Semenya case should be a wake-up call for Caribbean athletes

By Dr Rachael Irving

Sunday, May 05, 2019

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The ruling by the Court of Arbitration for Sports that the IAAF's call for Caster Semenya to take hormone lowering drugs should be upheld though discriminatory is quite shocking.

Caster Semenya's personal best (PB) for 800m is below the 1:53.28 seconds set by Jarmila Kratochvílová in 1983. Semenya has been defined biologically female by the IAAF's classification. She has 46, XX but with differences of sex development. A normal person has 46 chromosomes, XX classifies you as female. CAS has decided that discrimination against a minority is required for the protection of the majority.

The South African is one of those females with higher than normal testosterone levels; she does not fall within the 0.12 -1.79 nmoles/L range for females. Neither does she falls within the 7.79-29.5 nmoles/L range for males. She is somewhere between the male and female range.

The IAAF first commissioned a study to prove their theory that Semenya running in her natural form should be removed from women sports. However, the data indicated that approximately 13 per cent of elite female athletes had testosterone levels above the normal range.

IAAF science has not held up to scrutiny. A study recently published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, commissioned to strengthen the case against Semenya, has been debunked. Three independent scientists: Roger Pielke Jr of the United States, Erik Boye from Norway, and Ross Tucker of South Africa, found that the study funded by the IAAF was flawed and could not be replicated in its entirety.

Why target Semenya? There are pole vault and javelin athletes competing in the female category with higher testosterone levels than Semenya. Differences in development in other biological parameters such as hemoglobin and erythropoietin also give advantages. Persons born with high levels of hemoglobin — the oxygen carrying molecule in red blood cells also have an advantage in skiing and cross-country running.

These athletes tend to have hemoglobin values averaging 200g/L instead of the normal value of around 150g/L. These persons are usually of Caucasian descent and present with a ruddy complexion. They have one normal and an abnormal hemoglobin gene. The abnormal gene contains the genetic prescription for making the erythropoietin receptor, which causes an increase in red blood cells, which is very beneficial to skiing and cross- country running.

Synthetic erythropoietin is one of the most abused doping drug in cycling.

All groups with unfair advantage, regardless of ethnicity should also be targeted by the IAAF if the policy is to make sport fair for all. The decision by CAS is a wake-up call for all Caribbean athletes. Each national Anti-doping organisation, must store a testosterone or steroid profile of their athletes. This can be done using urine collection over 6 months. Glomerular filtration rate, or how substances are passed out of the body after metabolism or break down, is gender specific.

The Caribbean should have a biological database of all elite athletes. This database should be driven by objective science, because there might be need for protection of Caribbean athletes in the future.

CAS did warned in Semenya's Landmark case, that the side effects of hormonal treatment could demonstrate “the practical impossibility of compliance”.


Editor's note: Dr Irving is a senior lecturer in the Department of Basic Medical Sciences, Faculty of Medical Sciences, The University of the West Indies, Mona.

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