The X Factor

Within a month of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) upholding IAAF’s ruling to restrict testosterone levels to five nanomoles per litre in events from 400m to a mile for female athletes with differences of sexual development (DSD), Caster Semenya is once again free to run naturally.

Last week Semenya appealed to the Supreme Federal Court of Switzerland. In response the Swiss court has suspended the IAAF ruling while the appeal proceeds.

After the CAS ruling she quite rightly refused to take drugs to conform and, instead, opted for the 3,000m in the Prefontaine Classic at the end of June. She is expected to line up as an underdog packed with premier league runners such as Hellen Obiri, Sifan Hassan and Genzebe Dibaba.

Meanwhile athletes who line-up alongside Semenya in the 800m and 1500m feel they are competing at a disadvantage.

But hasn’t this always been the case when an athlete dominates his or her field?

Exceptional athletes often have a physiological advantage while for the rest of us effort, grit and determination are our tools.

But who has ever claimed that life is fair?

Take Ian Thorpe – a five times Olympian gold medallist. His size 17 feet gave him a distinct flipper-like advantage in the water.

Usain Bolt is a more recent phenomenon. Bolt set stadiums alight, was fast enough to set off set off speed cameras and was often seen to be slamming on the brakes while his rivals were eyeballs-out.

A lot has been written about sprinters with a West African heritage. Their legacy is a high level of fast-twitch muscle fibres.

More specifically, the sprinting gene ACTN3 is understood to boost the performance of fast-twitch muscle fibres. It is believed that some nationalities carry this gene more than others. An added advantage if you have Jamaican blood.

But what makes these once in a lifetime athletes so great?

It’s a culmination of many inter-related factors.

Being genetically advantaged is a great starting point, but that’s all.

When exceptional athletes come along, the daily grind is often ignored as it appears easy and natural to the naked eye.

Performance does not simply come down to anatomy.

Physical and mental attributes combined with emotional control will lead to optimal performance.

In Semenya’s case the debate around testosterone has divided opinions. Just one factor which forms part of our highly complex anatomy.

While the IAAF may have to start re-thinking the binary classification those who feel they have been short-changed on the physical, must tap into other resources.

The mind is our greatest asset, but often the one of last resort.