By Jonathan Gault
May 21, 2018
Last month, the IAAF introduced new Eligibility Regulations for the Female Classification. Those rules, should they withstand any appeals (and that’s far from a given; Athletics South Africa has already stated it will appeal to the IAAF and, failing that, the Court of Arbitration for Sport) would go into effect on November 1 and would force any female who wants to compete in the women’s division in events from 400 meters to the mile to lower their circulating testosterone levels below five nmol/L.
Since the ruling was announced, there has been much discussion about how it will affect the sport of track & field. Though the new regulations apply to multiple events, the effects will be felt most strongly in the women’s 800 meters, which has been dominated by South Africa’s Caster Semenya and other women believed to be hyperandrogenic ever since CAS suspended the IAAF’s hyperandrogenism regulations in July 2015. Semenya has won all 32 of her 800-meter races (including prelims) since the start of 2016.
Semenya has offered little public response to the IAAF’s decision. On the day it was announced, she tweeted “I am 97% sure you don’t like me, but I’m 100% sure I don’t care.” When asked about the decision at the Diamond League season opener in Doha a week later, she replied, “I don’t talk about nonsense.”
Though Semenya has endured by far the most scrutiny and invasions of privacy, dating back to the gender test she took as an 18-year-old in 2009, the IAAF’s decision to suspend the hyperandrogenism regulations three years ago put all elite women’s 800 runners in a tough spot, not just Semenya. There is no playbook for how to respond to one of the most difficult debates in the world of sports. Some, such as Brenda Martinez — who was denied a spot in last year’s World Championship final by Francine Niyonsaba and Margaret Wambui, two other women believed to be hyperandrogenic — have wished for intervention by the sport’s governing bodies.
“Last year when they had it under control [Semenya] couldn’t break 2:00 and now she’s running 1:55,” Martinez said back in 2016. “So I think it’s just a matter of her federation, like our World Anti-Doping, or whoever it is, IAAF, all of them, to maybe get a handle on it.”
But speaking your mind can come at a cost. In a 2016 interview with the BBC, British runner Lynsey Sharp explained how difficult it was for her to compete as a female 800 runner after the regulations were suspended. During that interview, which came just minutes after the Olympic final, the biggest race of her life, Sharp was fighting back tears but managed to give a fair, honest answer.
Read the transcript. It is an athlete trying her best to address an impossible situation. There is nothing malicious in her response. Yet Sharp was criticized harshly for those comments on Twitter, and took an extended break from the platform as a result: following the Olympics, she did not post a single tweet for 15 months.
Besides Semenya — and the others like her who would be forced to take a drug to lower their testosterone levels in order to continue competing in the women’s division — no athlete would be more affected by the new regulations than 24-year-old American Ajee Wilson. Had the old hyperandrogenism regulations remained in place, Wilson would likely have three gold medals in her possession right now: 2016 World Indoors, 2017 World Outdoors, and 2018 World Indoors. Instead, she has none — two silvers and a bronze. Does it strike her as strange that the women who denied her gold may not be able to compete next year?
“I definitely haven’t thought about it that in-depth and what it actually means in the grand scheme of things,” Wilson said. “I definitely know that I enjoy racing with them. I’m glad that they’re allowed to race still.”
Wilson knows that the IAAF’s new eligibility regulations could have a massive impact on her event. She just chooses not to think about the ramifications; Wilson would much rather spend that time preparing for her next race. Wilson, like every other women’s 800 runner, is winless against Semenya since the start of 2016 (to be precise, she’s 0-4). But when I ask her if she feels any sort of desperation to beat Semenya in 2018, before this version of Semenya potentially disappears, this is what she tells me:
“You’re asking questions, like, I’ve never thought of these things. I’ve never thought that far ahead. Whoever is on the line, I’m trying to win.”
One thing Wilson does know: she has truly enjoyed racing Semenya and Niyonsaba these last three years as they are athletes who force her to push her body to its limits every time out. In Monaco last year, Wilson battled Semenya and Niyonsaba down the home stretch, and though she wound up third, her time of 1:55.61 smashed the American record. At World Indoors in March, Wilson held off Niyonsaba again and again before finally succumbing on the final lap. She wound up with the silver medal and an indoor pb (1:58.99).
“World Indoors was such a great race and just such an exhilarating experience just to come so close and just to feel like I was really giving it my all,” said Wilson, who will face Niyonsaba and Semenya at this weekend’s Prefontaine Classic in Eugene. “I’m super competitive, so just the thrill of racing, it’s been a blast…It’s a different kind of just, like, thrill you get from being [in the race with them] — you know you’re gonna go hard, you know you’re gonna have to pull out all the stops and run your hardest.”
Globally, the women’s 800 is a flash-point event, a significant battle in the debate about which athletes get to compete in which categories. Pick a side, defend it, it’s only the future of women’s sports that are at stake. But for Wilson, it remains a race. Only a race.