The way that the IAAF has brought its querying of the gender of the women’s new World 800 metre champion, 18 year old Caster Semenya, into the public domain just hours before the final of the race in Berlin either indicates a complete insensitivity to the effect of its pronouncements to the world’s media or that a leak of its negotiations with the South African federation was about to take place.
Either way, in its eagerness to indicate its vigilance against “cheating” in whatever form it might materialise the world governing body has shown that such vigilance takes precedence over what should always be foremost in its actions: a duty of care to the athletes.
Media reaction across the world has been inevitable with lurid headlines and sensationalist news bulletins. The family has not been spared. If the way that the story was handled on BBC News is any indication of world reaction this is something that will not do the sport any favours and will tarnish what has been a great championships. That the IAAF did not foresee such a reaction is extremely worrying.
The organisation is right to investigate the rumours and innuendo that have been circulating since Semenya burst on the world scene a few weeks ago but it should surely afford a vulnerable young athlete and her family the same privacy and protection that it does to those who have failed an A drug test by withholding any information until all procedures, including a B test, have been completed. Rumours are one thing, a factual statement quite another.
The IAAF has yet to tell us why it decided to suddenly produce such a bombshell pronouncement just hours before Semenya was to run in the most important race of her life. Very cynical speculation might suggest that it was in the hope that the athlete would withdraw from the final thus avoiding possible future embarrassment should she win gold.
Platitudes of sympathy towards Semenya from IAAF officials have done nothing to lessen the impact of their statement. This is a story that will run and run to the detriment of the organisation and to the sport.
Gender verification is a complicated process and almost twenty years ago the IAAF recommended that mandatory testing, so degrading to women, should cease. The IOC followed suit at the turn of the century. One is reminded of the story of the Polish sprinter Ewa Klobukowska, a European champion and individual Olympic medallist. In 1967 she was banned from the sport, her records and medals expunged for “having one chromosome too many.”
In the case of young Caster the suspicions of athletes have turned to sympathy as the world media turns its glare on a vulnerable young runner and her remote village in South Africa. Not a day the sport can be proud of.
Not many athletes have fairy tale endings to their careers but on Tuesday night in the magnificent Berlin Olympic stadium, in front of a German crowd highly desirous of the country’s first gold medal, 37 year old javelin thrower Steffi Nerius achieved just that. To me it was reminiscent of the first World Championships back in Helsinki in 1983 when Tiina Lillak, also in the javelin, battled to give Finland its only gold.
There was a significant difference. In Helsinki it was a foreign athlete, the British thrower Fatima Whitbread, who put the crowd through agonies with a first round throw that was to lead for six rounds till Lillak’s final effort; in Berlin it was Nerius who took the lead with her first endeavour and then, with the increasingly anxious crowd, had to sit out six rounds whilst the world’s best throwers, including the world record holder Barbora Spotáková, attempted to overtake her. Nerius had just one other serious throw, 65.81m, which would not have gained her a medal of any hue.
It was meant to be just a fond farewell to one of Germany’s greatest throwers; after all she was not top ranked in her country in 2009. That honour, along with the accompanying pressure to win, fell to Christina Obergföll (who finally finished fifth). Apart from winning the European title in 2006 Steffi had always, as the saying goes, been the bridesmaid in global championships. Who was to say that, in the avowed very last international competition of her career, it would be any different?
This time the Gods that decree these things smiled on Steffi, in the same way that they smiled on Tiina twenty-six years ago. The Finnish crowd roared her last throw to the gold medal and the champion then embarked on, as I remember it, a lap of honour that would have seriously challenged the Finnish 400 metre record. Steffi, as becomes a veteran, just soaked up the adulation of the crowd.
She says that she is determined not to change her mind about retiring and you can see her point. How do you follow winning your only global title just three years before your fortieth birthday in front of your home crowd in a stadium filled with so many ghosts? In the 1936 Olympics Ottilie Fischer won the javelin for Germany. Perhaps it was she who had lobbied the Gods.
The condescending put down of Jessica Ennis’s coach, Tony Minichiello, by UK Athletics Chairman, Ed Warner, is a classic example of the crass man management that has plagued the sport for decades.
After the coach had, in a press interview, indicated that he felt Ennis’s preparations had been hindered by UKA’s actions in “decimating” her support team Warner said that he felt that Minichiello had spoken thus because he “was feeling some of the pressure himself just ahead of the competition.” Complete nonsense. What the chairman did not do was answer the points that Minichiello had made: that he had lost a nutritionist, a physiologist and a performance analyst. “They [UKA]” Minichiello said, “changed the way they deliver services and some people had foreshortened contracts. There was no guarantee of jobs.” The above trio voted (as so many others in the sport are doing) with their feet.
All Warner talked about on BBC Radio 5 was future systems, beloved by his organisation and by UK Sport. Evolve a system, tick the box and all will be well. What UKA since its inception has constantly failed to grasp is that systems depend on experienced people for their success. The present highly successful season hasn’t been produced by any system but by individual coaches working, day in and day out, with talented athletes.
It's good to see that someone has sense at UKA. Minichiello, it is reported, has been offered the job of taking charge of milti-events.