Data scandal exposes similar cases to Semenya

Athletics - Data scandal reveals medical information of many athletes and makes them identifiable Sportschau 24.02.2019 06:10 Min. Verfügbar bis 24.02.2099 Das Erste


Data scandal exposes similar cases to Semenya

Von Hajo Seppelt and Edmund Willison

Research by the ARD Doping editorial team documents purported data privacy violations by the IAAF, the International Association of Athletics Federations. Olympic and World champions can be identified and linked to their medical information.

In an IAAF funded study, the ARD has been able to identify approximately fifty elite female athletes and establish the range their testosterone levels lie in. The athletes are not named explicitly but can be identified by the exact times they have run, distances they have thrown and heights they have jumped.

Furthermore, according to ARD’s findings, the IAAF has made it possible that the rights of middle distance runner Caster Semenya and many other elite female athletes be violated – among them also a German. Medical data has been openly published in studies and reports, suggesting female athletes with “differences of sexual development” may fear for their anonymity.

This raises fresh concerns despite the IAAF insisting they have improved their medical confidentiality standards. It followed Caster Semenya being subject to ridicule in 2009 when it was leaked in the media that she would have to undergo sex testing shortly after she won the 800 metres at the World Championships in Berlin.

Coe: "The regulations are there to create a level playing field" Sportschau 24.02.2019 05:56 Min. Verfügbar bis 24.02.2020 Das Erste

“Careless and negligent”          

Lawyer Stefan Brink is one of Germany’s foremost experts on privacy violations. Brink is the state commissioner for data protection for the State of Baden-Württemberg, and considers the IAAF to have been grossly negligent in their latest actions.

Caster Semenya was competing in the womens 1000 metre-event at the ISTAF meeting in Berlin in September 2018

Caster Semenya was competing in the womens 1000 metre-event at the ISTAF meeting in Berlin in September 2018

“In this case, the athlete’s data has obviously been handled in a careless, negligent and indiscrete manner”, Brink told the ARD doping editorial team. As with doctor-patient relationships, medical confidentiality must be respected.

Brinks says under EU law similar violations could lead to a twenty million euro fine. However, with the IAAF’s headquarter sitting in Monaco, any penalty would not surpass ninety thousand euros. Brink is particularly concerned about the sensitivity of the data involved:

“In certain countries of the world, it is true that certain illnesses or certain behaviors, sexual orientation or ambiguity in attribution to a gender are a real problem on which persecution can take place based on whether private associations or not of government agencies and thus, of course, such publications that are made are all the more serious.”

In contrast, the IAAF believe the data has been anonymised sufficiently because the athletes’ exact testosterone values remain hidden. Yet some of the ranges in which the values lie are so small that  precise values are little obscured. The IAAF state that the studies went through vetting procedures for privacy protection before publication in international journals.

Caster Semenya’s first win at an international competition happened during the World Championships in Berlin 2009. Immediatily, her appearance was a subject of public debate

Caster Semenya’s first win at an international competition happened during the World Championships in Berlin 2009. Immediatily, her appearance was a subject of public debate

The fact an athlete profile appears in search results for terms linked to differences of sexual development on the IAAF webpage, the IAAF says, is due to the automatic generation of results by the search engine Bing. In relation to the naming of an athlete with differences in Sexual Development in disciplinary hearing papers, the Athletics Integrity Unit, says the athlete consented to the information being published.

Data breaches are a particularly sensitive topic in athletics after the leaking of information about Semenya’s sex set in motion a decade of debate over the sex of the then 18-year-old South African.

Suspicions were raised by her rapid performance increase, her deep voice and unusually muscular physique. The IAAF commented on proceedings openly.

No Ovaries, No uterus

Caster Semenya is opposing the new guidelines by the Athletics Federation IAAF

Caster Semenya is opposing the new guidelines by the Athletics Federation IAAF

This past week at CAS, the Court of Arbitration for Sport, Semenya appealed a controversial 2018 IAAF ruling. Female athletes with “differences of sexual development” competing internationally in the 400m to the 1500m, will have to undergo medical treatment to lower their naturally high testosterone levels. If not,  they face the prospect of having to run against men to continue their careers. The IAAF state that these women, some of whom have XY chromosomes, no uterus and no ovaries, have an unfair advantage over their competitors. Semenya is fighting on their behalf.

“To be honest, This is not all about me. I’ve achieved everything that I want in life”, she said in one of her last media appearances before the trial. “If I let this thing go on, you know what about the next generation? You know It’s killing them. What about those young girls who still want to run who are maybe in the same situation as mine.”

More cases like Semenya

The IAAF have been accused of unfairly targeting Caster Semenya because their new regulations affect the events she competes in. Yet the ARD Doping Editorial Team has knowledge of at least nine other cases of athletes with differences of sexual development; five of them have the same condition as Semenya. These other cases have not been confirmed publicly.

The IAAF claim their regulations are supported by the majority of the athletics world. The Australian runner Madeleine Pape, who ran against Semenya at the World Championships in 2009, recalls how she and other competitors felt at the time.

“I felt like it was an injustice,” Pape told the ARD, “that she had won too easily, and that the other women in the race were being, well, had an unfair situation, because they didn’t have the opportunity to win”.

Pape is now studying for PhD in Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Now removed from the athletics world, new horizons have brought new perspectives. Pape now supports Semenya and feels sport is lagging behind society. “For me what matters is if I recognise them as women outside of sport, then they are also a woman to me and a sister inside a sport” explains the Australian, “I’m really sure that that to me feels like the right way to make up my mind.”

The IAAF claimed to have learnt from how they dealt with Caster Semenya in 2009, they say have long since taken steps to ensure athlete privacy is respected. “We have a wholly different set of protocols then were in place in 2009 and that is exactly the way that it should be,” the IAAF president Sebastian Coe told the ARD on a visit to the Bundestag, “medical confidentiality has to be protected. It is an absolute tenant of everything that we do”.

Stand: 24.02.2019, 16:00