Friday 23 August 2019

'I'd give my right arm to win a world medal,' insists Mageean

Ciaran Mageean is hoping to strike for gold in London Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Ciaran Mageean is hoping to strike for gold in London Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Cathal Dennehy

Women in sport - it seems an obvious place to start with Ciara Mageean, given she has long been an advocate and exemplar of the movement.

Scroll through her timeline on Twitter and you'll see her promoting the benefits of exercise for women, highlighting her peers' achievements and voicing her support for the ill-treated Irish women's soccer team.

South African athlete Caster Semenya. Photo: Sportsfile
South African athlete Caster Semenya. Photo: Sportsfile

But this is athletics, her sport, where outliers come to fit in, where gifted anomalies find their niche and re-position the boundaries of human ability.

But that, as we've come to learn, is not always a good thing. We'll save the doping talk for later, though, because right now women's athletics is facing an altogether more difficult issue, an area so grey it makes Team Sky look black or white.

It's one that pops up in many private conversations on the circuit, but is rarely spoken of in public: the issue of intersex athletes.

Mageean thinks back, all the way back to the Commonwealth Youth Games in 2008 in Pune, India. She's standing in the call room with the other 800m finalists, a waif of a 16-year-old in her Northern Ireland singlet, and her eye is drawn to an unknown South African rival and her hulking physique.

"She was much bigger than the others in the call room," recalls Mageean. "We were tiny little girls."

Caster Semenya trounced the field, taking gold in 2:04.23, with Mageean fifth in 2:08.74. A year later, the South African made global headlines at the World Championships in Berlin, cruising to gold in 1:55.45 and sending the sport's authorities into a scramble as rumours swirled about her biological make-up.

Intersex athletes, we soon learned, do not fit neatly into the binary category of male or female, but produce testosterone at a much higher level than most women.

In 2011, the IAAF announced it was changing the regulations governing athletes with hyperandrogenism - the condition of excessive male sex hormones in the female body - and created an upper limit for women's testosterone levels, requiring those above it to lower theirs by taking hormones.

It meant a sharp decrease in performance for Semenya and other intersex athletes who had come to dominate the women's 800m.

In 2015, however, the Court of Arbitration for Sport suspended the practice, putting the burden of proof on the IAAF to show these athletes had an unfair advantage.

The result: in Rio last year, all three medals in the Olympic 800m final were won by athletes understood to be hyperandrogenic.

For Mageean, it's a delicate balance between her sympathy for the athletes and the awareness that unless action is taken, the fairness of women's sport is under threat.


"Ethically it's tough," she says. "These girls were born and brought up as females and they very much are, but on the other hand it's about a level playing field for the other women who are trying to compete and don't have the high testosterone count.

"It's heart-breaking watching an Olympic final seeing girls who would have medalled at previous championships having to come fourth, and I'd imagine it's a very bitter feeling for them, but it's not against the (inter-sex) athletes; that's how they were born.

"There has to be clear lines created and how they're created is beyond me, but the nature of sport is that it has to be a bit more black and white. Eventually our governing bodies will have to step up."

Mageean competes primarily over 1,500m, so she hasn't been unduly affected since that first race against Semenya, but that's not to say her playing field is level.

Last week she was in Rome, where she clocked the second fastest time of her career, 4:04.49, and where reminders lingered of the sport's troubles.

Across the room at breakfast, after all, sat Jama Aden, the coach to 1,500m world record holder Genzebe Dibaba, who freely wandered the meeting hotel despite his arrest last year in a drugs raid in Spain, where police found multiple doses of erythropoietin (EPO) in the room of his group's physiotherapist.

Aden was released on bail and remains under investigation by Spanish authorities, while Dibaba's form has slipped substantially this year - make of that what you will - but for Mageean hearing from her peers how anti-doping operates in certain other countries made for distressing news.

Mageean is randomly tested out-of-competition five to 10 times a year by Sport Ireland, in addition to in-competition testing by international authorities, but some of her rivals, particularly those in East Africa, get a much softer ride.

"It baffles me that in some countries athletes are rung and told to come to be tested," she says. "That seems pointless. Everything is done to make sure I'm clean, but other nations aren't as proactive.


"There's always going to be cheaters in every walk of life, but there have been huge movements in the past two years towards cleaning up the sport. It's going the right way but it's an ongoing battle."

And yet, when Mageean finished her physiotherapy degree in UCD last December, there was nothing else she considered but life as a full-time athlete.

Despite what some may think, it's mostly a routine filled with drudge, working and resting and working again, her energies all channelled towards a single week in London in early August.

"A world medal," she says, "I'd give my right arm for it."

In Rio last year, Mageean bowed out in the 1,500m semi-final but clocked a world-class 4:01.46 at the Paris Diamond League just two weeks later, the lesson, she says, that "a flower doesn't bloom all year round."

By that she means she mistimed her peak, but together with coach Jerry Kiernan she's hoping to get it right when it matters most this summer.

She already has a European medal, and was a world medallist at both youth and junior level in her teens. Now all that's left is that last, daunting step to make a global final in London - the hardest of the lot.

Ciara Mageean was speaking as a brand ambassador for Pop Up Races

Irish Independent

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