Rio 2016: Semenya’s success reopens complex debate


British runner Lynsey Sharp appeared to imply there had not been a level playing field in the Olympic 800 metre final won by Caster Semenya.

The complex and highly sensitive issue of hyperandrogenism in female athletes is once again a major talking point following Caster Semenya’s victory in the women’s 800 metre final at Rio 2016.

Semenya lived up to her billing as the clear pre-race favourite to take gold in a personal best and South African record time of one minute and 55.28 seconds, as Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi and Kenya’s Margaret Wambui took silver and bronze respectively.

However, the 25-year-old’s success predictably refuelled the controversy surrounding the eligibility of female athletes, like Semenya, with hyperandrogenism – a condition that results in increased testosterone levels.

An IAAF ruling, enforced in 2011, that required female athletes to have testosterone levels below a certain limit in order to be eligible to compete was suspended for a two-year period last July, following an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport by Indian sprinter Dutee Chand.

Semenya – whose breakthrough triumph at the 2009 World Championships was overshadowed when she was humiliatingly subjected to gender testing – has since re-emerged as the dominant figure in the women’s 800m.

Yet after coming sixth behind Semenya on Saturday, an emotional Lynsey Sharp – who had hugged the fourth- and fifth-placed finishers Melissa Bishop and Joanna Jozwik after crossing the line – appeared to imply there had not been a level playing field.

Choosing her words carefully in an interview with the BBC, Sharp responded to a question over whether the race had effectively been a two-tier event – with other hyperandrogenic athletes believed to have competed – by stating: “I’ve tried to avoid the issue all year, [but] you can see how emotional it was between me and Melissa and Joanna at the end.

“We know how each other feel but it’s out of our control … we’re relying on the people at the top sorting it out.”

The Briton then broke into tears as she added: “I think the public can see as well how difficult it is with the change of rule but all we can do is give it our best.”

Asked specifically about her embrace with Bishop and Jozwik, Sharp said: “We see each other week in, week out, so yeah – we know how each other feel.”

In a news conference, the victorious Semenya said: “Tonight is all about performance. We’re not here to talk about the IAAF or speculation. This is all about the 800m we ran today.”

Earlier, IAAF president Sebastian Coe had reiterated athletics’ governing body would return to CAS over the matter.

“We presented the case for a level of testosterone and a set of protocols that the Court of Arbitration did not find in favour around,” said Coe. “They set us our homework and sometime between now and next summer we need to return.

“This is a very sensitive issue. We will take the case back to the Court of Arbitration and it will be a good case based on medical and scientific advice.”