Semenya issue still casts shadow over athletics
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