Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘IAAF

Caster Semenya, human irrationality, and fairness in competions

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The last few days, there has been renewed controversy around Caster Semenya (for the umpteenth time).

Caster Semenya is a case that has interested me on an abstract level, because there have been so many proofs of human irrationality around it and a few somewhat similar cases, notably Oscar Pistorius. Again, this is so:

The latest round is a new study (c.f. e.g. [1]) showing that rates of testosterone affect the performance of female athletes—something that even semi-informed people would consider almost* a given without a study. A potential consequence could be that Semenya must undergo a drug therapy to get rid of an “unfair” advantage (or not being allowed to compete).

*There could have been some unexpected quirk involved due to the different way male and female bodies tend to handle testosterone and estrogen, or similar, but that is not very likely in light of existing observational evidence, e.g. that women do not only have a strong advantage from anabolic steroids used as PEDs (testosterone is a natural anabolic stereoid), but, arguably, a stronger advantage than men. Look e.g. at the age and level of the current world records in throwing events vs. the performance level of today.

This is a disastrously wrong approach, which would also imply that other natural physical characteristics, e.g. height, must by analogy be considered: Basket-ball players taller than, say, 8 feet should only be allowed to compete if they have a corresponding offsetting handicap. Ditto sprinters with too high a proportion of fast-twitch fibers. Ditto limbo dancers who are too short. Ditto chess players who have to high an I.Q. or too good a memory. Etc.

That way lies the world of Harrison Bergeron

The correct question to ask is not whether Semenya is an extreme outlier in terms of testosterone and has a corresponding advantage—but why:

If she happens to be an ordinary XX with a (in some sense) normal body, which just happens to have so an unusual* configuration that she is an extreme outlier, then she should be allowed to compete on exactly the same terms as everyone else. She does have an advantage, possibly an immense one, but that advantage is within the realms of fair play—just like a basket-ball player should not be barred merely for being 8 feet tall**.

*Say that she has simply won the genetic lottery—all the numbers just happened to go her way, in that she has a genetic configuration where unusually many stimuli are “on” and unusually many inhibitors are “off”. In contrast, the examples below are more comparable to someone who manipulates the drawing of the numbers.

**However, here too there might be some situation where the reason for the tallness could be a relevant criterion. Possibly, people with a pituitary condition might need a class of their own. (Not implausible; however, this would go against historical precedence.)

If she has gained her high levels through e.g. having male testes*, being a cross dresser or a transgender person**, or deliberately injecting testosterone*** then the reason for her advantage is such that the advantage becomes unfair. (Exactly how to resolve this individual cases is beyond the scope of this post. Whether, when, and against whom genetic configurations that are neither XX nor XY should be allowed to compete, provided that they are otherwise “normal” women resp. men, is something that I lack the depth of knowledge to judge, but they could very well be relevant for inclusion upon deeper investigation.)

*One of the rumors I have heard. The actual investigations made are confidential, which implies that this discussion must be hypothetical.

**Almost certainly not the case, but some gender extremists have actually made demands that biological men who consider themselves women should be allowed to compete against women—which would make a complete mockery of women’s sport.

***Possible, but it is unlikely that she would have gotten away with that for so long with the amount of scrutiny she has been subjected to. However, exactly this accusation has been raised against e.g. Jarmila Kratochvilova (the long retired world-record holder at 800 m, which is also Semenya’s main distance).

Of course, another possible take would be to abolish the separate women’s class in competitions, either entirely or through replacement with some other categorization, e.g. by testosterone level, height, and/or (paralleling many existing sports) weight. Somehow I doubt that the other female competitors would be happy with that solution… (And this could turn out to be impractical.)

The case of Pistorius is slightly different: Here it is clear that if he has an advantage, then that advantage is unfair. In a second step, it is at least likely that he does have an advantage*—and if he does not, then he or someone else will in due time. Determining with certainty when that time has come, however, will be virtually impossible, and there would by necessity be some period of time in which the “blade runners” do have an unfair advantage before being separated—unless they are separated at a time before this determination has taken place.

*Contrary to some naive people who have taken it for granted that he has a disadvantage and have reached his level of performance despite his handicap—rather than because of it.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 4, 2017 at 9:34 pm

Follow-Up II: Olympic trials or tragedies?

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And yet again, there have been plenty of interesting events:

  1. Aregawi was indeed not nominated for the Olympics. The reasoning for this is vague, but seems to be largely based in doubts as to her form or some other factor*. This is a good example of how sports organizations get in the way of sports—and is doubly unjust, seeing that the reason why she might be out of form and has been unable to prove herself is the flawed doping suspension… The decision to compete should be hers and hers alone**. Should it transpire that she goes to Rio and makes a fool out of herself, well, that is a risk that she should take or not take according to her own wishes.

    *E.g. that she might still somehow be a cheater. While this is definitely a possibility, it should be up to those with suspicions to prove her guilt—not up to her to prove her innocence.

    **Given that she already has surpassed the international qualifying standards. I am not inviting the average couch potato to join the competition.

    A twist is that in order to compete, any Swedish athlete has to satisfy at least three different organizations: The International Olympic Committee, the National Olympic Committee, and the respective national organization for the individual sport (in this case Track and Field). This not counting other organizations that might have a say on another dimension, e.g. WADA.

  2. Molitor has been promptly turned-down in court. Whether this is a good or a bad thing, I honestly do not know. What I do know is that the problem is an artificial one, created by an unjust rule of three athletes per country.
  3. Hurdler Kendra Harrison (who almost featured in my original post) went to the U.S. trials with a world leading time that was one of the best in history, missed the top three, and will not be going to the Olympics.

    Today, she broke the world record of almost thirty years… No matter who wins in Rio, there can be little doubt that she at best the number two in the world. (Barring the possibility that the winner answers with a similarly good time, which is highly unlikely.)

    Since hurdlers often have a short peak, I would be extremely surprised if her chances at winning the next time around, in four years, are even close to what they would have been this year.

  4. The IAAF are again screwing around with competition formats, to the detriment of both athletes and fans: Apparently competitors in the field events of the current Track-and-Field Junior World-championships are allowed a maximum of four attempts, instead of the six which has been the standard since the days of yore. Looking at past competitions, this is a very major change, seeing how common last round changes are, and it replaces an element of skill with an element of chance. This is particularly disturbing, since the IAAF seems to have strong urge to just shorten competitions, without considering how the results might be affected.
  5. In other news relating to doping and the power of organizations: Norwegian cross-country ski star Martin Johnsrud Sundby appears to have been suspended on a doping violation, retroactively losing several titles—because the national-team physician had screwed up with a medication that he was allowed to use.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 22, 2016 at 11:20 pm

Follow-Up: Olympic trials or tragedies?

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It is almost a shame that I did not wait a few days to write my last post, with a number of interesting events occurring in the mean time, relating directly or indirectly to my post:

Good news: Kallur has been given a dispensation from the unjustified restrictions imposed by the Swedish federation.

Bad news: A number of other Swedes in the same position, but of lesser stature, have not, and are thereby arbitrarily blocked from competition.

Interesting news: Javelin world-champion Katharina Molitor has not been selected for the German team, despite being another strong candidate for Olympic gold and a given on the team of almost all, possibly all, other countries. She is know pursuing her possibilities in court… On a related note, Claudia Pechstein (speed skater and multiple Olympic champion) is renewing her court efforts to get compensation for a doping suspension that appears to have been unjustified (Pechstein certainly feels so; I lack the detail knowledge for a definite claim). She has hitherto not been that successful in court, but it is interesting (and positive) that the power of the sports organizations is questioned and tested.

Meanwhile, the Meldonium doping suspensions are being re-visited intensely, with Swedish–Ethiopian Gold candidate* Abeba Aregawi being cleared**—almost half a year after she was suspended. While I have nothing against cheaters being blocked, the revelations around Meldonium in the last six months show that there is something seriously wrong with how various sports organizations have handled the issues—often to the very severe detriment of innocent or merely slightly incautious athletes.

*Well, before her suspension. With the damage presumably done to her training, focus, planning, whatnot, I would be surprised if she comes even close. (Assuming that she is put on the team at all.)

**I have not looked into the details, but I am under the impression that this is a result of a re-evaluation of what amount detected should be considered an offense.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 14, 2016 at 6:48 pm

Olympic trials or tragedies?

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I have long been annoyed at the way participation in the Olympics and many other international championships are handled, especially from the point of view of priorities: Sports should be for the athletes first, the fans second, and various organizations/the broad masses/sponsors third (or even fourth)—and it almost invariably ends up being the other way around.

Consider the following absurdities resulting from the inconsistent country-specific regulations and/or the general limit that a country is allowed to send only three athletes:

  1. Allyson Felix is the reigning Olympic champion in the women’s 200-meter dash, a strong victory candidate, and despite still recovering from injury problems came in fourth at the U.S. Olympic trials—missing third place by a hundredth of a second. She is not allowed to go. There will be some (non-US) women going who have run no better than 23.20 (according to http://www.iaaf.org/competition/standards), to be compared to Felix’ season’s best of 22.54, last year performance of 21.98, and personal best of 21.69 (all according to her IAAF profile).
  2. Meanwhile, Jamaican Usain Bolt failed to compete at all due to injury in the Jamaican trials. He is also the reigning champion, also one of the favorites—and he gets a free pass from Jamaica. Better than the Felix case? Possibly—but tell that to whoever actually came third…
  3. Swedish hurdler Sanna Kallur* has repeatedly run faster than the international qualification standard, she is the hands down best female hurdler in Sweden, and in the absence of an Olympic trial of the U.S. or Jamaican type, she should be an easy choice for Sweden. However, Sweden applies a stricter qualification standard and, unless the rules are bent, she will not go either—in which case Sweden will not send a female hurdler, there being no single woman, let alone three, to fill up the team…

    *Unlike the aforementioned, she is unlikely to be a victory candidate due to years of injuries and old age. In her prime, however, she was formidable. Merits include the (still standing) indoor world-record in the 60m hurdles and European championship victories both indoors and outdoors.

This, of course, is just a small portion of all the absurdities that could have been listed. The U.S. Track-and-Field trials alone produce a handful of cases per Olympic cycle. Looking over the totality of all Olympic sports and all the countries involved there will be hundreds of cases just for the current Olympics.

To prevent such injustices and absurdities, a completely different approach is needed: It must be only the performance of the individual that counts—not what nationality someone has. The exact modalities are of course negotiable, but a reasonable interpolation from the current system would be that anyone* who has achieved the qualifying limit is allowed to go. Other possibilities include some form of gather-points-to-qualify, as used in e.g. tennis for its yearly tour finals, or a variation of the world-ranking concept.

*With some natural reservations, like the exclusion of anyone currently serving a doping suspension. However, under no circumstance the currently popular attempts to exclude people from competition for having the wrong opinions.

The only argument I have to date heard in favour of the three-athletes limit, is that there is a risk that some event or other grows boring, because we know in advance that the majority of the top-ten will come from a single country. So what!?! If Soviet pole-vaulters, U.S. sprinters, or Kenyan runners (at various times in history) would have been so utterly dominant, let them. The athletes themselves want a fair chance to win, while the true fans of the sport often care more about the individual athletes than nationality. For that matter, a dominance so complete that upsets never happen is very rare and tends to be short-lived—and they have grown rarer over time: Even if the argument had held at some point of time (of which I am skeptical), it need not hold today.

The U.S.-Style trials have more justification (assuming that a three-athletes limit is already imposed from the outside), e.g. in that someone who cannot win in the U.S. is unlikely to win globally, that it prefers the athletes with good nerves and the ability to “bring it”, or that that “bad day” could as easily have happened during the actual Olympics. Every system has its advantages and disadvantages, every system will leave an athlete here and there being (in one sense or another) unfairly left-out, and none can magically remove the three-athletes limit*. Disadvantages of the trials include the abruptness, the increased element of chance, the need to peak several times in one season, and less tolerance for injury periods (cf. e.g. Felix above).

*Notably, the three-athletes limit makes it hard to find a good compromise. For instance, it might be plausible to divide the number of participant into three pools for best trial results, best marks of the season, and wild cards based on subjective estimates about past or future accomplishments. However, that makes each pool one person large… Going to six instead of three, we could have a trial pool of three, the two best marks, and one wild-card (or a number of other distributions).

Another angle is whether the concept of national teams are truly compatible with the Olympic spirit* to begin with: Would it not be better for international friendship and harmony if the athletes competed as individuals instead of representatives of their countries, without the resulting “us vs. them”?

*What exactly is meant by Olympic spirit has varied from time to time. The current official stance appears to involve “to build a peaceful and better world […] a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play […] promote tolerance and understanding […] to make our world a more peaceful place.” (Re-quoted from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olympic_spirit.)

In as far as national organizations, completion’s, whatnot, have a role to play, then only to the degree that they may choose to support or not support the respective athletes. Sweden might let Kallur, and the U.S Felix, fend for herself in terms of travel costs, training camps, and similar—but they should have no say in whether she is allowed to enter the competition.

A welcome side-effect of focusing on the individual instead of the nationality is that the artificial import of athletes along the lines of Turkey or Bahrain, where athletes switch nationalities like they do soccer clubs, would be less tempting and less of a problem.

More generally, the way the individual athlete is treated today is often disgusting, as a mere pawn for the powers that be and far from being the main player of the drama. Consider, for instance, how the sponsors of the individual athletes are booted from the Olympics in favour of the Olympic sponsors—money that should have gone to the the athlete and PR that should have gone to his sponsor instead go to the IOC and their sponsors… The athlete is helpless: Boycotting the Olympics will hurt him far more than the IOC (barring an unlikely mass protest). Other examples include restrictions on acceptable opinions and behavior outside of the field of sports, anti-doping measures that cause impositions few of us would agree to live with, the obligation to participate in certain competitions (as is the cases with high-level tennis players, who have good reason to complain about too little time for recuperation), and arbitrary rule changes (e.g. track-and-field, formula one).

Written by michaeleriksson

July 12, 2016 at 12:14 am