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Why the Caster Semenya sillyness makes me so angry aimee whitcroft Aug 24

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I am, I would be the first to admit, generally pretty flippant and light-hearted in my blogging.

semenya

Caster Semenya. I dunno, but Jenny Meadows looks at least as...hardcore...ya?

Not for me the heavy-handed nor overly serious style adopted by many others.  No, I prefer that my readers have a bit of a giggle, maybe pick up some new knowledge, and go skipping off into the rest of their day.

Not today, gentle readers, not today.

Upon perusing our fine print news media this morning (in this case, the NZ Herald), I was at first nonplussed, and then furious, to see yet another article about Caster Semenya.  The female athlete who won the 800m and 1500m races in the World Championships last year and then proceeded to be paraded (unkindly, often) in front of the world, by the media.

What occasioned this treatment?  Well, she won.  By quite a margin.  Performances like hers, in any sport, do tend to raise the eyebrows of sporting officials, as they suspect foul play of some sort.  Her 800m time beat her personal best (9 months earlier) by 7 seconds, and became a national, championship and world record time.  Now, I believe that a drug test in this case is perfectly fair.  They also, however, asked her to undergo a gender test.  This was supposed to be kept confidential (gender is, after all, somewhat more personal than drug use*), but was leaked to the press.

Who proceeded to have an absolute field day with the issue but, as is so often the case, I haven’t actually heard much sense from people around me who I’ve heard discussing it (although there were a couple of decent articles at the time).  The issue died down for a while, but has raised its ugly head again, and I am once again spittingly angry at the pronouncements by so many, who know so little, on the subject.

Before I get into said debate, some facts to bear in mind.

Gender is not, as many might believe, a binary characteristic.  In fact, like so much of life, genetics and the human experience, it encases a spectrum of different possibilities.  Some examples below:

- Superfemales/supermales – These are people who have an extra sex (X/Y) chromosome.  In females, for example, it means the that the person has 3 X chromosomes**, and some women can be taller (although other potential characteristics include reduced muscle tone and clumsiness).

- Congenital adrenal hyperplasia – Occurring in 1 in 1,000 people, this refers to a series of diseases in which the genes for enzymes which are involved in making cortisol have mutated.  The outcome?  Most of the time, it changes how much sex steroids people make (either too much or too little), which can affect their development, fertility, etc

- Conditions such as AID – Androgen insensitivity syndrome is caused by mutations in the androgen (male sex hormone) receptors.  People with the condition, which also, as with most genetic disorders, varies in strength and effect, often experience some level of infertility/undervirilisation.  In people who have complete AIS, a genetically male person (XY) will present externally as a female, as androgens are responsible during development for the development of a neutral foetus into a male foetus (one might describe being female as largely default).

And the tests for gender are far from, well, seriously accurate in some cases. To explain – gender is determined by whole chromosomes full of genes.  So to figure out whether someone is genetically male of female, you’re looking for very specific bits.  Which, even if a full sequence is done, is apparently something like a fishing expedition.  Other ways to test include looking at genes elsewhere, which regulate hormone production and sit elsewhere in the genome.  But again – not exactly back and white.  Or you could look at muscle, but the same applies***!

I’m certainly not going to try and guess what, if anything, might be affecting Caster Semenya – I’m simply trying to make clear that human gender is a far, far more complicated thing than simply being a boy or a girl.

And here’s where we can start the debate.  There are certainly a number of facets, so I’m going to try not to waffle, but rather open them up for discussion.

Privacy

Is this something something that should be being splayed across the media internationally?  Yes, something interesting is occurring.  And it’s not like doping, because that’s breaking the rules. Caster has broken none so far, and should be treated with a little bit of common decency (clearly, dignity is too much to ask). A lot of the complaining really does seem to have a very base, greenish tint to it…

And I thought we’d got over wanting to peer at other people in some sort of weird carnival-type fashion (especially if they didn’t consent).

Where do we draw the line?

This is the crux of it, I think.  It could be argued that most professional athletes are far from representative of the norm – like many models, they represent the far ends of the bell curve which makes up humanity.  Female athletes, for example, are likely to have started out with more androgens (male sex hormones) that their ‘normal’ counterparts, which would provide an advantage.  And we don’t moan about that.

Or, perhaps, one female athlete is taller than another – perhaps even taller than some male athletes.  Do we then tell her to compete with men? Obviously, asking shorter men to compete against women would probably still be unfair…

To give another example: Usain Bolt.  The man who made the world’s draw drop with his incredible speed, charm, and, well, that wonderful moment when he slowed down at the end of the race to show off a little.  He’s a complete freak .  Speed is made up of a mixture of how long your stride is, and how fast you can move your legs.  Bolt’s stride is unusually long (7ft or something equally incredible), and he is able to move those legs of his very fast, both of which give him that gobsmacking ability to outrun lightning.  Now, should we be saying that he can’t compete at all, since he’s basically untouchable (and going to get faster)?  I have heard not even the slightest whisper of such a suggestion.

Or, should we split athletes in classes, either instead of/in addition to splitting them by gender?

I dunno, perhaps we should do away with professional athletes completely, and just pull random people off the streets to compete.  Hmmph.

Other angles

Here’s where I bring in transhumanism, and prosthetics, and so forth.

A word on prosthetics.  Take, if you will, the case of Aimee Mullins****.  She’s a runner, and a gifted one at that.  She’s also a model, an inspirational speaker, and, oh yes, she wears prosthetic legs. And there’s Oscar Pistorius, who runs so fast on his prosthetic legs that he’s able to compete (and compete well) against able-bodied runners.

Which brings up another question: are prosthetics an unfair advantage? Should we ban their use, or have runners using them run in yet another category? Might athletes one day choose to lose limbs in favour of bionic alternatives?

That last point dips deeply into transhumanism, a subject with which I’m fascinated.  (For myself, I’d be happy to swap squishies for more advanced versions with cool features, but yes).

In conclusion

Certainly I don’t have answers, but I think we need to be very careful in the proscriptions we make – there’s much of the slippery slope about this whole issue.

And there’s no one test which will answer this question – it’s something for the judges to decide, as they figure out what constitutes female vs male. This is a matter for experts, not the the ill-informed opinions media/public debate.

Certainly, it would be nice if everyone could have a little more dignity as the decisions are made – at least as much dignity as Semenya has displayed during this time.

UPDATE: The IAAF has come to a decision on this.  Which makes the continuing media farce even more appalling.

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Postscript: Let me be clear – I understand why sporting events are split into male/female, and I have no problem with it.  Oh yeah, and also: the athlete who was moaning that running against Semenya was like running against a man, finished 8th. It could be argued that it’s not Semenya getting in her way…and there’s nothing uglier than bad sportsmanship.

Further postscript: Jenny Meadows actually came out in support of Semenya last year – details of decent sportsmanship in this article.

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* Particularly, and I should stress this, in countries which are not western and liberal!  Good grief, South Africa (from whence I hail) has some seriously old-school attitudes towards such things, and the poor girl’s only 19 now!

** Other names for the condition include triplo-X, trisomy X, XXX syndrome, and 47,XXX aneuploidy

*** Basically, while men and women differ in muscle strength and muscle variation, there are always going to be outliers on both sides.

**** Watch TED talks by her, here.

If I was a running shoe manufacturer, I would be worried… aimee whitcroft Jan 28

7 Comments

This is brilliant.  I’ve heard intimations of it on various websites for the last few months, but it’s always good to see a published paper backing it up.

running shoes

In short, it says that running shoes are not actually necessary for runners.  In fact, they may do more to cause damage than to protect.

So, the paper, published in Nature, says something along the following lines:

Man has evolved as a creature capable of running.  For long distances, on often very hard (and by that I mean the opposite of squishy) terrain.  If you don’t believe me, simply look at the runners in, well, large parts of Africa.

People running barefoot generally land one of two ways – either on the front/balls of their feet, or else using a ‘mid-foot strike’ in which both ball and heel land simultaneously.  This allows the complex feat of structural engineering that is the human body to absorb most of the shock of this impact – the moment when, apparently, running can cause the most injury.

However, running shoes change the gait of a runner substantially.  By lifting and cushioning the heel, they elongate a runner’s stride, meaning that the impact of striking is the ground is borne by the runner’s heel. and then ricochets upward.  This, in turn, leads to a huge amount of jarring – some 1.5-3 times the weight of the runner, much of which happens to the lower leg.  This could help account for the impact-related injuries which are experienced by many runners these days, including tibial stress fractures and plantar fasciitis.

(Also, the arches of one’s feet, whose primary purpose is shock absorption, apparently flatten over time.  Everyone who wears heels often will be familiar with this problem.)

In order to come to this determination, the researchers looked at three primary groups of people – those who have always undertaken endurance running using athletic footwear (1), those who grew up running either barefoot or minimally shod but now use running shoes (2), and those who grew up using running shoes but now run barefoot or minimally shod (3).   They also compared two other groups of people – those who have never worn running shoes (4), and those who have grown up habitually wearing them (5).

What they found was this:

Groups 1 and 5 (the habitually heavily shod, as it were) generally hit the ground with their heels, both when running with and without shoes.

Groups 2 and 4 (the originally unshod) generally landed on the balls of their feet in both situations, and occasionally used mid-foot strikes (when shod in group 2, and unshod in group 4)…

barefoot

Credit: Benton et. al.*

“This image compares two Kenyan runners from our study at the moment just prior to foot strike plus representative force traces below. The subject on the left has been shod most of his life and lands on his heel (a rear-foot strike)l, causing an impact transient: a rapid, large collisional force within a few milliseconds of impact (not unlike being hit on the heel with a hammer with a force several times one’s body weight). The subject on the right has never worn shoes and lands on outer the ball of her foot before bringing down the heel (a fore-foot strike). This kind of landing is comfortable without shoes because it avoids any collision. The paper explains why forefoot and some mid-foot strikes avoid collision forces at impact.

The upshot of all of this, after looking at all the maths and stuff, is this: your body has been designed, through the millenia, to run either barefoot or with just enough of a sole to protect your feet from the glass shards and goodness-knows-what-else that is such a feature of the modern urban landscape.  Wearing running shoes could, in fact, lead to stress injuries.

A caveat, however: for those of who count yourselves as being amongst the habitually-shod, don’t simply throw your shoes away and begin your new, natural regime immediately – you will need some time for your body and gait to readjust to this new (yet very old) way of doing things.  As with all sports, take it slowly.

And, of course, the money you were saving for that very expensive pair of [insert name here]-branded shoes can now be used for something else.  Like sending me a real cocktail, across teh interweb, to say thanks.

For more details, I’d suggest having a look at the paper.  If nothing else, it has plenty of pictures of differently flexed feet and ankles, and maths, for those who’re into that kind of thing…

Reference:

* Lieberman, D., Venkadesan, M., Werbel, W., Daoud, A., D’Andrea, S., Davis, I., Mang’Eni, R., & Pitsiladis, Y. (2010). Foot strike patterns and collision forces in habitually barefoot versus shod runners Nature, 463 (7280), 531-535 DOI: 10.1038/nature08723

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