THE oldest world record in outdoor athletics is the women’s 800m. The time to beat, of 1:53.28, was set by Jarmila Kratochvílova of Czechslovakia in July 1983. No woman this century—and only one other in history—has run under 1:54. Yet there is some chance that this record will be broken at the Rio games, by the 800m’s in-form runner, Caster Semenya of South Africa. And if Ms Semenya does take the record, it will be one of the biggest stories of the tournament. Why? Because some feel that Ms Semenya’s natural levels of testosterone mean that she should not be allowed to compete.
As an 18-year-old, Ms Semenya won gold at her first world championships in 2009, destroying the rest of the field by more than two seconds. Before the race, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) confirmed that Ms Semenya was undergoing a sex-determination test. An organisation spokesman said that the test had been ordered because of the dramatic improvement in Ms Semenya’s race times. The results of the test have, quite rightly, never been made public, but the IAAF banned her from competing until mid-2010, during which time it is thought she began taking testosterone-suppressing drugs. The resulting media circus was invasive. Meanwhile, the IAAF began an investigation into its rules surrounding intersex athletes and in 2011 it introduced a ceiling on the amount of testosterone that athletes can possess if they are to compete in women’s races. The Olympics adopted it in 2012. Perhaps because of the drugs, or injury, or the media scrum, Ms Semenya’s performances deteriorated. She won a silver medal at the London games in 2012, but her time, 1:57.23, was mediocre.
However, Ms Semenya has experienced a career renaissance since an Indian athlete, Dutee Chand, challenged the IAAF’s ruling at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) and won. The CAS verdict was quietly devastating: it said that the regulations were discriminatory as they applied only to women and that the IAAF had not been able to demonstrate that high natural levels of testosterone delivered the same boost to athletic performance as when it is introduced into the body externally. This decision meant that Ms Semenya could return to competing without suppressants. Immediately, her times began to improve. She won the 400m, 800m and 1,500m at the South African national championships in a single afternoon in April, and ran a personal best of 1:55.33 in July. It was also the fastest time by anyone since 2008. Besting Ms Kratochvílova’s record would require another huge improvement. However, thanks to the IAAF and the media, Ms Semenya’s potential has yet to be realised. She begins the 800m competition in Rio as the hot favourite.
But the debate over her participation (and that of other women whose high levels of testosterone are not in the public domain) is far from over. In its defence, the IAAF’s threshold for testosterone levels in female athletes was set at 10 nanomoles a litre. According to Runner’s World, the IAAF reported an average level of 0.69 nmol/L among athletes tested at the 2011 world championships and a 99th percentile of 3.08 nmol/L. Those affected by the ruling were not just outliers; they had strikingly different hormones in their bodies. Yet Olympic competition is almost entirely about physical differences. It encompasses the entire range of body types, from miniature gymnasts to giant basketballers to squat weightlifters. Michael Phelps, the most lauded Olympian of them all, has a highly unusual body—with a long torso, big feet and huge lung capacity—that happens to be ideal for swimming. Usain Bolt’s long stride gives him an advantage over shorter rivals. Unless the governing bodies want to create an infinitesimally complicated handicap system, they should back off and allow the games to celebrate human diversity in all of its forms. And by doing so, the oldest record in athletics might just fall.
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