningless sports to pursue (for example, the Springbok logo) after the initial hype died down will now re-emerge and proclaim "victory". 

The Minister of Sport, who very diplomatically declared World War 3 on the IAAF for questioning Semenya, has already said that "we won".

Sadly, Mr Minister, nobody wins in these "wars", and time will show that for Semenya as well, as her career is destined to go one of two ways. 

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 www.sportsscientists.com)
 

 
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