Se­menya is­sue still casts shadow over ath­let­ics

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Athletics - Oliver Brown CHIEF SPORTS FEA­TURE WRITER in Doha

She might be 4,000 miles from Doha, pur­su­ing a fresh am­bi­tion to be­come a league foot­baller in Jo­han­nes­burg, but Caster Se­menya still cast a spell over last night’s 800me­tres fi­nal. Af­ter the de­ci­sion to ex­clude ath­letes with el­e­vated testos­terone lev­els at this dis­tance, it was fun­da­men­tally a dif­fer­ent race. At the Rio Olympics, the event pro­duced an in­ter­sex podium, with Se­menya tak­ing gold ahead of Bu­rundi’s Francine Niyon­s­aba and Mar­garet Wambui of Kenya. Here in Doha, the terms of en­gage­ment were med­i­cally and po­lit­i­cally re­drawn, as the In­ter­na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Ath­let­ics Fed­er­a­tions sought to show that it had lev­elled the play­ing field.

This time, it was Uganda’s Hal­imah Nakaayi who prof­ited from the changes, the 24-year-old con­triv­ing a stun­ning late burst to out­run Amer­i­cans Raevyn Rogers and Ajee Wil­son. Three sum­mers ago, Nakaayi did not even qual­ify for the fi­nal in Rio, fin­ish­ing only sixth in her semi. Her win­ning time last night of 1min 58.04sec was al­most four se­conds out­side Se­menya’s per­sonal best. As a con­test, the women’s 800m is now un­recog­nis­able from the decade of Se­menya’s dom­i­nance since 2009, when she first burst to global at­ten­tion with gold in Berlin.

Un­for­tu­nately, ran­cour per­sists that the lat­est rules are less a de­fence against the in­tegrity of ath­let­ics than a hit job on Se­menya.

Af­ter all, the re­stric­tions on DSD ath­letes – those with dif­fer­ences in sex­ual de­vel­op­ment – are con­fined solely to dis­tances be­tween 400m and a mile, the very events in which Se­menya spe­cialises.

In her na­tive South Africa, emo­tions re­main raw. When Bri­tain’s Lynsey Sharp failed to ad­vance from her 800m heat in Doha, Se­menya’s dis­ci­ples pounced. On an evening news bul­letin, the an­chor be­gan the seg­ment on Sharp’s fail­ure by crow­ing: “We don’t ever like to re­joice in some­one else’s mis­for­tune, but we can make an ex­cep­tion in this case.” The cor­re­spon­dent replied: “She’s in­cred­i­bly me­diocre, is Lynsey Sharp. You want to go on na­tional tele­vi­sion and dis­re­spect the great­est 800m run­ner of all time, Caster Se­menya?”

For a start, Jarmila Kra­tochvilova, who set the world record for Cze­choslo­vakia 36 years ago, might quib­ble with the anoint­ment of Se­menya. But the real point is how toxic Se­menya’s sidelin­ing has ren­dered the de­bate about her eli­gi­bil­ity. The sub­ject of in­ter­sex ath­letes cov­ers a bi­o­log­i­cal spec­trum of shades of grey, but the very men­tion of Se­menya’s name con­tin­ues to di­vide peo­ple. Some be­lieve she is a saviour. Oth­ers be­smirch her as a cheat.

Sharp, for her part, does not de­serve the vitriol. She is well-read in the sub­tleties of DSD: in­deed, she even wrote the dis­ser­ta­tion for her law de­gree on hy­per­an­dro­genism. Sixth in Rio, she em­braced the two other near­ly­women, Poland’s Joanna Jozwik and Cana­dian Melissa Bishop, and said: “We know how each other feel, but it’s out of our con­trol, we’re pretty much re­liant on the peo­ple at the top sort­ing it out.” At the time, it was hardly a good look, with one clus­ter of ath­letes ex­com­mu­ni­cat­ing another.

But Sharp, un­like her at­tack­ers on South African TV, has never couched her reser­va­tions about Se­menya in the lan­guage of per­sonal abuse.

The same could not be said of Jozwik, who said in Rio that she was glad to be “the first Euro­pean, the sec­ond white” to cross the line. Or of Italy’s Elisa Cusma, who de­clared 10 years ago, when the Se­menya con­tro­versy broke: “She is not a woman. She is a man.”

Se­menya, un­able to race at this level again with­out ad­just­ing her nat­u­ral bi­ol­ogy, can le­git­i­mately feel that she has made a heavy sac­ri­fice – es­pe­cially as the row over in­ter­sex run­ners has still not gone away. True, the out­come of the 800m is now less pre­dictable, but only yes­ter­day, Ami­na­tou Seyni, of Niger, con­firmed she was banned from com­pet­ing in the 400m un­der the re­vised testos­terone reg­u­la­tions but still at lib­erty to run the 200, where she stands a re­al­is­tic chance of win­ning a medal. Do Seyni’s hor­mones sud­denly cease to have an ef­fect upon her ath­letic per­for­mance over half the dis­tance? No­body has yet pro­vided an an­swer. It is an odd and trou­bling sit­u­a­tion, which Se­menya’s ab­sence has done noth­ing to re­solve.

Stun­ning: Uganda’s Hal­imah Nakaayi is vic­to­ri­ous in the 800m fi­nal

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