Caster Semenya case about much more than just her running track

Caster Semenya
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GENEVA — Caster Semenya’s running future could be decided starting next week. But it will be about much more than her. The landmark case will likely challenge science and gender politics.

The two-time Olympic 800-meter champion seeks to overturn eligibility rules for hyperandrogenic athletes proposed by track and field’s governing body. The IAAF wants to require women with naturally elevated testosterone to lower their levels by medication before being allowed to compete in world-class races from 400 meters to one mile.

“She looks forward to responding to the IAAF at the upcoming hearing,” Semenya’s lawyers in Johannesburg, Norton Rose Fulbright, said Thursday in a statement. “She asks that she be respected and treated as any other athlete: Her genetic gift should be celebrated, not discriminated against.”

A scheduled five-day appeal case starting Monday is among the longest ever heard by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. The verdict could also be among the most ethically controversial in the sports court’s 35-year history. That should come in March.

The panel of three CAS judges could decide based only on science: Can the IAAF prove women with Differences of Sexual Development (DSD) get a significant performance advantage from male levels of testosterone.

The IAAF insists no woman is being reclassified as male, and it “makes no judgment about gender or sexual identity.”

″(The rules) are about levelling the playing field to ensure fair and meaningful competition in the sport of athletics where success is determined by talent, dedication and hard work rather than other contributing factors,” IAAF president Sebastian Coe said last year.

Still, Semenya’s case has been championed by United Nations human rights experts and women’s sport activists , led by Billie Jean King, who see potential abuse and discrimination in the track federation’s proposal.

As for the science, lawyers for Semenya will call expert witnesses from the United States and her native South Africa to discredit the IAAF’s research. The evidence could help deliver a second loss for the IAAF at CAS on an issue that has flared for a decade and cast a shadow on Semenya’s career.

In 2009, the 18-year-old prodigy won her first world championship title in the 800 meters, finishing in 1 minute, 55.45 seconds to become the third fastest woman this century. Hours before the race in Berlin, it emerged that the IAAF had asked for Semenya to undergo a gender verification test.

The IAAF introduced Hyperandrogenism Regulations in 2011 to replace the gender policy with guidance limiting women to serum levels of natural testosterone below 10 nanomoles per liter of blood. Semenya then finished second in the 800 at the 2012 London Olympics in 1:57.23, but was later upgraded to gold after the original winner was disqualified for doping.

The IAAF’s regulations were later blocked by Indian sprinter Dutee Chand, who won a CAS verdict in 2015 . Three judges, including Canadian professor Richard McLaren, said the IAAF did not prove hyperandrogenic women gained a significant advantage, and invited the governing body to submit new evidence.

While the rules were suspended, Semenya won a second Olympic title at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games in 1:55.28 — more than four seconds faster than her best times in the previous two seasons.

The IAAF published its research in a British medical journal in 2017, using data from athletes at the 2011 and 2013 world championships.

It claimed 7.1 in every 1,000 elite female athletes had elevated testosterone levels, 140 times higher than the general population. This helped give a supposed performance advantage of 1.8 to 4.5 percent in events from 400 to 1,500 meters.

The proposed solution was requiring women to medicate — likely with contraceptive pills — to bring testosterone levels below 5 nmol/L for at least six months before competing at elite events such as the Olympics, world championships or Diamond League meets.

“No athlete will be forced to undergo surgery,” said IAAF medical adviser Stephane Bermon, who co-wrote the research.

CAS is hoping for a verdict in Semenya’s appeal by March 26 — six months and two days before the 2019 world championships begin in Doha, Qatar.

“The IAAF remains very confident of the legal, scientific, and ethical bases for the regulations, and therefore fully expects the Court of Arbitration for Sport to reject these challenges,” the governing body has said.

However, the integrity of the IAAF research has been challenged in a paper by three academics : Roger Pielke in the United States, Erik Boye in Norway and Ross Tucker in South Africa.

They claimed errors in the data included duplicate times for the same athlete, counting times for athletes later disqualified for doping, and “phantom” performances with no athlete recording that specific time.

“The unwillingness of the IAAF to correct or acknowledge errors highlights its conflict of interest,” wrote the authors, saying it was “uncommon and unadvisable that IAAF sees its role as serving as both the regulatory body and the primary producer of evidence justifying its own proposed regulations.”

Semenya’s lawyers previously said the IAAF’s rules are “irrational, unjustifiable” and violate the Olympic Charter and the laws of Monaco, where the governing body is based.

She is expected to attend some of the appeal sessions in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Victory next month would leave the defending champion favored to win a fourth 800 world title in Qatar.

A defeat in court would give Semenya options including leaving behind middle-distance events to focus on the 5,000, or start a six-month course of medication. That would mean skipping the entire Diamond League season to be eligible for the 800 at the world championships.

Ilia Malinin’s quadruple Axel sheds light on first figure skater to land triple Axel

Vern Taylor
Vern Taylor, the first figure skater to land a triple Axel in competition. (Getty Images)
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Vern Taylor arrived at the Riverside Skating Club in Windsor, Ontario, on Sept. 15 to do what he has done at that rink for the last three decades: coach figure skaters. But this day was different.

Taylor, who in 1978 became the first man to land a ratified triple Axel in competition, was told that 17-year-old American Ilia Malinin performed the first quadruple Axel the previous night.

“When we heard that he landed it, I said, ‘Oh my goodness, that’s terrific,'” Taylor said by phone.

He was then shown video of Malinin’s feat.

“Anything’s possible,” Taylor said. “43 years [later], that’s something. It’s knowing that you can perform the jump that makes it challenging.”

Malinin, the world junior champion, landed the most difficult jump in skating and checked off the only remaining quad yet to be performed.

At the 1978 World Championships in Ottawa, a 20-year-old Taylor broke through a similar barrier in hitting the last remaining unchecked triple jump. But while Malinin’s senior career seems to be just getting started, and many medals appear in his future, Taylor is largely a forgotten man outside of ardent figure skating followers.

He finished 12th at those 1978 World Championships. Taylor’s 1980 Olympic prospects were dimmed by the fact that Canada had just one men’s singles spot, and he had taken runner-up at nationals in 1978 and 1979 to Brian Pockar, who also outscored Taylor at those years’ world championships. So Taylor stopped competing a year before the Lake Placid Games.

“I didn’t have a reason,” he said. “I just decided to take a break.”

Taylor will always have that day at the world championships in Ottawa. He can still remember the nervousness, knowing that two other skaters also planned to attempt a triple Axel. They were unsuccessful, though Taylor didn’t know it.

“I didn’t see their jumps,” he said. “I didn’t want to know what was ahead of me.”

American David Jenkins landed a triple Axel in Movietone newsreel footage reported to be from 1957, but that was not in competition.

Taylor, skating to music from “Rocky,” put the triple Axel as the third jump of his program, according to reports at the time. The one YouTube video of it, published two years ago, has 32,000 views. It shows Taylor landing the three-and-a-half revolution jump on one foot and spinning out of it while managing to stay on that single skate blade amid a crowd roar.

“During that program, it was like a rock concert,” Taylor said. “I got the energy from the audience.”

The Montreal Gazette reported at the time that the jump was ratified three hours later. Italian Sonia Bianchetti, the men’s referee at the 1978 Worlds, said she met with the assistant referee, the ISU president and a technical delegate.

“During this short meeting it was recognized that Vern had completed the first triple Axel Paulsen jump [Norwegian Axel Paulsen was the skater who landed the first Axel jump in 1882, getting it named after him] in an officially recognized figure skating competition,” she wrote in an email last month. “The triple Axel was fully rotated and landed on one foot.”

One of the people inside the Ottawa Civic Centre that day was 16-year-old Canadian Brian Orser. Orser, inspired by Taylor, later became synonymous with the jump — labeled “Mr. Triple Axel” and landing it en route to silver medals at the Olympics in 1984 and 1988 and the 1987 World title.

Orser remembered Taylor visiting his skating club for an exhibition. Orser saw Taylor doing an Axel takeoff exercise off the ice, incorporated it into his own routine and began teaching it to his skaters after becoming a coach.

Yet another Canadian, Kurt Browning, was the first man to land a ratified quadruple jump of any kind in competition — a toe loop at the 1988 World Championships.

“For me, personally, it was huge,” he said, “because I was promised a car if I could land it.”

Through an agreement with an Edmonton car dealership, Browning was handed the keys to a Quattro — quad/Quattro — after hitting the toe loop. The skater was unaware that the dealer was merely leasing it to him. About six months later, Browning received a call asking to bring the car back.

Browning was inspired by American Brian Boitano, whom he previously saw land a quad outside of competition. Taylor motivated him, too.

“[Taylor] gave me permission, even at a young age, to start thinking bigger,” he said.

Browning also pointed to Jozef Sabovčík, a 1980s skater for then-Czechoslovakia who many believe was the first man to land a quad in competition, Browning included. Sabovčík was initially given credit for a quad toe loop at the 1986 European Championships, but weeks later it was invalidated because he touched down with his free foot, according to reports.

“I never want to come off as arrogant, but despite what ISU [International Skating Union] decided in the end, I do know that I landed the jump on that day,” Sabovčík, who said he performed a quad jump on his birthdays through age 44, wrote in an email. “The fact that most of the people in the skating world believe the same thing, it means everything to me that Kurt is one of them. It would have been nice to have my name in the Guinness Book of Records, but I am also not trying to change history.”

Sabovčík, now 58 and coaching in Salt Lake City, attended March’s world championships in Montpellier, France, where Malinin finished ninth. There, he spoke with Malinin’s parents, Russian-born Uzbek Olympic skaters Tatyana Malinina and Roman Skornyakov, whom he calls friends.

“They told me that he was already doing a quad Axel on a fishing pole harness [in practice], and that it was coming,” Sabovčík said.

Less than two months after that talk, the first video surfaced of Malinin landing a clean quad Axel — at a U.S. Figure Skating jump camp.

“I did not think [a quad Axel] was possible,” Sabovčík said. “It really has to be an athlete that can combine the technical ability with jumping ability with the speed of rotation. When Kurt and I jumped, we had a relatively speaking slow rotation, but we jumped really big compared to these kids. But Ilia, he has the vertical lift, but he [also] has an unbelievably fast rotation.”

The recent proliferation of quads in men’s and women’s skating can be attributed to several factors, including better boots, better ice conditions and improvements in technology that can aid coaching. Still, there are concerns about if and how the pounding of training quads can wear down a skater physically.

“It’s a lot of pain you don’t feel at first, but you know it comes later,” said Frenchwoman Surya Bonaly, who started training a quad in 1989 and attempting it through the mid-1990s. Bonaly had two hip surgeries after her competitive career.

Even Taylor faced those questions.

“People said, ‘Aren’t you worried about injuring yourself?'” he said. “I would say, ‘No, I want you to know it can be done.'”

Sabovčík never tried a quad Axel in his skating days, but Browning did for less than a week in the early 1990s after winning four consecutive world titles.

“Just playing with it,” said Browning, who never tried it in competition. “Ilia has that special ability to not only get up in the air, but then he has that beautiful rotation that doesn’t look hurried. It’s fast, it’s quick as lightning, but it doesn’t look hurried. It’s so easy. Like a good golfer swings easy, and the ball goes 400 yards.”

Browning recalled a conversation he had with two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu, who in recent years made the quad Axel his quest. Hanyu attempted it in competition last season but did not land it cleanly before retiring in July. He said upon retirement that he still hoped to master the jump for his non-competitive show career.

“I asked Yuzu one day, ‘When you do quad Axel, does it just feel like you’re up there forever?'” Browning said. “And he kind of looked at me funny, and he goes, ‘Yeah, like it never ends.'”

The skating world awaits the reserved Hanyu’s thoughts on Malinin’s quad.

“Knowing Yuzu, I would think he’d be very supportive,” said Orser, who coached Hanyu for nearly a decade. “He appreciates that kind of athleticism.”

Orser also noted what comes with being the first — and so far only — skater to land a rarefied jump. Malinin, who headlines Skate America in two weeks, will be asked about the quad Axel in just about every interview for the foreseeable future. For some skaters, they may feel a responsibility to land it all the time.

“But I don’t think [Malinin] thinks too much about it,” Orser said. “His technique is perfect, so he’ll be fine.”

The inevitable topic after that is the next progression in skating: the first quintuple jump. Orser said that Hanyu did five-rotation Salchows in practice with the aid of a harness.

“It’s just a little bit more rotation than the quadruple Axel, so it’s not that far off,” said Sabovčík, whose unratified quad toe loop came eight years after Taylor’s triple Axel. “Now that I’ve seen the quad Axel, I don’t think it’s impossible.”

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Aleksandra Trusova splits from coach Eteri Tutberidze, months after Olympic tears

Alexandra Trusova, Eteri Tutberidze
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Olympic figure skating silver medalist Aleksandra Trusova reportedly split from coach Eteri Tutberidze‘s group, eight months after a tearful scene after the Olympic free skate.

Trusova, 18, will now be coached by Svetlana Sokolovskaya, according to Russian media reports dating to Saturday. All Russian skaters are ineligible to compete internationally indefinitely due to the national ban over the war in Ukraine, but Russia is still holding domestic events.

At the Beijing Winter Games, Trusova became the first woman to land five quadruple jumps in a free skate. She had the highest score that day, but it wasn’t enough to make up the gap to fellow Tutberidze pupil Anna Shcherbakova from the short program.

Moments after the competition ended, Trusova was seen crying and yelling at Sergey Dudakov, a member of Tutberidze’s coaching team.

“Everyone has a gold medal! Everyone has! Only I don’t! I hate figure skating! I hate! I will never step on the ice again! Never!” she said in Russian.

Shcherbakova had the individual gold, and the other Russian women’s singles skater at the Games, Kamila Valiyeva, skated both programs of the team event. The Russians placed first in the team event, but medals will not be awarded until Valiyeva’s doping case is adjudicated. It’s possible that Valiyeva gets retroactively disqualified, the Russian team gets disqualified and the other nations all move up with the U.S. going from silver to gold.

Trusova performed at the Russian test skates last month, withdrawing after her short program due to a back injury.

Trusova previously left Tutberidze in 2020 for two-time Olympic champion turned coach Yevgeny Plushenko‘s group, then moved back to Tutberidze’s group after the 2020-21 season.

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