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Sonia O’Sullivan: Women’s 800m running is not a fair race

CAS must make decision in light of study on women with high testosterone levels

South Africa’s Caster Semenya continues to dominate the world of women’s 800 metre running. Photograph: Karim Jaafar/AFP/Getty Images

I got a call from a radio station during the week asking me what I thought about John McEnroe and his comments relating to Serena Williams, the greatest women’s tennis player of all time, dominant in her sport for the last 20 years.

What McEnroe suggested was that if Serena were to play on the men’s tour, she would only be ranked 700th in the world.

This actually made no sense to me, and I’m not sure what exactly McEnroe was even thinking, except that it might help sell his new book.

What was the relevance here? And why would women play against men? It’s not like say running in a road race, where women and men do compete alongside each other, but in completely separate categories.

Men’s tennis and women’s tennis are like apples and oranges. It’s just not comparable, apart from the fact they play with the same racket and balls, and in the same tennis court.

But this also got me wondering again about the issue of male and female categories in athletics, and the grey area of hyperandrogenism, back in the spotlight again this week after the IAAF, the governing body of world athletics, published a study which proved these athletes can receive significant performance-enhancing benefits in competition.

The issue is centred on, though not limited to, Caster Semenya, the South African who continues to dominate the world of women’s 800 metre running. It got me thinking about McEnroe’s suggestion, and if it was applied to Semenya, where she would rank on the current 2017 lists, or even where the women’s 800m world record would be listed.


Maybe more men run 800m than play tennis in the world, but even so, if Williams was ranked 700th in the world, she’d be doing well compared to Semenya, who would barely make the top 8,000 runners over 800m, and the world record would only come in around 5,000 mark.

It also got me thinking that if Semenya and athletes like her do need to be categorised, then they are more likely to fall into the female than the male category.

The problem is finding a solution to the issue surrounding fairness in women’s competition, given the difficulties arising from hyperandrogenism that have been filtering through the sport in recent years.

It’s not a new issue, but came to more global attention in 2009 when Semenya first burst on to the athletics stage when winning the 800m at the World Championships in Berlin with considerable ease, it appeared, showing greater power and strength compared to the other women athletes, even though she was still just 18 years old.

A decision was then taken in 2011 to put in place regulations by the IAAF to create a level playing field using levels of testosterone as a way of determining the classification of women.

These regulations, which required female athletes with testosterone levels more in line with male levels to lower their testosterone levels through medication, were seen by many as being unethical, discriminatory and without scientific backing.

It does seem a little contradictory when trying to combat the use of drugs in sport that certain athletes would then be required to take drugs in order to meet female requirements.

Then two years ago those regulations were lifted, following an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), who gave the IAAF two years to produce more evidence to prove these high testosterone levels were unequivocally performance enhancing. Those regulations will go back to CAS at the end of this month, although nothing will change before the World Championships in London, now just over four weeks away.

Debate rolls on

In the meantime the debate rolls on. Semenya is now double Olympic champion, winning in Rio last summer, and upgraded to gold from London 2012 after the disqualification of Russian athlete Mariya Savinova for doping offences.

And Semenya’s victory is by far the most predictable result in London next month. She’s hardly been challenged all season, now unbeaten in 21 months including 25 consecutive wins in the 800 metres, typically powering away from her opponents at the end of the race. Yet she also seems reluctant to attack from the beginning and chase the women’s world record of 1:53.28, which has stood since 1983 to Jarmila Kratochvilova, of the former Czechoslovakia – the longest standing record in the books.

I don’t know if she’s holding back for fear she might somehow influence that investigation on hyperandrogenism, which could see the IAAF revert back to the original ruling. And if that does happen then suddenly a lot more questions will be raised.

Because if you are to follow along the same pathway of drug regulations in sport, is there likely to be retrospective action taken?

And will female athletes with extremely high testosterone levels who were allowed to compete while investigations were taking place be allowed to retain their titles and records?

It definitely creates some questionable spikes in the history books.

What this week’s study confirmed is that there are clear advantages to having increased levels of testosterone in female athletes. In tests carried out on male and female athletes at the 2011 and 2013 World Championships, they found that some women can have naturally elevated testosterone levels which can provide up to 4.5 per cent advantage over other women.


And that’s without taking into consideration women with hyperandrogenism, or testosterone levels well above the normal female range and inside the male testosterone levels.

As a result, if a female has levels of testosterone on par with male levels then they are able to compete on a totally different level, and as a result have an unfair advantage that takes them outside what most women could even aspire to achieve.

What interests me in this debate also seems to be limited to women’s 800m running, and there’s very little if any mention of female athletes in other sports with a similar condition.

There are no other high-profile examples of athletes dominating to the extent of Semenya, even though she is not alone, especially if you look solely at women’s 800m running.

It’s certainly a contentious issue, especially given it’s through no fault of the athletes involved, but when the results of the most recent studies are presented to CAS a definite decision needs to be made. It would also be useful if other sports came forward and together agreed on a categorical decision.

It’s not good for the athletes involved or the sport, and it won’t be easy to make a decision that is seen to be fair to everyone involved.

But I just hope that the evidence is conclusive enough and a definitive line can be drawn to level this particular playing field, because currently the women’s 800m event is not a fair race.