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Be it doping in sport, hot topics like Caster Semenya or Oscar Pistorius, or the dehydration myth, we try to translate the science behind sports and sports performance.

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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

USA trip and sports science "pilgrimage"

USA 2009 on the horizon, and some stats on cricket fitness

As promised the other day, I just wanted to reveal a little bit of my upcoming itinerary, which takes me on something of a "sports science" (and management) pilgrimage to the USA, starting on Monday next week.

My last trip to the USA was in January 2008, when I had the opportunity to get a taste of places like Chicago and Boulder, and so this trip is very much the main course, and I'm definitely going back to those places, plus a few new ones that I'm very hopeful will inspire many posts in the coming months!

So first things first - please don't worry, you're not going to get my "Diary of..." entries, where I tell you about the wonderful monuments and museums I visited. Rather, I hope that the trip gives me so much content that I'll be able to run a series of posts on people and topics that are inspired by the places and jobs I'm over there do to. So look at this more as a "Forthcoming attractions" post!

Chicago for the marathon - pacing and environmental research

First stop is Chicago, for the Chicago Marathon on October 11, and to give one or two lectures at Jonathan's university, UIC. Not to run (sadly), but to do some research in the medical tent, building on some of the work that Jonathan did last year. He and I will both be on the ground on race-day, where he'll be monitoring environmental and weather data from the route, and I'll be tracking the elite athletes and doing an intensive sample of their pacing.

The environmental data analysis was really a consequence of a really bad year in 2007, when it was so hot that the race was effectively ended early, and many runners were forced to abandon. Tragically, one athlete died. Since then, the organizers have made a point of monitoring conditions on the route, and Jonathan has headed this up - we'll post more on this in the coming weeks, and also some of the significant findings and implications of the measurements!

The pacing strategy data should be very interesting. By now, you have perhaps seen our typical marathon offering, where we do the 5km pacing strategy analysis of the elite fields. Well, in Chicago, we're going to try to be 8 times (well, 8.439 times) better and bring pacing splits for the elite fields EVERY 1KM.

That should be particularly entertaining if Sammy Wanjiru delivers on his promise to attack the world record. Word is that he's looking for pacemakers to hit half-way in 61:40, and we'll be tracking him, kilometer by kilometer, from the finish line!

So join us for those two analyses, in the build-up week and then on race day, 11 October!

Onto Colorado - Boulder and the US Olympic Centre

From Chicago, it's off to Colorado (13 October), and the highlight of the 2008 trip, Boulder. Boulder is one of the world's endurance sports meccas. I remember joining up with a training group last time (thanks Simon) and running out at the reservoir, and we saw hundreds of other runners, all in groups, all coached, doing their thing that morning.

It's a place that is a hub for innovation, a home to Training Peaks, who very kindly hosted me last time, who are now one of the leading lights in the monitoring of training quantity, quality and performance in the world. Magazines, authors, coaches, and a world-class university are all part of the Boulder charm, and so I will spend a few days there, meeting people, and hopefully doing a series of interviews to follow on from our previous interviews with Yorck-Olaf Schumacher and Prof Bengt Kayser.

From Boulder, I head down to the US Olympic Centre in Colorado Springs, at the kind invitation of Prof Randy Wilber. While I'm there, I'll be attending a Symposium on Altitude Training from 21 to 23 October, where some really great scientists and coaches will be speaking (they include Prof Wilber, Prof Christopher Gore of the Australian Institute, Bob Bowman and Terrence Mahon of swimming and athletics, respectively).

While there, I'm hoping to see inside the US system, particularly how they have integrated sports science into the preparation of the elite athletes. As you know, my current passion is really the management of science, strategic and scientific methods for high performance. So you can expect a fair share of opinion pieces and interviews from this phase of the trip as well!

Boston, Prof Dan Lieberman and barefoot running shoes

Finally, on October 30, I head to Boston where I'm going to take a visit to Harvard University, and a visit with Prof Dan Lieberman. To those who don't know, Lieberman is Professor of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard. In his words, from his own website: "I study how and why the human body looks the way it does". Lieberman has looked in great detail at our ability to run long-distances, and his theories are really fascinating, warranting a series all on their own! One of his research papers (co-authored with Bramble) can be seen here.

What makes me particularly keen for this visit is that Prof Lieberman is also one of the big names who has endorsed the Vibram Five Fingers running shoe, which I'm sure many of you know about. The site above has some quotes from Lieberman in it.

I'm quite excited about this because I'm really looking forward to hearing the rationale from one of the men closest and most capable of explaining the concept. It's a topic we've covered many times on this site in our series on running shoes.

My opinion on this whole 'minimalist' shoe movement is that it is sound in theory, but it's been rushed to market too soon, and incorrectly. The biggest problem is not the concept, but its implementation (the same is true of Pose running, by the way), and so I'm really keen to hear Lieberman's views, which are far more balanced than many who've advocated in the past.

I know that he's of the opinion that we should move away from bulky, heavy shoes, which is an opinion I share, but that he recognizes some of the limitations behind the 'minimalist movement' claims to date, and the lack of "hard science" (his words). His own views are not 'diluted' and so a meeting with him should produce some fascinating posts and maybe an interview!

So do join us over the next five weeks, and perhaps I'll be able to meet many of you while on my trip!

Cricket fitness

In my last post on Monday, I commented on Graeme Smith's cramp problems during SA's loss to England. I also mentioned my OPINION on the fitness levels of cricketers in general, including those in SA.

I received an email this morning with some facts that need to be published, along with an apology from me for any unfair criticism or offense that I may have caused with those opinions.

It was revealed to me that Smith achieved "a Level 13 on the Bleep test three weeks ago which is excellent (for any team sport). We know that Graeme is susceptible to cramp, but this does not mean that he is unfit. Cramping is not primarily due to a lack of conditioning. It is related to fatigue and genetic susceptibility. Many of the fittest team sport players in the world cramp as a result of numerous factors including, the intensity of the game, environmental conditions etc. Professor Noakes wrote an article (attached) several years ago (to which I contributed) showing that the cricketers were just as fit as the rugby players and that 11 of the 15 players in the 1999 world cup had played provincial level or higher in other sports."

It's necessary to state that opinion, and again, if I was unfair in delivering my opinion, then I apologize. Certainly, that 1999 paper exists, and I would not dare question its validity. It was ten years ago, of course, and the whole issue is that this current team may not be as fit as its predecessors, but it illustrates an aspect of cricket fitness that I did not acknowledge in my post on Monday. Of course there are fabulously fit cricketers, and I should have mentioned this. Smith, having achieved level 13, may be one of them, and those in charge should take credit for this.

So perhaps a congratulations are in order for those responsible for preparing the team and players, for Smith did bat brilliantly, spending 95 overs in the field to make his 140, and an apology for not acknowledging this in my original post.

A disclaimer (again)

Finally (I wish it were finally, I seem to do this every few months), I must emphasize that you're reading an opinion piece on this site. And it's my opinion, pure and simple. In fact, after the Caster Semenya controversy, when I was 'reprimanded' by the Minister of Sport (before, I must point out, it emerged that Chuene was lying, which is what I was suggesting), I put a disclaimer on the site. It says: "The views expressed on this site are not those of UCT, Sports Science Institute of SA, or UIC"

One thing I have realised in the last few months is that everyone is 'objective' until you disagree with them. Then they become subjective, inaccurate and wildly accusatory. Between those who've said I should resign on the basis of views on Oscar Pistorius, and Ministers and others who think we should remove "science" from the website name, I guess we're plenty subjective...!

But thanks everyone for reading and for supporting the efforts!


Monday, September 28, 2009

Chuene's survival and South Africa's cricket exit

Leonard Chuene survives (for now), but SA Cricket does not - random musings

Well, it's been five days since the Council of Athletics South Africa decided to give their President Leonard Chuene a vote confidence to continue to lead the federation. Yes, you read that right, a vote of confidence, which effectively means condoning his actions leading into Berlin and the subsequent lies to the President of South Africa, the IAAF, various political parties, the media, the public, Caster Semenya and the rest of the world. When one puts it that way, it suddenly doesn't seem so bad...

On a serious note, Chuene remains in power, much to the consternation of the South African public (and the bewilderment of the world, I would imagine) and media. It's still unclear exactly what went down at the meeting last Thursday. I have it on good authority that there was no secret ballot, no anonymous voting process, but rather a very open, very transparent, and very intimidating environment, which effectively said to all Chuene's opponents on the ASA Council "Come and get me, but you'll face a challenge if you do". Rather than offer Council members the opportunity to vote on the matter, they were invited to come forward, into a potentially hostile environment, and the entire meeting was controlled from inside.

And, sadly, in the South African sporting landscape, the whole is never bigger than the sum of its parts (it's not even close), and political and personal agendas supersede those of performance (and, in this case, it would seem, ethics and competence) . The result is that the small voice that may have wanted Chuene out was silent, and we were instead told a "unanimous decision" was reached to keep Chuene in power. Television pictures revealed Chuene supporters driving away holding up posters saying "100% Chuene" and "Hands off our president", which typifies the atmosphere of the meeting and the partisan environment in which "mature adults" discussed a very serious issue.

What next? Quiet before the next announcement

In response, the ANC and Cosatu (a powerful trade union in SA) have voiced displeasure, as have a few other political parties. SASCOC, our Olympic Commission, have already begun investigating, and may take action. Newspapers yesterday reported that Caster Semenya's lawyers have requested transcripts from ASA meetings, where it is believed Chuene will have disclosed far more than he has in the media.

These transcripts, and whatever arises from them, probably hold the key to the next steps in this drama, which will now be a little quieter.

More questions than answers

It emerged last week on 3rd Degree that Leonard Chuene DID in fact agree to withdraw Semenya based on the medical advice, but then changed his mind and consulted a politician before deciding to go ahead and let her run, dealing with the repercussions later.

This revelation suggests that Chuene had more than a "rumor" from his doctor to act on, as he has claimed. It was alleged that Chuene sent ASA's Vice-President to tell Semenya that she would NOT be running, and that she wept when she received the news.

It's quite clear that there is a LOT MORE that we don't know - what was Semenya told, both at the first medical tests and on this occasion? Why did Chuene change his mind? Who did he consult with? What happened to the medical report that ASA produced after doing the testing? Why did the IAAF not insist that this report be made available, since they had access to Dr Harold Adams themselves? Was he silenced by forces high up?

More questions than answers, and some may never be answered. As I said, I think the story will be quiet for a while, possibly until November, when the IAAF will make some kind of statement. If anything does come up, I'll be sure to post. But I guess to leave this issue for now, maybe the biggest question of all is: What would a sports administrator actually have to do to be relieved of his position in South Africa? We've seen failure at global competition, which is enough in most countries, where people are employed to achieve high performance. We've seen financial irregularities, lying, corruption and who knows what else. Seems a fair question to me...

Cricket news - SA out of their home tournament...again

Then, in news more relevant to those in the "Commonwealth" (apologies to US readers), South Africa crashed out of the ICC Champions Trophy last night, losing to England.

Cramp - fatigue and conditioning in play

The match was eventful for a number of reasons, the most relevant (to us at The Science of Sport, anyway) being the cramping of SA's captain Graeme Smith near the end of the match. Smith is prone to cramping, it has happened before. What made last night intriguing is that Smith requested a runner, and England's captain Andrew Strauss turned him down.

The way it normally works, for those not in the know, is that when a batsman picks up an injury during the innings, he can request that a team-mate come down and run on his behalf. The opposition captain has to approve, and this is where Strauss declined, forcing Smith to finish his innings hobbling around with what seemed to be hamstring cramp.

A few people wrote in this morning, asking my impression of this, and I must say, I was always going to post something on it when I watched it.

The fact of the matter is that a cramp is NOT an injury. Andrew Strauss was 100% correct to deny the runner - maybe he knows something the SA team apparently doesn't (maybe he even reads The Science of Sport), because he must know that a cramp is primarily caused by fatigue, and is thus influenced by conditioning, where the fatigued muscle goes into spasm, possibly as a result of reflex neural stimulation.

This is a complex subject, make no mistake, and generally, there are two schools of thought for what causes cramp - it's either the "Dehydration and heat model", or the "Fatigue and reflex disinhibition". We covered these models in a post almost two years ago, which you can read here.

There is controversy around which you believe - read the entire cramp series and you'll see what I mean. Some say that electrolyte loss (particularly sodium) is the cause, despite the fact that no evidence exists for this, and no one has ever managed to show that people who cramp are deficient in anything (either fluids or electrolytes). There is also a major theoretical problem with that argument, because when you sweat, your electrolyte concentration goes UP, not down. Therefore, if a cramp is caused by electrolyte loss in sweat, it's hard to explain when sweat loss doesn't cause electrolyte levels to fall.

So rather, the fatigue theory is interesting - a tired muscle loses the ability to control the reflex activity, and a cramp occurs as a result. You can read more about this here.

I joked earlier that maybe Andrew Strauss knew this, and his quote below seems to bear this out:

"The umpires were not particularly keen to give him one. I felt that at the end of a long game, after a long innings, you're going to be tired. Cramping to a certain extent is a preparation thing. To a certain extent, it's a conditioning thing. I didn't feel that he merited having a runner at that stage."

I agree.

As for SA cricket, I don't think that Smith's cramp impacted on the overall outcome of the game. He batted brilliantly, but it was a lone-hand and I think they may well have found the target a bridge too far, even without the cramp.

For the team, it's another disappointment, and all the more disappointing given that some of the team-members were quoted as saying that they were "unbeatable" prior to the tournament (Dale Steyn, that is).

And finally, is the team fit enough? That's a matter of opinion of course, and "fitness" is difficult to quantify, a lot depends on where you set the benchmark. Fitness is also contextual, with a gymnast having a different level of fitness to a marathon runner, simply because its parameters differ. There is cause for speculation, questions have been raised, and I know a good many people who do not believe that cricketers, in general (not specific to any team) are comparable to the athletes who play sports like rugby, soccer or maybe NBA basketball. Exceptions exist, of course, in both sports and so it would be generalizing to answer that question.

What I will say is that if a runner cramped in the final 5km of a marathon, my first area to investigate is whether they were adequately prepared for the pace, the distance (and obviously the combination of pace and distance) and the nature of the course (hills, that is). The same logic, applied to cricket, suggests that cramp (a function of fatigue, if you follow that model) is a function of conditioning to the same extent.

So I don't know the answer on the fitness issue - I have it on authority that the players have done substantial fitness work and are fit enough, and I won't question that. I must therefore retract what was written earlier that the players are not fit enough, and apologize for any offense caused. Of course, these are my personal opinions, but I realise the possibility that they'll be taken as representing an 'official' position. So I apologize for any unfair criticism on my part.

Upcoming travels to the USA

And finally, to end, I am building up for a trip to the USA, which starts next week this time (in fact, I land in Washington in exactly a week from now). Six weeks, seven cities, and a lot of work mixed with recreation awaits.

I'll post some details a little later. Don't worry, it's not that I want to give you all my "Dear Diary" entries, but a lot of the trip is related to sports science - there is a visit to the US Olympic Centre, a conference, research trials at the Chicago Marathon, some media work, a visit to Boulder, a trip to Harvard and a meeting with some great scientists and coaches.

All of which should make for some great posts in the coming weeks. I'll post more on this later this week.


Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Caster Semenya - cover-ups, lies and confusion

The debacle that is Caster Semenya's case. And more will follow

For those who have not been following this astonishing story, Athletics South Africa boss Leonard Chuene admitted on the weekend that he lied about not having prior knowledge of the doubt around Caster Semenya, and has admitted that he authorized tests on Semenya in South Africa before the team left for the IAAF World Champs in Berlin.

He has also admitted that he received medical advice from the team doctor that she should NOT run against women, but that he over-ruled the expert opinion, saying that he would not act on 'rumor', and entered Semenya anyway.

The time-line of this story now looks as follows:

  • 31 July - Semenya runs 1:56.72 in Mauritius
  • 3 August - the IAAF requests testing or some investigation
  • The request is acted upon by Dr Harold Adams, who was the Team Doctor for the Berlin World Championships (Chuene denied this, by the way, even though his own federation issued a press statement naming Adams as the doctor)
  • 7 August - testing is done at a clinic in Pretoria. Semenya is told that the process is for doping purposes, not a gender test. She was apparently very distressed and confused, but no explanation was given
  • Adams then advised Chuene to withdraw Semenya, since his results revealed that she should not compete. We do not know what he found - was it the same as the Australian media are alleging? Was it definitive? Was further testing required? We may never know the answers to these questions
  • Chuene (via a process that has yet to be revealed, but SA readers can watch 3rd Degree on E-TV tonight at 21h30 for more) over-ruled the expert opinion, and entered Semenya anyway
  • Chuene launched a campaign of misinformation and denial, failing to give the IAAF the results from this testing, and denied that it had ever been done. He sowed confusion to allow Semenya to run and win the medal
  • Once the leak to the media had occurred, revealing that the IAAF had commissioned its own tests (which it had to, since ASA "buried" theirs), Chuene attacked first Australia, then white media, then everyone else. Political leaders threw their weight behind him, and the IAAF were slammed for their discrimination. And let's be clear - the IAAF should be ashamed of that leak, but should not have to defend that they requested testing, on two occasions. Their handling of the case has in fact been by the book, with the exception of the leak. Unfortunately, that leak gave ASA and others the license to pass the accountability, which has delayed the inevitable truth somewhat.
Chuene's confession - not all that surprising

Chuene's confession, which has been viewed as a revelation here in SA by many of our politicians and media correspondents, is in fact nothing more than confirmation of what a lot of people have been saying since the beginning. In fact, if you go back to the start of this debacle, you'll see many people were saying that this smacked of a cover-up, and that Chuene was lying from day 1. Once Wilfred Daniels resigned as high performance coach, and alleged that ASA had done testing, it was a case that someone was lying. Daniels had nothing to gain from lying, having sacrificed his job to come clean. The vocal support thrown behind Chuene disregarded that the possibility that he was lying even existed.

Saturday's press conference merely confirmed this. It was, to be clear, inconceivable that ASA could NOT have known of the situation, and the sum of all the allegations and reports added up to the fact that ASA did know and that Chuene was lying all along - it took his confession to finally open people up to this possibility.

Take for example, the following piece that I wrote the day after Semenya won the 800m gold medal:
"Next, it is VERY MUCH ASA's responsibity to manage Semenya's the athlete, which surely includes this aspect. It is only in a completely amateur organization, which has zero strategic plan, where a federation can limit it's responsibility to training athletes only.

To put this as simply as possible, there are only four possible scenarios here:
  1. ASA did not do a single test on Semenya. If this is true, they have ignored the controversy, and the very obvious impending situation, and sent her into the Worlds, where this problem was going to surface. In this case, we have a case of neglect and irresponsibility.
  2. ASA did do some tests, but only cursory tests, which they believe sufficed. As we've explained, and many of you have commented, the sex determination test is enormously possible, with a risk of false results. If this is what happened, then it is a case of carelessness. And yet Semenya was sent, without proper process being followed, ASA should be held accountable.
  3. ASA did very comprehensive tests, or did a minimum level of test, and uncovered that there was in fact grounds for suspicion. If this was true, then there is no way ASA should have entered Semenya, because they knew that a problem would arise. If they did, effectively playing Russain roulette with a young women's life, it would be despicable.
  4. ASA did a very comprehensive test, and discovered no reason at all to doubt her sex. If this was true, ASA would be in the clear, and no problem would exist. I think it's safe to say that this was NOT done, because Cheune would have said so in his interview and this problem would have been managed"

    - Science of Sport, 21 August 2009

What time has revealed is that the answer was Number 3 - ASA did the tests, they knew the problem existed, and they chose to enter her despite this. And then they launched a campaign of aggressive accusation, slander and denial. Among some of the gems we've heard was Leonard Chuene labelling entire nations as racist, calling entire universities stupid, and attacking anyone who dared suggest that perhaps ASA had not managed this situation appropriately.

We had a Minister of Sport threatening Third World War if Semenya's medal was taken away, even though two statements by high-ranking officials from the IAAF said that this would not be the case.

And we had a range of political figures discussing Caster Semenya's genitalia while she sat, expressionless, on the stage at a political rally/press conference when the team arrived back. Female athletes were labelled as ugly, others had their genitals discussed in public, and people were told "so what if she is a hermaphrodite".

Complete disregard for expertise, which was a phone call away

It has been, to be blunt, an embarrassing time to be a South African in athletics and sport. Nowhere in this entire fiasco did a person of authority actually state that expertise will be called in, and that they will respect the scientific evidence and process presented to them. Only after the allegations got so bad that they were compelled did they finally announce "internal inquiries" and scientific panels, whose purpose was primarily to expose the flawed process of the IAAF.

Not once has a public figure acknowledged the role of experts in potentially preventing this problem - Chuene has now admitted that he overruled the expert advice he was given (that advice is being called "rumor", which is hardly surprising when you consider that universities are apparently "stupid").

All the while, experts were a phone-call away - one thing that I have discovered in following this is that there are people, who in 30 seconds, can explain the complexities of the science to you. Endocrinologists, chemical pathologists, a neuroscientist, a genetic counselor - I've had the privilege of interacting with all these people, and they clarify the issue within a minute.

The Minister of Sport actually wrote me a letter, asking that I stop speaking critically about their role (specifically, he referred to my criticism of his "Third World War" rhetoric). In his letter, he said the "science is complex". Problem is, it's not. What is complex is the ethical debate, as Zoe, Alessandra and Tina have been showing at a previous post - but the science is pretty straight-forward, what you do with the science, that's less obvious.

Many people - endocrinologists, psychologists, geneticists, physiologists - deal with it all the time. It's only complex when you're not listening, because the facts get in the way of the story...

Perhaps away from the media glare, people have cared, but what has been said in public has betrayed a scrambling for the moral high ground like we've not seen. Unfortunately, those who clamoured for the high ground are now looking down, and discovering that they're standing on a mole-hill.

What next?

I can also guarantee that this is by no means the last of the revelation, and more will follow. Tonight, on South African television, Debra Patta of the show 3rd Degree will reveal more information - I'll leave it to her, and the media in the next few days, to reveal that, but if you are in SA, make a point to watch at 21h30, because she will explain exactly what transpired in the build-up to Berlin.

Then, ASA has a council meeting on Thursday, at which the future of Leonard Chuene will be discussed. Whether the council will recommend that he step down is anyone's guess. The media and most political parties have called for his resignation, which he has refused, saying that he will not run away. So if the council elect to leave him in (this is the same council that commended him for handling the matter "exceptionally well" only 10 days ago, so it's not inconceivable), then there may well be intervention from higher up, since SASCOC (our Olympic Committee) have rightly said they will investigate that he lied openly to them as well.

I would also suggest, however, given that Chuene had medical results which he deliberately buried and kept from the IAAF (and it seems that these medical results are incriminating and would have prevented Semenya from running), that he be held to account for what was effectively fraud. I would also propose that ASA should be sanctioned, possibly by denying them participation in the 2011 IAAF World Championships.

Unfortunately, this has exposed the administration of sport and failure of athlete management to the highest degree. People have focused on the events since August, when the IAAF first requested. But, in reality, a professional system would have picked up problems long before this. It's a telling indictment on SA sport that this did not happen. The authorities dismiss as "allegation and rumor" anything that is not proven, but an organization that manages high performance sport effectively is able to predict the future, and control it, precisely because allegation and rumor are the first signs of an impending problem.

Reactionary high performance, combined with ambition to win and which ignores expertise, produces what we are seeing now.


Sunday, September 20, 2009

Berlin 2009: Haile Gebrselassie 2:06:08

Berlin Marathon 2009: Live splits and first report

Haile Gebrselassie has won the Berlin marathon, but no world record this time. His time was 2:06:08, which was the result of a dramatic slowing of the pace over the final 10km, and particularly, the final 5km. The record was on, all the way to 35km, but the wheels came off, and a 15:57 5km split between 35km and 40km saw Geb end well short, in what is actually his slowest marathon in 5 attempts.

The numbers tell a story - the table and graph below illustrate just how the race unfolded. I will look much more closely at these numbers in the coming days, and look to compare this race to the 2007 and 2008 races, where the record did fall.

But for now, take a look at the table and graph:

In the graph below, I've plotted the 5km interval times, and in green, the projected marathon time based on the split time. The dashed line at 14:41 shows the pace that was required at the start in order to sneak inside the world record - it represents a pace of 2:56.2/km, and it's clear that Geb was under it (by some margin) for 30km, and then over it (by an even bigger margin) for the final 12km.

How the race unfolded

It's pretty obvious from the numbers how this race unfolded. The early pace was pretty much bang on - they'd requested something around 61:35 at halfway, and so when the mark was reached in 61:44, it suggested the record was on - if anything, they were slightly slow.

Then the pace really picked up - the 15km interval between 15 and 30km was covered in 43:46 (the 10km interval was 29:10!), which projects a marathon time of 2:03:04. That searing pace accounted for Duncan Kibet, who was dropped before halfway, in a very disappointing outing for him.

It meant that Gebrselassie would have only pacemakers for company, and when the last pacemaker fell out just after 32km, the race against the clock was on.

Unfortunately, the clock would be the winner. You'll see from the chart that Gebrselassie fought bravely. He fought to hold the pace together between 30 and 35km, but that split was considerably slower than anything before, and at 14:53, it suggested that the record was starting to slip away. He was still on course, based on his 35km time, but the true story is that had he maintained 14:53 pace for the rest of the race, he would have missed the record by 1 second!

As it was, we didn't see that sprint against the clock, because the split from 35km to 40km was where it all ended. 15:57 for the interval, and the record was very clearly gone.

In the end, the time of 2:06:08 meant that the final 7.195km were covered in 23:31, a pace of 3:16/km, and when you consider that the pace required was 2:56, then you appreciate just how big the slowdown at the end was.

The pacing strategy: Too fast in the middle?

Overall, it shows just how fine the margins are between a good day out and a blowout. It's hypothetical, of course, but what would have happened if Gebrselassie had covered the 15km stretch in the middle in 44:00 instead of 43:46? He'd still have been on course for the record - you will see in the table above that his projected time was well under the 2:03:59 he ran last year.

He hit 30km a full 41 seconds faster than last year, and given how close to the limit he was, this was simply too quick (easy to say in hindsight, I know, but I felt it was ambitious even before). Could have have given up 30 of those seconds and finished faster? Probably not, I think he the record would have eluded him anyway, but the fast pace pushed him out to the very slow finish, I have no doubt.

Of course, perhaps it was just a bad day. There are many ifs and buts, but we saw one thing confirmed today - this record of 2:03:59 is pretty close to the limit for Haile Gebrselassie, and probably ever other man currently racing. That's not to say it can't be broken, and maybe Sammy Wanjiru will be able to edge it down by a few seconds in Chicago, but the days where we expect to see up to a minute cleaved off a time are gone.

I remember back in 2007, when he broke the record for the first time, people waxed lyrical about how it was a matter of time before 2:03 would be broken, and even 2:02. Some people even spoke about a sub-2 hour marathon. I think what Berlin 2009 has shown is that 2:03 is mighty close to the limit, at least for the current generation, and unless everything is perfect, even running 2:04 is a mountain.

As for the pace, I think it was too ambitious. Given the tiny margin for error, setting off at 14:30 pace, and then hitting halfway in 61:44, projecting a 2:03:28 and a record by 30 seconds, that's too ambitious. Of course, some may disagree, but I think the middle of this race was too fast - 2:03:04 pace for 15km in the middle, and that time is paid back with interest at the end!

Nevertheless, a great attempt, very courageous, and maybe there'll be another for Gebrselassie. Age may count against him, and this is the second marathon in a row where he's fallen away at the end, and it's his slowest in 5 outings, but he showed enough in the first 30km to suggest he's still in the kind of condition to run 2:04-something. Whether he has another record in him, time will tell...


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Saturday, September 19, 2009

Berlin Marathon: Revised prediction - no world record

Berlin Marathon revised prediction: The weather rules out a world record

I have to get a last minute revision to my prediction in. Yesterday, I called the upcoming Berlin Marathon as a world record to Duncan Kibet, some 30 seconds clear of Haile Gebrselassie.

However, this morning, two excellent sources - Letsrun (for news) and Globerunner (for great writing and stories) mentioned that the weather forecast for Berlin is not looking great. Peak temperatures of 25 degrees Celsius (touching 80F) mean the record, which really requires ideal conditions, might prove a touch out of reach. Add to this light breezes and relatively high humidity, and the record, now so tough that things need to be close to perfect, seems a longer shot than usual!

So I'm taking this 'gap' on the weekend to revise my prediction, and say that the record will NOT fall tomorrow.

How might it unfold? The SoS Crystal ball works overtime

Also yesterday, Haile Gebrselassie announced that he intends going through halfway in 61:30. He said "...I don’t want to be slower than 61.30 at halfway (compared to 62.04 last year), and would like to run 30k faster than last year”.

Last year, 30km was reached in 1:28:25. Given how quickly Geb finished last year, I dare say that if they're not at least equal to that in tomorrow's race, the record will elude both him and Kibet. Of course, in a head to head race over the final 5km, anything can happen, but I suspect the pace will not reach the levels it did last time, particularly if the temperatures get up there.

So what can we expect? To break the world record, the pace needs to average 2:56.2/km (or 4:43.6/mile pace). If Gebrselassie and co hit the target pace, they'll reach halfway having averaged a shade faster than 2:55/km, which puts them on course to crack the record by almost a minute, of course (a 2:03 projected time).

Look for the first 10km to be unaffected by the temperatures. I expect if the pacemakers are on target (which they have been for the last two years), then 10km will be reached in 29:09.

However, if the temperatures are high, even in the low 20s (last year it was 15 degrees the whole way), then I expect that the pace will start to drop from 10km onwards. Expect halfway to be reached in 61:57, which is slightly faster than last year (by 6 seconds), but which represents a significant slow down from 10km to 21km.

Progressive slowing due to the temperatures

That slowing of the pace will continue up to 30km, by which time the record will be out of reach. The crystal ball says 30 km in 1:28:41, which means the 20km interval from 10km to 30km will have been covered in just under an hour, a pace of 2:05:36. That will be testament to the higher temperature and humidity, but will mean that in order to break the record, the final 12.195 km will have to be run in 2:53/km (4:39/mile), which is a bridge too far, even in a competitive race.

So the record will slip away between 10km and 30km, which is typical when it's warmer - the body is too smart to simply carry on at the same pace until the athlete is forced to slow dramatically, and the physiology of pacing in the heat dictates that the slowing happens before the athlete hits that limiting temperature.

So the general trend will be for a fast start, then a progressive slowing up to about 35km, before it might pick up. However, warmer races are usually wars of attrition, and the winner will likely be the runner who maintains the pace, rather than lifts it. Sammy Wanjiru has rewritten the 'rule book' when it comes to racing in unfavourable weather conditions, but to crack a record as tough as this, I fear that every degree Celsius above about 16 degrees will cost the athletes a few seconds...

As for the race, I'm going to stick with the original projection - Kibet to win, Gebrselassie to finish about 30 seconds behind, but no world record for either. Look for the break to happen at about 38 km, as the pace just edges up to drop the Ethiopian.

So my revised finishing times, plus 10km, 21.1km, 30km splits, is shown below:

1. Duncan Kibet - 2:05:04 (29:09 - 61:57 - 1:28:41)
2. Haile Gebrselassie - 2:05:33

And referring to Giovani's question about confidence intervals...I'd say I am about 5% confident! But very confident it will be a great race!

Anyway, that's just a bit of fun, we'll see how far off the mark I am tomorrow.

Join us soon after the finish for our post race analysis and splits!


P.S. Good news for running - Martin Lel races again this weekend, in the Great North Run, where he has achieved success in the past. He takes on Jaouad Gharib in another great race this weekend. And then Lel heads to New York in November, so that's great news for fans of Lel, who, when he was on form about 18 months ago, was a fearsome runner, and my favourite marathoner.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Showdown in Berlin: Marathon WR to fall?

Gebrselassie vs Kibet, with the marathon world record on the line

Bring on Berlin and the start of the fall marathon season! Here at The Science of Sport, our "flagship" posts are our marathon analyses (that is, they're the most fun to do!), and so we love this part of the year!

Only weeks after bringing down the curtain on one of the greatest IAAF World Championships ever, Berlin is bracing itself for a great race (and time) in its annual marathon.

Mr Berlin, Haile Gebrselassie, has used this event to set a world record two years in a row. Last year, he strode to the world's first sub-2:04 clocking, courtesy a great finishing 10km. The graph below, taken from our analysis of the 2008 race, shows Gebrselassie's 5km splits and it's clear that he got faster and faster from 30km onwards. The dashed red line shows the pace required when he started the race, and it was those last 2 intervals that brought him home in under 2:04. You'll see from the red block that at 30km, he was on course, with a projected time of 2:04:21, followed by a phenomenal split from 35 to 40km, where he averaged 2:53/km.

This year - a race against Kibet

This year should produce a race over and above a fast time. Haile Gebrselassie has been criticized in the past for avoiding races, including a rumor that he has an agreement with the Berlin organizers that gives him a 'veto' right against who else may be signed up to race. Sammy Wanjiru is alleged to have fallen prey to this veto - Berlin's loss was Chicago's gain, since the number 1 marathon RACER will line up in the American city on October 11.

However, Berlin 2009 is not simply a paced time-trial for Gebrselassie. Enter Duncan Kibet, a man who one year ago possessed a PB of 'only' 2:08.33, when he placed second in the Vienna Marathon.

In October 2008, he ran 2:07.53 to win in Milan, and he followed that up with an astonishing race in Rotterdam this year, where he pipped James Kwambai to run the third fastest marathon in history.

His time of 2:04:27 makes him the second fastest man in history, only Gebrselassie has run faster (twice, of course, both in Berlin).

Duncan Kibet - an intriguing character

So the presence of Duncan Kibet in the race makes it intriguing. Kibet is himself an intriguing character. You can read a really great piece on him here, courtesy Pat Butcher. He's a character, much needed in the sport (ala Bolt). He gives great interviews, tells great stories and brings something extra to the procession of super-fast distance runners from Kenya, which really benefits everyone. Speaking of characters, Gebrselassie is the original crowd-favourite, and so Berlin has much more than a fast course and good time going for it.

Kibet has declared himself to be in great shape, and looking for a PB. The great thing, as our friends at LetsRun.com have pointed out, is that when your old PB is 2:04:27, then a new PB brings you into reach of a world record.

Add to this the great course, the great competition, and what has historically been great pacemaking, and reports of ideal weather (at this stage) and the record is certainly on.

Gebrselassie - does he have a 'hat-trick' in him?

As for Geb, does he have a third consecutive world record on the streets of Berlin in him? He has alternated successful attempts with unsuccessful attempts in Dubai. However, Berlin has been his stage for two years and there is every chance he'll have another record in him.

The manner with which he finished last year, as shown in the above graph, suggests he may have a bit more in him. I felt last year that he started a little quickly, lost time in the middle and then sped up at the end. Not that his pacing was poor - it was magnificent, but we are talking 10 second-improvements over 2 hours, and there is certainly reason to suggest that Gebrselassie might have it in him with slightly improved pacing and a good race to push him for 42.2km, rather than the 38km he got last year, courtesy James Kwambai.

A prediction - the crystal ball is out

So here's my first prediction of the 2009 Fall season. This is tongue-in-cheek, a wild shot in the dark, and it's likely to be wrong, but that's never stopped me before!

1. Duncan Kibet 2:03:52
2. Haile Gebrselassie 2:04:24

So I'm picking Kibet to win this race, his younger legs and progressive improvement over the last year the difference on the day. Halfway to be reached in 61:50, slightly faster than last year (62:03), and Gebrselassie and Kibet to race together up to about 40km, when Kibet starts to pull away gradually. Gebrselassie then switches off somewhat, not wanting to push Kibet even faster and help him break the world record (as he did in 1996 in Zurich with Daniel Komen), producing a bigger time gap than would normally have been the case.

Then again, I could be completely wrong, in which case, just swap the names "Gebrselassie" with "Kibet" in the paragraph above, and go for the greatest distance runner ever to claim a third consecutive world record!

Whatever happens, we'll bring you the splits, the projected times, the analysis, during and after the race! So join us on Sunday!


Saturday, September 12, 2009

Semenya's performance advantage: An irrelevant question?

Caster Semenya's potential performance advantage may be a non-factor as medical consideration takes over

As mentioned in my tennis post below, I had a quick thought to share on Caster Semenya and the discussion around whether she has a performance advantage and should be allowed to run, assuming the reports of internal testes are correct.

A lot of the discussion revolves around whether Semenya will be banned. Politicians and officials have threatened World War III if this happens, and vowed that Semenya will continue to run regardless of her condition. Her supporters are saying that she should be allowed to run no matter what, while others are saying she should not run if she a enjoys a performance advantage as a result of the condition.

The reality is that there may never even need to be a decision, and any controversy around the issue may well be dealt with as a result of medical concerns taking precedence over performance concerns.

Having initially written this post on Saturday 12 Sep, I've learned a bit more, courtesy colleagues in pathology and from your comments, and so I've edited this post to improve its accuracy. Thanks as always for your time and comments!

The IAAF Decision: Performance advantage vs Semenya's decision: Medical

The issue of what the IAAF should do regarding Semenya's participation in sport may very well be completely irrelevant. That's because, if the reports are true, and she has internal testes, then SHE would almost certainly have to seek medical treatment.

In cases like this, three options options often exist

  1. Surgical removal of the testes, which is likely the recommended option. According to Alice Dreger, an expert on intersex conditions, "Women with testes are at risk of testicular cancer. So doctors typically recommend having them taken out and having women take hormone replacement therapy (to retain bone health)". Thanks to Amby for that comment, as well.
  2. Hormonal treatment and gender re-assignment. However, according to Dr Pete, a commenter in the post, this is very unlikely in the current scenario. It would require the correct internal anatomy and according to experts I've spoken to, is quite unlikely. Also, the testes would need to be removed anyway.
  3. Do nothing. It is still possible Semenya chooses to do nothing (against medical advice). This is risky, because the danger of malignancy and cancer is substantially higher. Also, it's more difficult to detect with internal testes, and so she'd need careful monitoring. Once again, from Alice Dreger: "But one option is leaving them in and using watchful waiting so far as cancer risk is concerned, and more and more women with AIS feel that is a reasonable option"
Of the three, I'd say 1 and 3 remain on the table.

So why might this make the argument over performance advantages and the IAAF irrelevant? Because this situation has by now become a HEALTH issue first, and a performance one second. If Semenya has surgery, then the source of the potential advantage - the testes and the testosterone - will no longer be present and she can compete without any question (obviously, provided the issue is cleared up, as for the IAAF policy on sex reassignment). The necessary medical intervention may eliminate any debate over whether she has complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome or a partial AIS, and how much the testosterone might be helping her.

So rather than ask what the IAAF will do about her performance advantage, one should perhaps be asking whether the medical treatment SHE seeks is going to affect performance, and whether that medical treatment might negate the responsibility of the IAAF to make a decision at all.

Of course, it's possible that she chooses to do nothing, and then the ball is in the IAAF court once again, and they'd have to look at performance advantage. I'll look at that in the future, for sure.

But here are the two scenarios:

She goes for surgery, has the testes removed. 2010 will bring one of two results:
  1. She runs just as fast as in 2009, but should then not be questioned, since the "advantage" is no longer present.
  2. She slows down, but should still not be doubted. Either way, there is no issue of a 'ban' because of a performance advantage.
In this case, the Minister of Sport, ASA and everyone else 'threatening' the IAAF don't ever have to carry out their threats. In fact, the only way they would be able to stand their ground and occupy their current position is if they refuse to allow her to seek medical advice for a potentially life-threatening condition.

Meanwhile, those saying she should not run because of an advantage need not worry about the advantage. The medical concerns may well negate all the controversy.


Tennis humor: Djokovic vs Mac

Weekend tennis humor (and one thought on Semenya)

In among all this controversy over Caster Semenya, I thought I'd take a day off (well, kind of a day - I still have ONE comment to make at the bottom of this post, I promise it's one). And for the day off, here's a video I really enjoyed, of Novak Djokovic first imitating and then playing John McEnroe after his US Open victory against Radek Stepanek the other night.

I've not been a huge fan of Djokovic, mostly because he seems so petulant and has that annoying habit of reliance on his support box. But it's really great to see tennis players (any sports stars, for that matter), becoming entertainers to add value over and above what they do on court or on track.

We've seen with Usain Bolt that one man can add enormously to the entertainment value of a sport. Bolt has taken athletics to a new level of entertainment, and hopefully that persists beyond his career. He's already inspired many others to 'imitate', and then there was Berlino, and a great world Championships, and suddenly athletics seemed exciting!

So below is Djokovic, famous for his impersonations, giving a court-side interview, then an imitation of commentator John McEnroe, followed by a few rallies with the American legend. It's a good laugh, and a nice change from the somewhat heavier topics of recent times (if you're getting this in an email, click here to go to the site and view it there - it may take some download time if you're in South Africa)!

On court, the finals have been moved to Monday, thanks to a complete washout yesterday. Federer, Djokovic and Nadal are all still in, Nadal finding himself with the challenge of playing three matches in three days to finish, while battling abdominal injuries and doubts over a knee injury. It should produce an intriguing climax.

Caster Semenya brief thought

There is that brief thought on the Caster Semenya issue, but that is above, in a separate post!


Friday, September 11, 2009

Mike Hurst speaks on Semenya

Journalist Mike Hurst speaks about the Semenya article: An outstanding interview

I've just been fortunate enough to catch an interview with Mike Hurst, the journalist who wrote the piece on Caster Semenya being a hermaphrodite in an Australian newspaper. This was the article that has been the catalyst for the latest round of allegation, accusation, denial and debate on the issue of the 800m world champion. I still think there are some inaccuracies in the article, some 'liberal' assumptions over the action the IAAF may take, but those were addressed earlier today. This is a post on sports management.

For those not in the know, Mike Hurst was the journalist who broke the story, and his interview to Radio 702 Eyewitness News is one of the best I've heard on this subject, by a long way (you need to click on "audio" on the video box on the righ of the page to listen).

Perhaps unencumbered by the political baggage and the minefield of allegations and anger, he spells out some truths that the authorities really do need to hear. I highly recommend that you give it a listen, it's honest, insightful and direct, particularly his views on how the issue has been managed. Sometimes, it takes someone from outside to point out the obvious...

The reaction in SA - "third world war"

Juxtaposed against this is the reaction to the issue within SA. Following the pattern set in the last few weeks, officials here have been scathing in their criticisms. We even got threats of "a third world war" today. Seriously , those were the exact words of our Minister of Sport who threatened a third world war if the IAAF tried to ban Semenya from competing. You can listen to his words at this site, on the right hand side if you click on "video" in the embedded box (there is also a text summary of the Mike Hurst interview I mentioned above, and of course the audio file of Hurst speaking about his article).

To quote the Minister of Sport in response to the allegation that Semenya is intersex:

“That means nothing. There are many hermaphrodites in the world so what does it matter. This girl is running as a girl who has been accredited as a girl. Nobody has questioned that. She doesn’t have a womb, so what?"
This might just rank right up there Leonard Chuene, President of ASA, calling scientists and universities "stupid" about two weeks ago, and it again betrays the complete lack of value that seems to be placed on facts, law and science in this case. Given that this blog was set up to try to provide some insight, this willful ignorance has to be mentioned. The fact of the matter is that it has to mean a great deal to the IAAF, and to the rest of the world's female athletes who run 800m, and to the sport as a whole. It matters a great deal, and unfortunately, South Africa is not the only nation that the IAAF thinks about. Much like 4-year olds who don't perceive that other people's needs exist, we have yet again adopted a position that says a great deal about professional sports management in this country.

The ethics of sex verification - a very valid argument

One can very well argue the issue and the ethics of sex verification testing, as many of you have done. Should we even bother? That's a separate question altogether, and there is a very real case to be made for allowing athletes to compete with any intersex condition, and many have made this point very well. Personally, I believe the line between male and female must be defended and so you cannot simply allow any condition under the guise of "she's just lucky in sport, in the same way as Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps is lucky in sport". I am afraid that doesn't wash with me - the difference between male and female categories, and the requirement for fair competition necessitates that extreme cases (and this may be one) are handled as serious by the governing body.

Disdain for process and mismanagement

However, to dismiss the whole issue as meaningless and to say that she should run as a girl because she has been accredited that way (by ASA, who wanted a gold medal and thus have a strong incentive to adopt this position, I might point out) is so disingenuous, it beggars belief. Also, in response to his statement "nobody has questioned that" - I'm afraid they very much have, and that is the issue.

This case seems destined to drag on and on, heading almost certainly for the CAS. And just for the record, I certainly don't wish to defend the violation of confidentiality that must sit, surely, within the IAAF, based on Hurst's reports. One leak was bad. A second, so soon after, that's a grave error and we've heard that 8 cases like this have been handled in the last 4 years. This should have been the ninth, dealt with confidentially, but Semenya was let down by the IAAF on that front, no question.

However, from within SA, the accusations and the complete disdain for process has done only harm, and I can only echo Mike Hurst's sentiments in his interview, where he suggested to ASA that they really should co-operate with the IAAF on this, and stop fighting ignorantly against what seem to be slowly emerging facts. At the very least, the human rights violations that ASA are so quick to accuse the IAAF of may be even more serious from them. Mike Hurst spoke about "games being played by ASA" - these are some serious games to be playing.

ASA should adopt a position supporting Semenya, condemning the leaks in confidentiality through the media (not the entire process) and then respect the authority and the scientific process being undertaken.

And time will reveal how ASA managed this situation before Berlin, which is where the real questions should be asked.


Semenya and hermaphroditism

Hermaphroditism in sport: More on the latest Caster Semenya allegations

Here in South Africa, local media coverage has been dominated by the reports that Semenya is a hermaphrodite who has internal testes, but no uterus or ovaries. Some time has passed and more questions raised, and so following are some more thoughts following my initial post yesterday, and discussion of the complex issue facing the IAAF. The first part is all based on the assumption that the source is accurate, of course. I address the validity of the article at the end.

Hermaphrodite: What does this mean exactly?

The first point is to clarify some terms, which I think have been used rather loosely. The article says that Semenya is a hermaphrodite who possesses internal testes but no ovaries or uterus. Strictly speaking, Semenya is NOT a hermaphrodite, she is a pseudohermaphrodite (which is itself an inadequately broad term).

Hermaphroditism is a very rare condition in which a person has both ovaries and testes (and thus produces eggs and sperm), and the external genitalia are a usually combination of male and female. Having only testes (internal, in this case) means hermaphrodite is the wrong word to use. Also, Semenya cannot possibly have male reproductive organs externally, because this would be immediately obvious to a doping official during doping controls. Therefore, she must have, at worst, ambiguous genitalia, which would suggest pseudohermaphroditism (a very broad term indeed).

Classifying intersex and some options

The classification of these intersex disorders is actually very complex, but it's important, because the eventual decision that gets made is influenced by it. Some authorities (Ritchie et al., 2008) suggest the following classification:

  1. Conditions resulting in the masculinized female
  2. Conditions resulting in the under-masculinized male
  3. Pure hermaphroditism
As mentioned, I'd rule out 3, if she has testes only. Option 1 seems unlikely, since she would have no uterus or ovaries, which leaves option 2. The diagram below shows how 'normal' physiology is that an XY combination produces a male with testes, and an XX gives a female with ovaries, but that AIS, and a few other chromosomal abnormalities (XXY, XO, mosaicism) and enzyme deficiencies can lead to the intersex condition, where the genitalia are ambiguous and the genetic sex does not match the physical appearances.

Referring to the figure above, and given that the reports also suggest that she has elevated testosterone levels, and no uterus, a possible scenario is the following:
  • She is genetically male - that is, she has an X and a Y chromosome
  • She would have produced testes during development (the gonads differentiate at about 7 weeks, directed by genes linked to the Y-chromosome)
  • She may be insensitive to testosterone, as a result of a condition called Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS on the diagram), which means that we will have high levels of testosterone that do not exert the normal effect on the reproductive system
  • As a result, she develops as a female despite the presence of the male hormone and organs
  • Because she was "directed" to become male, she does not develop a uterus either
The A-5-reductase deficiency shown on the diagram is a condition where an enzyme, alpha-5-reductase, is deficient, and so the person cannot convert testosterone to dihydrotestosterone (DHT). DHT is essential for the development of external male genitalia, and so this person would also develop with internal testes, and be male (lacking a uterus or ovaries) with an external physical appearance - both would fall into the 'masculinzed female' category above.

Hermaphroditism, intersex and sport

The next important point is that people with intersex conditions CAN still participate in sport as women. If one were to go along with the somewhat oversimplified definition of intersex conditions as a mismatch between the chromosomal sex and physical appearance, the incidence of this seems relatively high in sport. The diagram below summarizes the results from the Olympic Games from 1972 up to 1996, before the IOC stoppped genetic screening of athletes. What you are seeing is the number of female athletes who "failed" the genetic test which looks for the presence of a gene (called SRY) that is normally found on the Y-chromosome (in other words, these are women with a Y-chromosome).

Of particular interest is the 1996 Olympics, where 8 women were identified as "genetic males", but all 8 were allowed to compete. These 8 would have presented with the same results as Caster Semenya supposedly has - no uterus, no ovaries, and (possibly) internal testes. All 8 were cleared to compete.

So, the issue not quite as clear cut as it may seem. And that is one of the question marks around the Australian report - the source is adamant that Semenya will be banned from future competition, but this is clearly not a guarantee. It may happen, but it may not.

In fact, the section below is taken directly from the IAAF policy document on gender verification (2006):
6. Conditions that should be allowed:

(a) Those conditions that accord no advantage over other females:
- Androgen insensitivity syndrome (Complete or almost complete - previously called testicular feminization);
- Gonadal dysgenesis (gonads should be removed surgically to avoid
- Turner’s syndrome.
So, as you can see, someone with AIS is still able to compete, which explains why those 7 women in Atlanta were cleared. The issue, and this is where it gets complex, is around what "complete" means.

In my opinion (which is subject to biases, I confess), I cannot see that Semenya has complete AIS (assuming it's AIS, that is - it may be something else). She displays too many characterisitics that would only be found in someone who DID respond to testosterone, like body fat distribution, skeletal structure, deepening of the voice, hirsutism. So now the issue is whether she has an advantage, and that gets grey...

Next steps: Remove testes, and then compete?

That said, the most important thing is to have the internal testes removed. This has nothing to do with performance, but is for health reasons - those testes can very quickly become malignant and lethal. The irony in this drama is that Semenya's life may actually be saved as a result of the sex verification process, because had she not been an athlete, it may never have been detected.

So the first thing is to remove the testes. Once that is done, then I can see no reason why she cannot continue to compete as a female. In fact, the IAAF allow males to have sex changes and then compete as females, provided they serve a 2-year period out of the sport and undergo hormone therapy. Internal testes seem minor in comparison. So Semenya's career need not be over as a result of this.

The article: Valid or not?

Finally, I have had a little bit more time to look at the leaks and the articles written in the press Obviously, all discussion is based on these leaks, so it's certainly worth asking how valid they may be.

First of all, I agree with the LetsRun guys, that Mike Hurst is a decent journalist, and also recognize that the first leak way back in August turned out to be accurate as well. So that suggests that the information may well be believable. That said, there are some inconsistencies - the IAAF have stated that the medal will probably NOT be taken back, while the source in the Australian article says it will be. That contradiction undermines one of the two reports - either the source is wrong, or the IAAF are lying, it can't work both ways. That's a question mark.

The second question mark revolves around the implications of the finding. There are two aspects to evaluate - the actual test results, and the IAAF's actions with those results. Even if the source is accurate regarding the test results, knowing that the IAAF will disqualify Semenya is not quite as clear cut. I've covered this above, but the bottom line is that the source in the article appears to be making rather over-simplified statements about what action the IAAF would take, when in fact the IAAF may not know this themselves, pending the review by an independent panel.

Caster Semenya press conference Saturday

Then, ASA announced yesterday that Semenya would be holding a press conference tomorrow, though that seemed to be before the latest round of allegations and rumors surfaced. Whether that will go ahead, I don't know. Judging from the reaction when she arrived back in SA after Berlin, it may well become another rally and will probably not reveal too much.

Should the authorities just come out and disclose everything they know to date? Obviously, there are massive implications, and the patient confidentially dictates that this not happen (I'm asking the question rhetorically). However, the silence allows leaks and allegations and maybe some facts would satisfy the demand, at least for a while.


Thursday, September 10, 2009

Caster Semenya leaks begin

"Caster Semenya a hermaphrodite" vs. "Results in November". The rumor mill starts spinning

Following on from my post yesterday, which looked at the latest developments in the case of Caster Semenya, I have two very quick links to provide you with. I'm rushing off to do a presentation on the issue for a local scientific organization, so I have little time to comment, but the links will come up and you might as well see some comment here first.

IAAF position: Semenya will find out in November

First, the IAAF have announced that the results will be available in November only, because this is when they have an executive council meeting. According to Pierre Weiss, Secretary General of the IAAF, "there will be nothing before that".

You can read the article here. It includes some really interesting quotes, most notably this section:

"Weiss said Semenya's case was the eighth dealing with sexuality issues the IAAF had handled since 2005. "Four athletes were asked to stop their career," he confirmed, without giving further details."
That is very interesting, because it serves to highlight that this current issue is in fact nothing new. Unusual, yes, but the big difference is the leak and the subsequent uproar over unfair treatment.

The article also highlights the fact that the IAAF have been trying to get hold of Semenya over the tests, but that ASA are keeping them from her, which is extra-ordinary behavior, but not out of character given the last few weeks and ASA's behavior. Why the rush to reach Semenya? To tell her the verdict? Or maybe a health-reason (as discussed below)?

Regardless, the IAAF have stated that she is unlikely to lose her medal, which puts an end to at least some of the speculation (for now). Read on to have it re-ignited...

"Caster Semenya is a hermaphrodite" - news reports

Almost by design, at about the exact same time as the IAAF said that results would wait until November, newspapers in Australia are reporting that
"Caster Semenya is a hermaphrodite - a person with both female and male sexual characteristics". You can read this piece here.

This issue was always going to inspire massive speculation, leaks and rumors, which is why I wrote yesterday that the idea that this would be kept confidential (as it should be, according to IAAF policy) was a dream. It took only one day for the rumors to start flying.

I don't know what to make of the article. It's unproven, of course. There are also statements in the article that are directly contradictory to the article I linked to above, where the IAAF said that Semenya's medal would not be taken away - the Australian piece says it may be. Also, some of the science is likely over-simplified - the use of the term "hermaphrodite" is probably not entirely accurate, since the classification of intersex conditions doesn't use the term much anymore, except in very rare cases, and this seems unlikely to be one.

More to the point, there are a lot of claims that are not necessarily true. For example, in the article, it says the following:
The tests, not yet publicly released, show the 18-year-old has no womb or ovaries.

The International Association of Athletics Federations is expected to disqualify the South African from future events and advise her to have surgery because her condition carries grave health risks, The Daily Telegraph reports.

And she could be stripped of the gold medal she won in Berlin in last month [as mentioned, this seems unlikely based on the IAAF comments]. Semenya has three times more testosterone than a normal female. A source closely involved with the IAAF tests said Semenya had internal testes - the male sexual organs which produce testosterone.
Even if all this were true, it still does not necessarily mean that she will be disqualified from future events. There are conditions which are allowable, which would see Semenya being able to compete after surgery (the surgery, by the way, is for health reasons. If you have internal testes, then they can become cancerous, and so must be removed. This might explain their desire to get hold of her, with ASA standing in the way).

The point is that even if the article is accurate, and the source is reliable, the actual decision around Semenya would not necessarily be disqualification. Unless something is known and is not being disclosed by the source. The crux is that they have to establish that she has some sort of performance advantage as a result of the condition.

Now, let's just very quickly look at the claims - the presence of testes, and the absence of a uterus, would suggest that she is genetically male (has a Y chromosome, possibly XY, possibly XXY). In order to develop as a female, she may be insensitive to androgens, or have a deficiency in an enzyme in the androgen pathway. This means that if the reports are accurate, she may have AIS (Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome) or alpha-5-reductase deficiency, or possibly a genetic abnormality that is much rarer than these (which are pretty uncommon themselves) and results in the development of an under-masculinized male (there are three categories of condition - under-masculinized males, masculinized females and hermaphrodites).

What people need to know is that AIS, if complete, as well as alpha-5-reductase deficiency, are both conditions which the IAAF policy says are "allowed". The problem is with partial AIS, where it becomes a decision around whether she has an advantage or not. And that is exactly the same position as we were in before, though now we have a possible biological piece of the puzzle to add to yesterday's debate.

Still waiting - as you were...

So the point is that all these reports, regardless of their accuracy, still reveal nothing of the action that may or may not be taken. While it may be suggested that being an intersex individual, or someone who is "not entirely female" is grounds for disqualification, it is not. In Atlanta in 1996, 8 women "failed" the sex verification test because they had a Y-chromosome (strictly speaking, they had the SRY gene on the Y-chromosome). All eight were allowed to compete.

So Semenya may well have a condition, but may well continue running. The decision would be made based on whether the degree of a condition (assuming it is there) gives her an athletic advantage. The testosterone level, as we saw yesterday, is part of this, but by no means the only factor. Nor is the presence or absence of male or female organs, rather bizarrely.

What I do find very intriguing is the possibility that she has internal testes that require removal - what is the magnitude of the effect this would have on her performance? An intriguing question...

And then of course, she may have nothing at all - there are enough question-marks in the Australian report to wonder about the accuracy of the article. I am reminded that they were correct the first time around, when the story broke. It certainly does not seem good for Semenya, as the issue gets deeper and deeper.

I'm sure once the rest of the world's media picks up on this, there may be more to say. Until then, as you were...


Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Caster Semenya: Results awaited and anticipated

Latest on Caster Semenya: Results pending as we look at the possibilities and the importance of testosterone

Well, it's been just over a week since my last post - I do apologize for the break, but as I said - "post-Tour and IAAF World Championships burnout!"

It's been a busy time, catching up on some work, and so I have missed a few newsworthy stories, and hopefully in the next while, I'll be able to catch up. Between now and late September, that is, because then the Fall marathon season starts, first with Berlin, then onto Chicago and New York. But for now, we have a bit of "breathing space" to cover some stories and topics in more detail.

Caster Semenya: Latest news from SA

The big story in SA has continued to be that of Caster Semenya. The latest development saw ASA's Performance Manager, Wilfred Daniels, resign as a result of what he felt was mismanagement of the situation, and the fact that ASA lied to Semenya when they began the process of sex testing back in July. Daniels stated that he was unable to look himself in the mirror, and it's a strong stance to take for a man who has been involved in the sport for many years.

That was followed by Semenya appearing in a magazine in South Africa, having received a make-over including makeup and women's clothing sponsored by a few local fashion chains. The story and photo-shoot have caused some controversy again, exposing a split in perceptions. Some say it's great for Semenya, others are more cautious and still others feel the shoot was distasteful. The best piece I read on it was from Owen Slot of the Times, and you can read it here.

The IAAF testing results on the way

And then finally, the test results from the IAAF are ever nearer to being announced. Last night, the local news said "within days", and then this morning, I read this piece from the Telegraph saying that the results may take a week to 10 days.

The Telegraph piece also mentions that the test results are known, but that the IAAF will commission a panel of independent experts to review the results, hence the delay. The reasons for external review? I guess that depends on your point of view. Part of it seems to be that the results are not clear-cut, that they suggest sufficient doubt to warrant further opinion. The other part has been reported as the IAAF wanting to cover itself given the political nature of the matter.

The shadow of doubt: An inconclusive finding is the worst-case scenario

Both seem likely, but if the result is marginal, too close to call, then regardless of what the final verdict is, it leaves a great deal of room for doubt. And doubt is unhealthy for all concerned - it means the benefit of doubt should go to Semenya (quite rightly), but it leaves a lot of scope for future controversy. For Semenya's rivals, many of whom are already highly suspicious if not straight-out convinced of her ineligibility, it means their doubts remain or even grow. For Semenya, doubt means suspicion well into the future, and a very difficult international career, since questions will only remain. And for the IAAF, the entire process of sex verification is undermined (which, admittedly, many will say is a good thing...)

So I believe the key is that things should be clear-cut, conclusive. An inconclusive finding produces no 'winners'. I've done a few presentations on this in the last two weeks - one to the academic department and another for the public through the Sports Science Institute of SA, and it has certainly given me room for thought.

The possible outcomes: What is on the table?

So, in the lead-up to the results being known, I guess the following are the four options:

  1. A conclusive negative finding: This allows Semenya to continue to compete, no problems or questions asked. It is the best result for Semenya, and for SA athletics. I dare say that if this happens, then SA has the next world record holder on their hands, assuming she's managed and coached well (these may be rather big 'ifs' given how management are going about things). I would also dare say that this is no longer an option, since a conclusive negative finding would not require any more delays in announcement. I'd therefore all but rule it out of contention at this stage.

  2. An inconclusive finding: This is the worst-case scenario. It would allow Semenya to continue competing, which is good for her, and should be respected. But it won't be. Competitors will doubt, Semenya will compete under a cloud and it will be very difficult for all concerned, in the longer term. This is the "doubt" scenario I spoke of previously.

    If I had to guess (and it is a guess), this is a likely scenario, given how difficult it is to actually prove performance advantages based on biology. It's one thing finding physiological differences, quite another preventing competition. So rightly or wrongly, it means Semenya competes with permanent doubt. Not pleasant for anyone, least of all her rivals (who are silent protagonists in this whole issue)

  3. A conclusive finding of advantage: Whether due to a disorder of sex development that causes an intersex condition, or a medical problem, this scenario means Semenya has to either be treated (if possible) or cannot race against women in the future. Those are tough options for Semenya. With luck, it'll be the former option and she'll be OK to race after treatment. This depends on what condition, if any, is present.

  4. Positive for doping. This has rarely been spoken, but certainly is implied by many articles that have raised the issue that ASA's head coach advisor is Dr Eckart Arbeit, the former East German doctor known for his involvement in doping programmes in the doping-era of athletics. That's not to say he's responsible, or that there is doping, but it remains on the table as possible. That is purely because of the rapid nature of performance improvement, which, taken in isolation, compel one to ask these questions below is a chart showing her progress between July 2008 and August 2009.
Dismissing the possibility altogether would be premature. Having said that, I do think that like option 1, this can be largely ruled out since it would have emerged by now.

The testosterone issue: Males vs females

One of the rumors (I must point out that it is still unconfirmed) is that Semenya's testosterone level was three times that expected of a female athlete. That was reported about a week and a half ago. There are a few problems with this report - the main one is that we don't know what "expected" value they used. There is a range of testosterone values for females, and it's unclear whether the reports are based on the mean, the mode, the median, or the upper limit. Given that doubt, it's pretty meaningless to say "three times higher".

However, in the past few weeks, I've had the opportunity to chat to many endocrinologists, and this testosterone level is actually very important. The IAAF policy states that when it comes to decisions about people competing after changing sex, the crux of the matter is the level of testosterone, and it's likely true of any case. So the level of testosterone is crucially important. That means that the next question is what is typical for males and females?

Below is a chart looking at commonly referred to values for males and females.

It reveals two things:

First, the ranges are wide. That means it's even more important to know what you are comparing a value to. Quite clearly, people are not equal, and so to compress everyone into a narrow band is 'unphysiological'.

Second, and maybe more important, the ranges don't overlap. In fact, they're not even close. The bottom end of the male spectrum is almost 400% higher than the top of the female range. And, importantly, males who lie in the bottom of that range are usually quite ill - they have hypogonadism requiring medical treatment, and the typical male value is much higher than this 9 nmol/L lower limit. The difference between males and females is thus enormous.

Similarly, women do NOT naturally have testosterone levels above the upper end of their range. In fact, my discussions with chemical pathologists and a few endocrinologists have revealed that if a female presents with a testosterone of 4 nmol/L, they are considered to have pathology that requires treatment. Candidates for the conditions causing this level are Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia (CAH), Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS), an androgen producing tumor, alpha-5-reductase deficiency, and a host of other DSDs (disorders of sexual development).

The importance of the testosterone level?

This is very important, because it means that the testosterone level would be highly suggestive of something related either to a medical condition or an intersex condition that MAY provide a performance advantage. It's not sufficient to decide on a verdict, however, because in the case of AIS, for example, a person can have high testosterone levels without any performance benefit, since they are insensitive to androgens. The conditions causing elevated testosterone are thus not necessarily performance-enhancing, and so you can't simply use it to decide, that would be oversimplifying an enormously complex problem far more than it should be.

However, testosterone is one of the few variables that doesn't have some overlap between males and females, and that makes testosterone a crucial variable, at least in terms of diagnosis. Things like muscle mass, strength, body fat, height, weight all have considerable overlap, but it's pretty clear that women don't approach male levels of testosterone unless some pathology is in play.

The confidentiality issue

Time will tell what the testing finds. One thing that must be pointed out is that these results may never be known. They are supposed to be confidential. However, given the media frenzy around this case, I find it inconceivable that they will be. Purely scientifically, it would of course be great to know what physiology is in play (just as I'd love to know the physiology of Usain Bolt or any other elite athlete).

However, medical confidentiality should dictate that we never know the details, only the outcome. Somehow I don't see this happening, and there's going to be a lot of rumor, and some truth emerging in the next few weeks. It's inconceivable that it can remain confidential, having come this far already. No doubt there is more to come...