On Saturday 20th August at approx 2117 we could have a double Olympic Champion.
An athlete achieving what no woman has ever done before.
Olympic history could be made by a woman taking Olympic gold in both the 400m and 800m.
The only athlete to come close to this achievement was Britain’s Ann Packer in 1964. Gold in the 800m and silver in the 400m.
If achieved the headlines won't celebrate this achievement it will focus on whether South Africa's Caster Semenya should be the Women's 400m and 800m Olympic Champion.
I write these thoughts not as a Doctor, scientist or anything of medical standing.
I write to give my opinion as a former World class female athlete.
Before 2009 I knew as much about Intersex athletes as I did about building a car from scratch.
An intersex individual is simply someone born with sex characteristics that do not allow them to be defined as distinctly male or female.
Watching first hand an 18 year old Caster Semenya blow away the field in the 2009 World Championships 800m final in Berlin was amazing. She was amazing. A truly powerful win.
My mind in the stadium that night was immediately taken back to my Junior days and to a former team mate and rival Diane Smith.
1990. The World Junior Championships in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. My first World Juniors aged 15.
Golds for John Galfione of France in the Pole Vault, Yugoslavia’s Dragutin Topic won the High Jump in a World Junior Record of 2m37 and for me? I ran in the 100m final and on the last leg of the 4 x 100m relay where we won a silver. Annabel Soper, Diane Smith, Donna Fraser and me. 44.16s. A cracking little team!
There was only one gold medal for the British Team at that Championships. Diane Smith in the 200m. A Championship Record of 23.10s. The mumblings through out the Championships though were about Diane's physique. I remember it like it was yesterday, not 26 years ago.
Diane was lovely and a big but friendly rival at the time. She had burst onto the scene in 1989 winning the 200m at the English Schools in Wigan in 24.0s, then a year later was World Junior Champion.
Her appearance led to a lot of whispering as Diane was broad shoulder, flat chested with some facial hair.
The talk was rife as to her gender….I felt so sorry for Diane. All she was doing was enjoying her running. Rumours of tests followed… whispers of hormone medication followed … and I never raced her again.
I remember following that year of 1990 she fleetingly came back to compete, but to no great acclaim.
So when Caster Semenya took gold in Berlin seconds ahead of her rivals, all the rumours that had already started in the build up to the final, exploded. Here we go again I thought.
What followed with Caster Semenya post Berlin is well documented.
Gender tests and hungry press. Rumours with those questioning her status as a female.
I genuinely felt so sorry for her in Berlin and the immediate time following those Championships. Let down by those around her. Treated IMO appalling.
Pierre Weiss IAAF Secretary General at the time “ It is clear she is a woman – but maybe not 100%”.
The then IAAF President Lamine Diack “She could have been treated better”.
The full results of the testing supposedly confirmed she had no womb or ovaries and has internal testes, the male sexual organs which produce testosterone. This information stated by several press sources.
Eventually more testing was carried out by the IAAF.
Previous ‘gender tests’ included nude parades in the 1960’s, but then chromosome based tests with a cheek swabs were introduced in the late 1960s. I had this done once in 1989 at 14 when attending the European Juniors in the former Yugoslavia.
‘Gender tests’ were abolished by the IAAF in the early/mid nineties..only then done if suspicion of gender was raised.
Suspicion was raised in 2009 with Caster Semenya so testing was done on female athletes at the 2011 and 2013 World Championships and with females who had Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, a criteria was put in place that the upper limit of testosterone in female athletes mustn't pass 10 nmol/L to compete as a female. 99% of athletes in their testing were below a level of 3.08. The limit was put in place so technically only those who are doping or who are intersex will surpass this.
Females athletes with raised Testosterone levels were put on Testosterone suppressing medication to bring the levels back in line with other female athletes, to make it fair.
Caster Semenya was one. Her results softened….BUT she was still good enough to win silver in the 2011 World Championships and silver in London behind Mariya Savinova, who is currently in the thick of the Russian doping storm.
Last year, she failed to advance beyond the semi-finals in Beijing, and didn't even make the team for the preceding year’s Commonwealth Games.
Many were surprised in July last year as Indian sprinter Dutee Chand, who was due to race in the 2014 Commonwealth Games but was excluded for high Testosterone levels, fought her exclusion on these grounds. She took her case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) and won.
The rules on upper levels of Testosterone were suspended and female athletes were allowed to stop taking medication to lower it.
There was ‘Insufficient evidence for performance benefit’ .
The IAAF have 2 years from that ruling last year to make a better case or CAS will abolish these rules completely.
So since last summer, for female athletes who this ruling applies to, they have been medication free with their natural levels of testosterone.
Caster Semenya won the South African Championships this season doing the treble in the 400m, 800m and 1500m. All in the same afternoon. Looking very easy and controlled doing it.
In Monaco recently Semenya looked in control and within herself running a personal best and national record of 1m 55.33s.
Having watched that race it seems only a matter of time until the long standing World Record of Jamila Kratochvilova, being 1m 53.28 is taken.
She has a personal best this year over 400m of 50.74s and says she will probably double in Rio over the 400m and 800m.
2 golds are very likely in my opinion.
So where do I stand?
I am sure over my athletic career I raced against athletes who fall in this category. My friend and teammate Diane Smith back in 1990 maybe. Indeed, I am sure now in my broadcasting and commentating role I speak of several female athletes who are in the same position as Caster Semenya.
Here is the bottom line.
Just because a situation is deemed awkward, uncomfortable and with some people being unsure of how to deal with it, doesn't mean is shouldn't be handled properly and potentially ignored. Hoping the athletes involved go away sooner rather than later.
This isn't a new phenomenon. Pinki Pramanik, Maria Patino, Stella Walsh…names over the years that are now well documented having had Intersex issues, in times when people wanted them brushed under the carpet. In many cases they were.
If I were still competing and lining up against an athlete who I believed had this advantage, I would be frustrated. Frustrated for myself and the athlete involved. Also I would have been tired of always having to answer questions about it. None of which would have been my fault or their’s.
How ever people live their lives is their business, whatever social context they do this in is acceptable to me….
BUT when it comes to sport, elevated testosterone levels in females has to be unacceptable.
Sport therefore need some rules and some effective policies governing intersex athletes. Currently there are none.
When Caster Semenya wins the 800m in Rio…Drama…and then when she probably backs it up with 400m gold beating Allyson Felix and others there will be more drama.
We will revisit the issue that was first awoken in 2009….but bigger.
Once again through no fault of her own she will be the talk of the town.
This may not be as big an issue to the IAAF as doping at the moment, as it only involves one high profile current athlete, but a finger needs to be pulled out.
If this decision is eventually reversed back by CAS with sufficient evidence from the IAAF next year, then that's a lot of heartache and potentially re shuffling of medal positions that could have been avoided…let alone the continued distress to all the athletes involved….BUT tbf to the IAAF on this one, they had what they and many think is fair in place. The Court of Arbitration for Sport took it away and now are asking them to prove that restrictions should be in place at all.