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Olympic 800m medal winners




You might assume these are the medal winners in the men's race. You'd be wrong. According to the new definitions used in this Olympics, these three qualify for the women's race, despite having testosterone levels several times higher than normal women, and in at least one case lacking normal female organs.

The female athletes who finished fourth, fifth and sixth are (perhaps understandably) a little upset by this. Britain's Lynsey Sharp finished sixth and is an expert on the subject of 'hyperandrogenism' in women's sport, having written her degree thesis on the subject. "It is out of our control and how much we rely on people at the top sorting it out. The public can see how difficult it is with the change of rule but all we can do is give it our best."

That was a courageous thing to say in the current climate. Predictably, the nastier parts of Twitter erupted in outrage. Quite a few of the comments critical of Sharp (and Poland's Joanna Jozwik, who finished fifth) were racist in nature (Sharp is white. And blonde, which somehow makes it worse for these people.) Since the gold medal winner was South African, a lot of these racist comments were from black South Africans. Ironic, don't you think?

I don't actually see an easy answer to this. There's no suggestion that the three medal winners have done this deliberately, or cheated in any way. This is not like the Soviet and East German female athletes of the 1970s and 1980s, routinely being injected with male hormones to win medals for communism. These three could perhaps be described as 'freaks of nature', but then isn't that what we say about sprinter Usain Bolt, or swimmer Michael Phelps? Even Mo Farah clearly has genetic attributes that make him a better long distance runner.

Before the rules were changed, athletes in this situation had to take drugs to lower their testosterone below a certain level. But in a sport where performance-altering drugs have been a huge problem, is that right? Is it in fact monstrous?

How would these three athletes get on if they were in fact classified as male? Not well. Semenya's 1m55 run recently (the fastest by a woman or 'woman' for eight years) would be almost ten seconds too slow to even qualify for the men's Olympic 800m (not qualify for the final - qualify to actually make it to Rio). So clearly if we didn't have special women's races, just an 'open' 800m, we'd never see any female 800m runners at all. To be fair, some sports work exactly like that. There is a Formula 1 Drivers' Championship; there isn't a 'Women's Formula 1 Drivers' Championship'. Even in the Olympics, all the equestrian events are open to all competitors, regardless of sex. The problem is though that people like watching women's sport, so doing away with it would be unpopular.

Could you have separate events for competitors with testosterone levels between certain limits? The Paralympics works in this way, with different events for competitors with different degrees of disability. But I reckon that just cheapens the Olympic medal. Where do you stop? '800m for bald women'? '800m for male athletes under 5'7"'?

So like I said, I don't see an easy answer.



( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 21st, 2016 10:31 pm (UTC)
Yeah, no good answer there. We divide things up into Men and Women's competitions, and then because nature isn't quite that simple, of course things don't work out well.
Aug. 22nd, 2016 09:13 pm (UTC)
No-one seems to think that weight bands cheapen the martial arts events, and I struggle to see why hormone bands for track events would be different except that people aren't used to them.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )