Caster Semenya’s lawyers have questioned why World Athletics have waited until after the Tokyo Olympics before releasing a bombshell report that admits the findings that triggered controversial regulations banning women with naturally elevated testosterone from international events are “misleading”.
Semenya was not allowed to defend her double Olympic 800 metres title in Tokyo under rules prohibiting athletes with Differences of Sexual Development (DSD) from competing at distances from 400m to one mile unless they take hormone-lowering medication.
But World Athletics are facing fresh calls from her legal representatives to scrap the regulation after the governing body’s scientists admitted their findings are based on evidence that was “exploratory, nothing else”.
That ruling was based on evidence published by two World Athletics scientists in 2017, which found a performance increase in females with high testosterone levels over those with low levels of 1.8 per cent for 800m and 2.7 per cent for 400m.
However, the British Journal of Sports Medicine – which published the original evidence – has now released a “correction” to that 2017 paper, causing campaigners to argue the rules should be ditched immediately. Semenya’s lawyers have also questioned why it was not released until days after the Olympics concluded.
Discussing potential links between high levels of testosterone and improved performance in women, Stephane Bermon, director of World Athletics’ Health and Science Department, and his predecessor Pierre-Yves Garnier, wrote: “To be explicit, there is no confirmatory evidence for causality in the observed relationships reported. We acknowledge that our 2017 study was exploratory.”
They add: “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 400 m, 400 m hurdles, 800 m, 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 400 m, 400 m hurdles, 800 m, hammer throw, and pole vault.’”
The scientists conclude that their findings are “on a lower level of evidence” and should be viewed as “exploratory, nothing else, that is, not confirmatory or evidence for a causal relationship.”
Semenya was absent from the recent Tokyo Olympics after unsuccessful challenges against the regulations at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) and Switzerland’s supreme court. She is currently awaiting a hearing at the European Court of Human Rights, although World Athletics has argued it would not be bound by any ruling dished out. The new report, however, raises serious questions about why this clarification was not made before the recent Olympic Games, which concluded just nine days before it was made public.
“This is very significant new information,” Semenya’s lawyer Gregory Nott, of Norton Rose Fulbright, told Telegraph Sport.
“We are in the midst of the European Court of Human Rights case and will be discussing with our London QC and the whole legal team how to introduce the information into the proceedings.
“World Athletics have recently given notice of their wish to intervene in the European Court of Human Rights proceedings and we would hope that they will now support setting aside the regulations.
“It is more than surprising that World Athletics did not reveal this evidence before the recent Tokyo Olympics and allow Caster to defend her 800m title.”
Roger Pielke Jr, one of three scientists who published a 2019 International Sports Law Journal paper arguing the original World Athletics evidence was “flawed”, also said the latest admission meant the rules should be suspended immediately.
“Corrections are common in research, as scientists are human and make mistakes, like anyone else,” he said. “But one of the most important features of science is that it is self-correcting, and mistakes are identified, admitted and corrected.
“But the correction published today is not simply the admission of an error in an inconsequential paper, it is an admission of error by World Athletics in the only empirical analysis which underpins its eligibility regulations for female athletes. The implications are massive.”
He added: “The correction offered today provides a very public test of the integrity of World Athletics. The organisation chose to base its regulation on a set of scientific claims. It now admits that those claims were wrong and potentially misleading.
“Doing the right thing in support of the athletes that it represents means changing course when the facts warrant.”
America’s triple Olympic champion Tianna Bartoletta said: “Improve the studies. And let that govern the policy. That’s not what they did though. And that’s what I’ve been angry about.
“I believe in not manipulating science, and I will accept what it tells me even if my heart feels differently. From the beginning they wanted a specific outcome and that’s not right.”
The Telegraph has contacted World Athletics for comment.
World Athletics president Seb Coe earlier this month said Christine Mboma’s surprise Olympic 200m silver medal showed the governing body was right to crack down on women with naturally elevated testosterone levels.
In April, Namibian 18-year-old Mboma ran the second-fastest 400m time in the world this year, only to then be told a fortnight before the Tokyo Games that she was banned from contesting the event due to her DSD status.
She made a late switch to the 200m and broke the world under-20 record with a jet-heeled late surge in the final to claim Olympic silver in Tokyo.
“It was pretty observable that [Mboma’s] last 30 or 40 metres were impactful,” said Coe. “But, actually, I think that vindicated the decision about the 400m. If you are finishing a 200m like that, it supports the judgement that was made.”
Upholding the rules in 2019, the CAS admitted the regulations were “discriminatory” and it had “serious concerns” over their application. However, it ruled that “such discrimination is a necessary, reasonable and proportionate means… of preserving the integrity of female athletics”.