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Caster Semenya and others were banned from the Olympics. Now World Athletics says there was a mistake

Semenya and others want answers as World Athletics scrambles to explain a false report that led to Olympic bans.

Ian MacNicol Archive
Caster Semenya, Christine Mbome, Francine Nyonsaba and many other women deserve a lot of explanation from World Athletics after the organization issued a key correction to 2017 findings that led to athlete bans at the Tokyo Summer Olympics.
Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

World Athletics is coming under fire after releasing a correction to findings that originally led to the international track and field organization (and thus the Olympics) banning Caster Semenya and other athletes with higher levels of naturally occurring testosterone from certain women’s events.

Now Semenya wants answers, and the Olympic champion deserves them.

In 2017, World Athletics released findings that claimed women with higher naturally occurring testosterone levels had clear, seemingly “unfair,” advantages over other women when competing in certain events: oh, for example, the very 800-meter event Semenya had won at the previous Olympic Games.

The organization then created a policy banning Semenya, as well as various other women, from competing on the international stage in those events. All of this led Outsports to name World Athletics our Asshole of the Year in 2019.

It left Semenya trying to qualify for the Olympics at other distances, but she did not. Some — like Namibia’s Christine Mboma, who was banned from the 400-meter — were able to do so. In Mboma’s case, it culminated in an Olympic 200-meter silver medal in Tokyo.

Yet World Athletics is now making very different claims about the 2017 findings that led to these bans. From Roger Pielke, a professor who writes about science and politics:

“The organization chose to base its 2018 regulation on a set of scientific claims,” Pielke wrote in a lengthy, revealing blog post. “It now admits that those claims were wrong and potentially misleading.”

Runners World has more about World Athletics’ mea culpa:

‘To be explicit, there is no confirmatory evidence for causality in the observed relationships reported. We acknowledge that our 2017 study was exploratory.’

They added: ‘With this in mind, we recognise that statements in the paper could have been misleading by implying a causal inference.

‘Specifically, “Female athletes with high fT [testosterone] levels have a significant competitive advantage over those with low fT in 400m, 400m hurdles, 800m, hammer throw, and pole vault.”

‘This statement should be amended to: “High fT levels in female athletes were associated with higher athletic performance over those with low fT in 400m, 400m hurdles, 800m, hammer throw, and pole vault.”’

To be sure, World Athletics isn’t now saying there is no causality or correlation. They are in fact calling for more studies on the subject.

What they are also now saying is about more than just semantics, it’s a major editorial change they’re now admitting was incorrect before, leading to the ban of athletes.

And if we now need more studies on the subject, that means they don’t have enough information and no athletes should be banned.

There are two extremely troubling parts to this revelation.

First, if you’re going to ban an entire class of women from competing, you’d better have a proverbial “smoking gun” to do it. Many people never saw that evidence provided by World Athletics, and the group has been under fire for years over this.

Still, their claim of “significant competitive advantage,” in the minds of some, gave World Athletics some cover to take the action they took. Now changing that language to observing “higher athletic performance” is, as said, a significant editorial change that should leave doubt in everyone’s minds.

Second, to release this report a week after the closing of the Tokyo Summer Olympic Games is particularly galling. It seems to reflect a goal by World Athletics to hide information until after the Games specifically to continue to exclude certain athletes from Tokyo. They did not want Semenya competing in Tokyo, and it certainly looks like they withheld key evidence to keep her from doing so.

Beyond all of that, the entire issue of regulating naturally occurring testosterone represents a deeply troubling slippery slope.

World Athletics says high fT levels create an unfair advantage and need to be mitigated. This policy has been disproportionately applied to African runners, leading to some seemingly well-founded accusations of racism.

Yet what if they went even further? What if they determine that race itself is an advantage?

Only one non-Black woman has won the 100-meters at an Olympic Games in the last 40 years. The Olympic record in the event hasn’t been held by a non-Black woman since 1984.

If World Athletics decides that too many Black people are winning on the track, can they claim there’s some association “with higher athletic performance,” and segregate events based on race?

The way Semenya, Mboma, and others like Francine Nyonsaba of Burundi, have been treated has looked and felt cruel and discriminatory from the start.

As the next chapter of this saga unfolds, everyone should be left questioning the validity of World Athletics’ findings and ensuing actions. And until we have more answers, all of these women should be able to compete in any race they choose.