If you read between the lines, whether it’s prominent athletes speaking or sports fans, the insinuation is pretty clear. Caster Semenya should either undergo hormone treatment, which could wreak havoc with her mental and physical well-being, or ‘compete with men’. Leaving aside issues like lack of respect for an individual’s rights over her body, there’s one massive problem with these views: the numbers just don’t add up.
Semenya may have just dipped under 1:55 for the 800m in Doha earlier this month, but even her best times wouldn’t get her anywhere close to the start line in a men’s race. Forget the men, she couldn’t even compete against boys. Ethiopia’s Mohamed Aman ran 1:43:37 as a 17 year old, nearly a full 11 seconds quicker than Semenya’s personal best.
That, at least, was in the modern era of lightning fast tracks and ever-improving shoe technology. India’s Sriram Singh set the pace for Cuba’s legendary Alberto Juantorena in the 800m final at the Montreal Olympics in 1976. He eventually finished seventh in 1:45.77, an Indian record for 42 years. Had Semenya run that race, she would have finished nearly the length of a straight behind Singh. Those that call her a man are as clueless as they are cruel.
Various luminaries have spoken of the need to amend the rules regarding testosterone levels to maintain the integrity of track and field. That’s a bit rich coming from a sport which has the least claim to the moral high ground. Run your eyes down the list of women’s track records, and you’ll see that the vast majority of them are tainted. These custodians of integrity have done nothing about records set by athletes from the former German Doping Republic, or the Union of Soviet Steroid Republics, leave alone the times set by Chinese distance runners who came and went like an autumn zephyr in the early 1990s. There isn’t so much as an asterisk next to them.
While the likes of the inimitable Usain Bolt have rewritten the record books over the past decade, his female counterparts have struggled to get anywhere close to the numbers put up by Florence Griffith Joyner, a flamboyant but mediocre American sprinter who suddenly became a world-beater in the run-up to the Seoul Olympics. The less said about some of the field records, the better. This is the sport that wants to make an example of Semenya to showcase its integrity.
Incidentally, Bolt in his prime ran the 100m in 41 strides. Yohan Blake, who took silver behind him in London (2012), needed 46. In every sense of the phrase, Bolt was a physical anomaly. A man that big (6’5”) simply isn’t supposed to run that fast. It was the same with Miguel Indurain, the Spaniard who won the Tour de France five years in succession in the 1990s. Indurain’s resting heart rate was 28 - a normal adult’s is 72. His lung capacity (7.8 litres) was a whopping 60 per cent more than that of the average adult male (4.8), and his cardiac output of 50 litres twice that of most he competed against.
Now, ask yourself, what’s common to Bolt, Indurain and Semenya. The answer is simple. They were born that way. No chemical playground or laboratory can give you Bolt’s stride length or Indurain’s lungs. Semenya, similarly, had no choice over being born with a disorder of sexual differentiation (DSD). In more than a decade of constant controversy, there’s one quote of hers that stands apart. “When I pee, I pee like a woman,” she told Dr Ali Bacher in an interview with Supersport.
That’s really all you need to know. Semenya was raised as a girl, and always identified as one. Her hormone levels are those she was born with, and the very idea of altering them to suit some notion of sporting equality is an abomination. Unlike the steroid-boosted hulks who smashed record after record a generation ago, Semenya has done things the hard, blood-sweat-and-tears, way. Even at her peak, she hasn’t come close to the now
35-year-old record set by Jarmila Kratochvílová (1:53.28).
The whole idea of a level playing field is a joke in any case. Most sporting champions stand apart from their competitors because of some extraordinary physical gifts. Muhammad Ali was a heavyweight with footwork as nimble as a ballet dancer. Michael Phelps had the wing span of an albatross. Jerry Rice, the greatest American Footballer of all time, is still so fit at 56 that he could suit up and go out for a cameo without disgracing himself. Serena Williams continues to swat aside opponents who were in diapers when she was winning her first Grand Slam titles.
Semenya belongs in such august company. And in these times of strife, as she contemplates moving up to race at 3000m, she could do worse than seek inspiration from a magazine cover that is now more than half a century old. In April 1968, Ali was serving a ban from boxing for his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War. That was when the brilliant George Lois designed an Esquire magazine cover in imitation of Francesco Botticini’s 15th century painting of Saint Sebastian, a Christian martyr killed with arrows because of his faith.
The image, with six shafts piercing Ali’s flesh, became an iconic one. Three years later, he returned to the ring. Another three years later, at the ripe old age of 32, he was champion again, after the rumble in the Zaire jungle. With justice on her side, Semenya too will come back stronger.
(The author is a sports writer who was formerly Editor-in-Chief of