Lindsey Vonn

Star female athletes who competed against men weigh in on Lindsey Vonn

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Lindsey Vonn turned 29 years old Friday, and what a life-changing 365 days it’s been for the Olympic champion downhill skier.

A year ago, Vonn was in the news for her dominance on the slopes. She requested the chance to compete against men on the Alpine skiing World Cup, a bid that was rejected by the International Ski Federation (FIS), citing rules that one gender is not allowed to compete against another in FIS races.

That storyline subsided as others elevated this year.

Vonn blew out her right knee at the World Championships in February (video here), announced a relationship with Tiger Woods, attended every major golf tournament, and set a return to competitive skiing (against women only) for as early as Oct. 26.

If Vonn returns to form and racks up win after win, talk could very well resurface of racing men. She is three World Cup wins away from Annemarie Moser-Proell‘s female record (62). The men’s mark held by Swede Ingemar Stenmark (86) is ambitious but not unattainable.

Some of the greatest athletes of all time gathered in New York this week for the Women’s Sports Foundation awards. Among them were women who competed against men — golfer Annika Sorenstam, tennis player Billie Jean King and hockey player Angela Ruggiero.

The Swede Sorenstam played at the PGA Tour event at Colonial in 2003, becoming the first woman to play on the PGA Tour since Olympic track and field champion Babe Didrikson Zaharias in 1945.

“I think it’s a terrific goal,” Sorenstam said of Vonn facing men. “I was in a time in my career when I needed something to push me a little extra. I look back at my career, and it was one of the highlights. … It really helps you elevate your own game.”

King swept Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes” in 1973. She believes Vonn racing against men could boost women’s sports as a whole.

“When (Sorenstam) played on the PGA, I watched that weekend,” King said. “She was in every single frame for two days. She never gets that. We never get that kind of attention in women’s sports.

“Because 95 percent of the media is controlled by men, if we get into their arena, then we finally get some attention. Otherwise, on our own, we don’t get the attention. But if she would go up against the men, I guarantee you she would get 20, 30, 40 times the attention. Just with the attention, with all the branding that’s going on today, you have to ask yourself a lot of different questions. When I played Riggs, I didn’t have to deal with all that.”

In 2005, Ruggiero became the first woman to play men’s professional hockey at a position other than goalie in North America. She suited up for the Tulsa Oilers of the Central Hockey League.

Ruggiero, now an International Olympic Committee member, said she talked to Vonn about facing men when the skier considered it last year.

“It would do so much for the sport,” Ruggiero said. “I know when I played men’s hockey in the Central League, the media exposure you get alone, but it’s also a new challenge for her. You have to respect her as an athlete. She’s been at the top of her game for so long, and she’s looking for new ways to evolve.”

Vonn trains in Austria with eye on World Cup return

Female runners with high testosterone face new restriction

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Female runners with high testosterone must reduce those levels or will not be allowed in international races between 400m and the mile, according to an IAAF rule starting Nov. 1.

Olympic 800m champion Caster Semenya, who was gender tested in 2009, is expected to be affected, according to South Africa’s Olympic Committee.

“Our evidence and data show that testosterone, either naturally produced or artificially inserted into the body, provides significant performance advantages in female athletes,” IAAF president Seb Coe said in a press release. “The revised rules are not about cheating, no athlete with a DSD [difference of sexual development] has cheated, they are about leveling the playing field to ensure fair and meaningful competition.”

The IAAF, after funding a study along with the World Anti-Doping Agency, said research showed the following natural testosterone levels:

Most women: .12-1.79 nanomoles per liter in blood
Normal men after puberty: 7.7-29.4 nmol/L

The IAAF rule forces all women who race the 400m through mile and who are androgen-sensitive to restrict their ratio to below five. It said women who have “a difference of sexual development” can have natural testosterone levels beyond the normal male range.

The IAAF and WADA-funded study found that women with high testosterone have up to a 4.5 percent advantage over their competition on the track.

Research showed 7.1 of every 1,000 elite female track and field athletes have elevated testosterone, most of which were runners in events between 400m and the mile.

“The treatment to reduce testosterone levels is a hormone supplement similar to the contraceptive pill taken by millions of women around the world,” an IAAF doctor said in the release. “No athlete will be forced to undergo surgery.”

The IAAF had gender-verification testing in place until 2011, when it was replaced with a test for abnormally high levels of natural testosterone. Under that rule, female athletes with a ratio of 10 nmol/L or higher could only compete against women if they had an operation or took hormones to reduce their testosterone level.

In July 2015, the Court of Arbitration of Sport (CAS) suspended the IAAF’s regulation, ruling that it lacked sufficient scientific backing and was therefore unjustifiably discriminatory.

The gender-testing issue was raised in 2009, when Semenya won the world 800m title by nearly 2.5 seconds at age 18. Word leaked that track officials mandated she undergo sex testing.

Semenya was not cleared to run for 11 months and came back to earn silver at the 2011 Worlds and 2012 Olympics, while the testosterone-limiting rule was in effect, behind Russian Maria Savinova, who has since been stripped of her golds for doping.

Semenya then had a lull in performance after the London Games while the testosterone-limiting rule was still in effect. After CAS suspended the rule in 2015, Semenya peaked again in 2016, going undefeated in 800m races, twice breaking the national record and comfortably winning Olympic gold.

Semenya has never spoken publicly in detail about her situation. It has never been publicly verified that Semenya’s body naturally produces abnormally high levels of testosterone or that she ever took hormone suppressants.

An image with the sentence, “How beautiful it is to stay silent when someone expects you to be enraged,” was posted on Semenya’s social media Wednesday after reports were first published about the new rule.

Her default position is generally to talk only about her running, but she spoke out against her critics in a speech after accepting South Africa’s Sportswoman of the Year in November 2016.

“They say she talks like a man, she walks like a man, she runs like a man,” Semenya said, before finishing off the series with an Afrikaans word that loosely translates to “Get lost.”

South Africa’s Olympic Committee president Gideon Sam said Thursday his organization was “disappointed by the IAAF ruling.”

“Especially given that Caster’s name is again being dragged through the publicity mill,” he said in a press release. “We are concerned that the decisions have been approved without taking into account all factors into consideration, as these factors have not been properly nor fully ventilated. We wish to place on record that Caster Semenya has never engaged in any performance-enhancing activities and any enhanced testosterone levels are due solely to her genetic make-up.”

NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.

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Olympic pairs champions take indefinite break

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Aljona Savchenko, the Olympic pairs champion with Bruno Massot, said they are taking an indefinite break from competition, according to German press agency DPA.

Savchenko and Massot will perform in ice shows next fall and winter, which could preclude them from competing in major events like the Grand Prix season (late October to early December) and the European Championships in January.

The German pair followed their title in PyeongChang with a world title last month, breaking a four-year-old world-record score and winning by the largest margin (20.31 points) in pairs at an Olympics or worlds since the 6.0 system was replaced 14 years ago.

Savchenko, 34 and a five-time Olympian, became the oldest Olympic pairs gold medalist. She then claimed her 11th world medal — tying the female record held by Norwegian singles legend Sonja Henie — and sixth world title — tying Soviet Alexander Zaitsev for second on the all-time pairs list, four behind Irina Rodnina.

The French-born Massot, 29, competed in his first Olympics in PyeongChang and earned his first world title. Savchenko’s previous five world titles came with now-retired Robin Szolkowy.

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