Guest Column by Amby Burfoot: Let Semenya run free … in the 1500

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By Amby Burfoot, Guest Column for
May 2, 2019

I set my alarm for 5:50 am on Wednesday, and quickly surfed over to the Court of Arbitration for Sport website, eager for the long awaited Caster Semenya decision. When it came, a few minutes late, I was surprised by my reaction.

I had supported and written at length about the IAAF regulation that restricts some athletes with Differences of Sex Development. It requires them to lower their testosterone level to compete in a handful of running events (Editor’s note: Last month Burfoot wrote a 5,000+ word piece in support of the IAAF’s rules regarding Semenya).

But I felt sad when I learned that the IAAF had “won.” I felt no joy at all. I didn’t dance, pump a fist, or fill the room with “All right!” cheers.

At first I wasn’t sure why. I would have been angered by an opposite decision. I would have regarded it as another science-denying event.

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On the day’s long flight to Los Angeles for a family get-together, I had time to mull over the dullness, the heaviness I felt. Why? The words eventually came to me in a flash.

None of us ever imagined and certainly never hoped for a day when a great athlete would be asked to alter her natural physiology to continue competing.

There is no cause here for celebration. There is no reason to say more.

Except maybe for this: Semenya is and has been a great athlete and role model. She has spoken on the track but has not run off at the mouth. She has been at or near the top of her event for a decade now, with the every person highs and lows, a model of consistency and resilience.

While Usain Bolt has enjoyed the superstar limelight for much the same period, Semenya has been a deer in the headlights. The light shining on her has been harsh, glaring, mostly unwanted, and frightful.

She says she’s going to move forward with her athletic career, and I intend to become her number one fan. Her options are basically these: 1) to take testosterone-lowering hormones and continue to run the 800; or 2) to remain her natural self and to run the 5000 meters (or 200?).

Both options present stiff, almost impossible challenges. I can’t quickly think of an 800-meter runner who excelled at the 5000 or 200.

But here’s what I’m really hoping for. I hope the IAAF follows CAS’s suggestion to drop the 1500 from the “restricted events.” (The 1500 can always be added back at a later date, as the IAAF seems likely to tinker with the restricted events.)

Semenya is already really good in the 1500, though not quite great. It would be wonderful to see her focus on the longer distance, and to see what she could do.

The whole world would be watching. The whole world would be rooting for her.

Track and field could use a global, unifying story, and Caster Semenya could be it.

Amby Burfoot won the Boston Marathon in 1968, and has been writing about track and road races since 1978.

Previous Column by Amby Burfoot:  The Whole World Is Watching: Caster Semenya vs IAAF

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