Former 2:24 marathoner, now pushing 50 and reduced to a pitiable spastic shuffle • Magazine writer, book editor and author, and commentator on distance running since 1999; mostly a crank since approximately 2016 and possibly long before • Coach and adviser of less pessimistic perambulators • Dobie-mix owner Sentence-fragment impresario

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Some of the dumbest stuff about elite track and field ever written (including blog posts)

I've written some misguided articles and blog posts over the years, but I don't think I could write one as bad as this one if someone paid me a few thousand bucks (probably the approximate compensation for this one, given the venue) to try. The title is stupid, the content is vapid and wandering and the thesis is inane. That the author is a skilled writer only makes all of this worse, because this prevents typical New York Times readers (e.g., educated people who don't follow track) from immediately discerning that the content is mostly nonsense.

I won't waste time diving deep into the various aspects of the Caster Semenya situation, which finally reached a level of urgency sufficient to compel action by the IAAF last week, when I can merely state the obvious in a few sentences: It's a difficult, emotionally charged situation for Semenya and numerous others, and for years Semenya has clearly not belonged in world-class women's events.

But who better to try to co-opt a difficult, emotionally charged situation than a writer intent on framing it as an issue of gender feminism?

First, know that Semenya's karyotype is XY, which is usually indicative of biological male sex and, more to the point, never indicative of biological female sex. As Letsrun's Robert Johnson, who is anything but a skilled writer but is not as dumb as he's often accused of being, pointed out, none of the coverage of the CAS court proceedings mentioned this fact. This is akin writing about someone miraculously surviving a fall from an airplane without noting that the airplane was stationary on a runway at the time.

Semenya's presence over the years has presented "certain" advocates of women's running with a challenge: Someone truly in favor of fairness in sport would want not want de facto or literal males competing against females in Olympics and World Championships events, yet at the same time, because Semenya identifies as a woman, "punishing" her by barring her from women's races is an anti-woman policy, or at least unfair in some hard-to-define way.

This is not a hard problem to solve if you approach it from the perspective that not every decision that affects or appears to affect women athletes in a negative way is an intentional baseball bat to the knees of women's athletics. But this is a surprisingly difficult philosophy to dislodge from "certain" heads.

Anyway, I found this to be the most egregiously idiotic statement among the many sketchy assertions in the article:

"Without Semenya, we wouldn’t be seeing them or talking about [Grace, Quigley, Frerichs and Houlihan] right now."

First, when someone uses "we" in a piece like this, it's generally a sign of dishonesty. But more to the point, who the hell are these track fans whose awareness of the careers of elite U.S. women would be incomplete without the Caster Semenya spectacle? Shelby Houlihan is the American record holder in the 1,500 meters and appears to still be on the ascendant side of her career. That the author really believes that serious track fans are ignorant of the best women runners in the world strains credulity, but I can certainly see her trying to push this idea into the heads of non-track fans while recognizing the silliness of it. Preachers do this to the drones in their churches all the time.

I won't turn this post into a far-reaching judgment of the writer, but when it comes to elite running in general, she clearly either doesn't know what she's talking about or exaggerates for effect. For example, the claim that a 2:10 marathon by a man is "effectively equivalent to the sub-2:30 mark for women" is indefensible on statistical grounds, even with the weasel word "effectively" in there. Also, the idea that Semenya is "one of the world's most visible athletes" can only arise in the mind of either a joker or someone who doesn't follow sports besides track -- especially given that she describes track as a "a sport that’s relatively ignored in the first place."

Back to the point: Yes, Caster Semenya never asked for any of this. Yes, this surely been extraordinarily difficult for all involved. But someone with an XY karyotype gets to keep an Olympic gold medal in a women's event, so my sympathies toward Semenya are limited. The author writes about her grace under pressure and so on, but how much assurance does the world have that Semenya's team hasn't been aware of these biochemical details all along?

That "certain" observers would cast the whole process as an example of unfairness toward women in sports is as inevitable as it is insane. The reality is exactly the opposite. What good does it do feminism to complain that an XY athlete has been persecuted for competing as a woman?

I can say with some degree of confidence that at least 95 percent of world-class female mid-distance runners are glad that Semenya is no longer eligible for their events. Are they "sexist" too?

To paraphrase Amby Burfoot, strip away the pathos and all of this is a no-brainer -- although Amby is now waffling a bit by suggesting that if Semenya can get her testosterone levels under control, she should be able to run in the 1,500 meters but not the 800. It's not difficult to spot the multiple glaring problems with this idea.

This sentence gives the one I quoted above a good race for the inanity gold medal:

"It’s a shame that we hear more about the hormone levels of one of the most decorated female athletes today than her achievements." 

It's a shame that a writer for the New York Times can blithely pretend that those achievements would still exist without those hormone levels. Minus the moral issues, this is like complaining about more attention being given to the fact that Eddy Hellubuyck was a doper than the fact that he ran some kick-ass masters times on EPO.

"[Semenya] races to win, she shakes her opponents’ hands and she follows the rules."

Okay, great, Being a good sport is admirable, but is not atypical behavior in women's track and field or other sports, and more to the point, is not in any way relevant to the CAS case. It's similar to suggesting that polite dopers receive lighter punishment than established assholes.

Based on the available information, I view Semenya in much the same way I would a male runner who was somehow doped without his knowledge over a period of years while winning everything in sight amid ample suspicion. No one's assigning her moral demerits here. And while Semenya's career is worthy of journalistic exploration, it's wrong to use it as a platform from which to unfurl more grievances about the dearth of coverage of women's track and generally descend into a manic spiral of glib hubris.


  1. I honestly think it's unfair that she's able to run if she reduces the testosterone. She accrues benefits from having had high T her whole life. But at least what has happened is a win, even if the liberal world (and all major newspapers) disagree, and it's making track look bad. It's kind of a public relations disaster for track.

    1. While I agree with you on the matter of accruing lifetime benefits from higher testosterone, it's also plain that at the times when her T has been the highest, she has performed her best.

      In around 2012, a different ruling forced her to lower her levels, and her times crept up from 1:55.4 (2009) to the 1:58.8-2:02.6 range. In 2016, when that ruling was overturned by the same court that recently decided her fate, she started running faster again and has since gotten down to 1:54.2. One can reasonably argue that part of the reason for the slow-down was mental, because she knew her efforts were being hamstrung by basic physiology, but it strains credulity to imagine that this is the whole story.

      The only way Semenya is producing this much testosterone naturally is the presence of testicles (or maybe ectopic T-producing tissue, but this seems doubtful). She doesn't produce eggs. Everyone assumes that the "46,XY-DSD" disgnosis applies, but it seems plausible that she was the victim at birth of a circumcision gone wrong and was raised as a girl as a result.

      What the world is seeing is basically a male with decent but not close to world-class talent (1:54.2 is a very but probably not quite national-class boys' time) who has been forced by unique circumstances to money with natural hormone levels and whose performances have fluctuated as a result.

      Either way, anyone agitating for her to continue running in women's races, even without lowering her T levels, is as much of a moron as any religious nut. And it's especially fucked up (albeit not surprising) that a lot of this noise is coming from alleged advocates for women's running. I like tho think it's mainly limited to the shitheads at Outside and a few dumbass NY Times columnists, but those shitheads have a fair amount of reach, and like you say, they are a big part of why track and field is a goddamn joke.

      Hopefully Outside goes from being behind a paywall to ceasing to exist outright, although I will confess to personal motives for assuming this stance. ;o)