Caster Semenya

No Semenya: Uganda's Halimah Nakaayi, in 1:58.04, wins women's 800

DOHA, Qatar — It was 10 years ago already that Caster Semenya announced herself to the world. Just 18, a virtual unknown from South Africa, she won the women’s 800 meters at the IAAF world championships in Berlin. 

Since, the Semenya story has captivated, educated, intrigued, inspired, enraged and so much more, a debate over on, the one hand, the worth of every single person on Planet Earth to not only be who she or he is but the best she or he that he or she can be matched against, on the other, the fundamental question of what is fair tied up with the obligation of international sports authorities to be fair to everyone, not just someone.

There is no right or wrong in the complex mosaic of issues presented by the matter personified by Caster Semenya and, as it turns out, others with what has come to be called “differences of sexual development,” including the two other medalists in the women’s 800 at the Rio 2016 Summer Games, Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi and Margaret Wambui of Kenya.

To reiterate, there is no — speaking figuratively — black or white here. This is a matter subject to interpretation. It is all greys. This is why the debate, the politics, the posturing has been — is — so ferocious, and from so many sides. Just to pick one of many, many comments on the matter, this from U.S. racer Brenda Martinez here in Doha: “I’d rather race against an intersex athlete than a drug cheat.”

It’s also why Monday night’s championship final at the IAAF 2019 world championships marked either the end — 10 years later — of the Semenya story in track and field or, perhaps, a pause, just another  chapter, now amid a contentious legal process before next summer’s Tokyo Olympics.

In the matter of '46 XY DSD' cases: the IAAF is right

In the matter of '46 XY DSD' cases: the IAAF is right

In the complex, emotionally charged matter of 46 XY DSD cases: the IAAF is right.

There. I said it.

If you already feel like sending hate mail, roger. But, and for emphasis: the IAAF is right.

Let’s be straight-up: Caster Semenya’s many vocal supporters have sought to focus the story on Semenya alone. That’s not right or fair. There are others similarly situated, including for instance — as was recently acknowledged — the Rio 2016 800-meter runner-up Francine Niyonsaba. So the IAAF is hardly targeting Caster Semenya. 

What seeking to make this matter all about Caster Semenya does, however, is what a great deal if not almost all of the reportage about this matter has done: cast Semenya as the sympathetic if not profoundly empathetic protagonist in a classic narrative thread, the individual against the institution. 

What’s often missing completely from that storytelling — or buried way, way down at the bottom, because in today’s overheated social media-driven cauldron of outrage, very few want to speak up — are other voices, those who have their own dreams, too, literally millions of girls and women around the world, and here is where the IAAF is 100 percent dead-on right to go to court to ask, what about them?

The 2017 IAAF world championships disconnect

The 2017 IAAF world championships disconnect

LONDON — No matter if it’s sports or what journalists call hard news, all young reporters learn early on a truism. Whether it’s a big court case, a political race or a major sports event like these 2017 IAAF track and field world championships or an NFL Super Bowl, there are always — always — at least two storylines.

There’s the action itself.

And then there’s what’s happening around it.

With the 2017 worlds nearing the halfway mark, it’s entirely unclear whether they seem destined to be remembered for the track and field itself, which truly has been remarkable if not historic.

Semenya: center of dilemma with no easy answers


RIO de JANEIRO — The Olympics seek to promote three key values: excellence, friendship and respect. It thus follows logically that the Olympic ideal seeks to realize the best in each of us on the grounds that doing so makes all of us, together, better.

Sport has rules. These rules mean that a soccer game in Brussels is the same as a soccer game in Seoul is the same as a soccer game in Wichita.

Gold medalist Caster Semenya of South Africa on the medals stand // Getty Images

In the person of Caster Semenya, the runner from South Africa who on Saturday night at Olympic Stadium dominated the women’s 800m, winning in 1:55.28, these two big ideas clash.

It is entirely unclear how these tensions could — or should — be resolved.

It is in the person of Semenya that sport stands at one of its new frontiers — at the intersection of science, cultural norms and evolving standards of gender fluidity.

To read the rest of this column, please click through to

'The Last Gold': on history, and shades of gray


The very essence of competition at the Olympics is fair play. What happens when doping makes a mockery of that ideal? When it’s all but impossible to re-write history? When the notion of who is a victim, and why, is the farthest thing from black and white — but is, instead, layered in varying shades of gray?

These and other questions are as essential now, amid allegations of state-sponsored doping in Russia, as they have been since at least 1976, at the Montreal Olympics, when East German’s female swimmers won 11 of 13 gold medals.

The world did not understand then the state-sponsored doping conspiracy it was witnessing in plain sight.

Now it does.

But, like all matters of history with pressing relevance for our time, the question is not just what happened.

The three surviving members of the 1976 U.S. women's 4x100 gold medal-winning relay: left to right, Wendy Boglioli, Jill Sterkel, Shirley Babashoff

It’s how to make sense of it.

And thus to go forward — in this context, in the best spirit of the Olympics, to make the world maybe just a little bit better for having shared the experience.

As we have discovered since after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the East German women were bulked-up on a powerful anabolic steroid, a little blue pill called oral turinabol.

The 1976 U.S. men’s team won 12 of 13 events. The East German women won 11 of 13. The U.S. women, like the men long a power in international swimming, won but one gold medal — the final race on the program, the 4x100 freestyle relay. (The other non-East German gold: the Soviet swimmer Marina Koshevaya, in the 200-meter breaststroke.)

That 4x1 relay — and more broadly, the swimming at those Olympics — tells the story of “The Last Gold,” a documentary that made its premier Monday night at the Los Angeles Film Festival.

The four women on the U.S. relay: Kim Peyton, Wendy Boglioli, Jill Sterkel and Shirley Babashoff. The winning time: a then-world record 3:44.82. The East Germans took second, in 3:45.5. Canada won the bronze, in 3:48.81.

Peyton died in 1986, just 29, of a brain tumor. For the other three, the showing of the film marked the first time they had been together in these 40 years.

Babashoff, arguably the central protagonist of the piece, brought her gold medal for the occasion. Sterkel, who was just 15 in 1976, said that watching the movie helped her recall so much about what happened way back when, noting that what she really remembered was Babashoff getting them free Puma shoes: “That was awesome.”

Babashoff with her gold medal // Getty Images

Babashoff, in her remarks to the audience at the conclusion of the film, posed the central question: why do this film, 40 years later?

She answered: “Because it’s still relevant.”

Indeed, It’s all the more important now to understand what happened then. Everyone with even a passing interest in the Olympics ought to see “The Last Gold.”

Boglioli asserted that Olympic athletes in particular have a “moral obligation,” explaining, “This is what sport is about. These are the rules.”

She also said, “I think something is amiss in sports today.”

Sterkel, who would go on to coach the women’s swim and dive teams at the University of Texas for 15 years, said, “I think I can safely say that after ’76 we haven’t experienced a clean Olympics, which is mortifying.”

She added, “For me, the tragedy is when I do watch sport … having [that] doubt in the back of mind: is this person legit?”

Having to entertain that notion, she said, is “awful.”

On the medals stand in Montreal: left to right, Kim Peyton, Boglioli, Sterkel, Babashoff // The Last Gold via USOC archives

Truth is, doping has been going on since time immemorial. The Montreal 1976 Games were hardly the first Olympics, nor will they be the last, at which someone from somewhere tried to cheat to win.

What makes 1976 so breathtaking, of course, is the scale and the scope of the East German doping program.

This is why USA Swimming made the documentary, spending in the range of seven figures to do so. Brian T. Brown, who won 15 Emmy awards for his work at NBC, directed the project. Chuck Wielgus and Mike Unger, No. 1 and 2 for years at USA Swimming, served as executive producers. The acclaimed American actor Julianna Margulies narrates.

USA Swimming's Mike Unger, left, and Chuck Wielgus, right, with the 1976 medalists // Getty Images

Going forward, the production is hugely likely to serve as a model for other sport federations, whether in or out of the United States. Why is elemental: content is now king. And every single sports federation generates massive amounts of content; that is, every single federation has a story, or stories, to tell. Why rely on outsiders when you can make a journalistically responsible and dramatically compelling vehicle yourself?

Especially one that can run on The Olympic Channel, likely to launch after the Rio 2016 Games.

The film also underscores an elemental lesson in journalism, indeed story-telling, everywhere:

Have the courage to follow your own convictions. Don’t be swayed by the mooing of other reporters in the herd — like the U.S. press corps in attendance in Montreal, which to a large degree soured on the U.S. women swimmers, seeing them as bad sports for not losing with grace, even casting Babashoff as something of a villain with the nickname “Surly Shirley.”

When she had the temerity to, you know, tell the truth.

Boglioli said, “At some point, you do wonder: how are they so fast? Why doesn’t everyone see the obvious?”

In a brief address to the crowd in Culver City, California, before the film showed, Unger said there were three reasons to make it:

To tell history.

To tell the “anti-doping message": “how to do it right,” meaning the way the U.S. team approached the 1976 Games in contrast to the East Germans. The U.S. women, to be clear, were hugely unlikely to be doping, then or now. Doping just wasn’t — and to a large degree, still isn’t — a culture with significant traction within U.S. swimming. Katie Ledecky this summer at the Rio 2016 Games, like Janet Evans in 1988 and 1992, like Babashoff in 1976: outsized talents with ferocious will and absurd work ethic.

The third reason: to pay tribute to the women on that 1976 U.S. team.

The risk with such motivation, of course, is that the film could have veered into jingoism.

It is the farthest thing from.

A key question it poses: who is a victim?

The American women, Babashoff in particular, who if the East Germans weren’t doping assuredly would have won bunches of golds?

Or the East German athletes themselves? They essentially had no choice. They had to take those blue pills.

Over the years, some leading swim writers have called for Olympic and international swim federation officials to consider yanking the 1976 medals away from the East Germans.

It’s one thing, as the International Olympic Committee does now, to re-allocate medals when someone like the U.S. track star Marion Jones admits to doping. She “won” five medals, three gold, at the Sydney 2000 Games. The world saw it live on television. But all she has now are dubious memories, not medals. She chose to cheat.

It is the case now, via the World Anti-Doping Code, that an athlete who dopes is liable for whatever is in his or her system. That is the cardinal rule. But the rewriting of history on a significant scale surely has to involve more: intent — the volitionally undertaken choice to cheat — has to serve as a significant element in assessing how and whether to re-work facts as they are, and were.

As the film suggests, and pointedly: how would stripping the East German female swimmers right a wrong that was committed not just by them but to them as well?

By extension: if the allegations accusing Russia of state-sponsored or -sanctioned sport turn out to be proven true, what to make of those athletes in a system where choice might well be, at best, limited?

In Montreal, East Germany’s Ulrike Tauber won gold in the women’s 400-meter individual medley, breaking the world record by just a touch over six seconds, a crazy drop in time; she also took silver in the 200 butterfly. In the film, she says of the use of “substances,” as she refers to the program of oral turinabol, “Surely, that affects the Olympic victory.”

She says, “I admit that honestly.”

At the same time, she says, “… who can guarantee me that it wasn’t also the case in other countries? Who can guarantee me that it was only [East Germany]?”

Answer: no one.

What is clear, another point the movie underscores, is this:

If you give anabolic steroids to male subjects, it may enhance performance to some degree. But consider: the East German men, who also were doping, didn’t run away with the 1976 meet.

If you give anabolic steroids to women, it almost surely will enhance performance, and probably to a huge degree, because androgenic steroids — by definition — are rooted in testosterone, the male hormone. Women ripped by testosterone are way more likely to defeat women who are not.

This is the basic from 1976 that leads to a considered exploration of anything and everything else.

This lesson holds consequences now well beyond Russia and allegations of a state link to a widespread doping problem. And way beyond swimming, too.

Caster Semenya, left, running the 800 at the May 2016 Diamond League meet in Doha, Qatar // Getty Images

Consider the case of South African middle-distance runner Caster Semenya. To be clear, no one is suggesting that she is doping, or has been using illicit performance-enhancing substances. She simply has naturally high testosterone levels. The rules, as they are now, say she can compete as a woman. She is already running 800 meters this season in about 1:56. No one else is even really close.

Is that fair? What to do about her, or others similarly situated? What about the other women in the field who don’t have her indisputable testosterone advantage?

In 2009, when Semenya first burst onto the international scene, at the world championships in Berlin, she was depicted far too often as a — well, a freak. Reporters camped out around a trailer that served as a TV-style green room, and shouted questions as she emerged to collect her medal. She looked, understandably, frozen with fear.

In Rio, Semenya’s story is likely to emerge as a core narrative of the Games, in real time and, like the East German women, for generations to come.

The obvious will, again, be front and center.

If past is prologue, how will we tell — and how will we remember — the story?

The incredible Aries Merritt, and more


A dozen musings on track and field, on the 2024 Summer Games bid race and more:

1. At a news conference Friday in Eugene, Oregon, before Saturday’s line-up of events at the 42nd annual Prefontaine Classic, the question went out to Aries Merritt, the 2012 London men’s 110-meter hurdles champion who is also the world record-holder, 12.8 seconds, in the event: on a scale of one to 10, where did he fall?

Heading toward the U.S. Trials in a month and, presumably, beyond to the Rio 2016 Summer Games, Merritt has probably the most unbelievable, incredible, authentic story in track and field. He had a degenerative kidney condition. With almost no kidney function, he somehow won a bronze medal in the hurdles at the 2015 world championships. Thereafter, with his sister as the donor, he underwent a kidney transplant. It required not just one but two surgeries.

Aries Merritt showing off his kidney transplant scar at a pre-Pre news conference

So — one to 10? “Ten,” he said. Which means that the hurdles, always one of the best events at the track, figures to be that much better. And, America and beyond — get ready, via NBC and every outlet out there, for the Aries Merritt story. He deserves every bit of good publicity he gets.

2. With all due respect to the sainted Steve Prefontaine — no snark or sarcasm intended, only a full measure of respect — a significant chunk of the problem with track and field in the United States is Steve Prefontaine.

Every sport needs heroes. Not just legends.

The elements of the Prefontaine story have been well-chronicled: the U.S. records at virtually every middle- and long distance event, the fourth in the 5k at the Munich 1972 Games, his life cut short in a car crash at 24.

The legend of Prefontaine, and appropriately, has had a longstanding hold on the U.S. track and field imagination.

Steve Prefontaine racing in London in September 1972 // Getty Images

But imagine if, say, baseball was stuck in the Roberto Clemente era. Or the NBA fixated on Reggie Lewis, Len Bias, Malik Sealy or, for that matter, Drazen Petrovic. Or the NFL on Junior Seau and others.

One of the major challenges with track and field now is that there is no 2016 version of larger-than-life Prefontaine. No one is that guy (or that woman). Ashton Eaton could be and maybe should be. But who else? Merritt? It's anyone's guess.

Most Americans, asked to name a track and field star, will answer: Carl Lewis.

It has been roughly 20 years since Lewis made any noise on the track itself, more than 40 since Prefontaine was alive. Meanwhile, fourth-graders all around the 50 states can readily debate (pick one) Peyton Manning or Tom Brady, whether Derek Jeter was the best Yankee ever, whether they would start an NBA team with (pick one) LeBron James or Steph Curry.

Every sport, to repeat, needs heroes. Not just legends.

3. Earlier this year, the former 800-meter world champion Caster Semenya made even hardened track geeks go, whoa. She raced, and won, three events — on the same day — at the South African national championships, the women’s 400 (personal-best 50.74), 800 (1:58.45) and 1500 (4:10.93, outside Olympic qualifying time).

So much for the theory — oft-advanced by track freaks who never bother to, say, watch swimming — that a world-class athlete can’t race, and win, multiple events on the same day.

From start to finish, Semenya ran the three races in about four hours.

She went 1:58.26 to win the Doha Diamond League meet in early May, winning by nearly an entire second.

On Sunday, and she wasn’t even really going all out, Semenya ran 1:56.64 for the win at the first IAAF Diamond League meet in Africa, in Rabat, Morocco. She won by more than a full second.

For comparison: on Friday night, on Day One of the 2016 Prefontaine Classic at historic Hayward Field, American Alysia Montaño-Johnson won the women's 800 in 2:00.78.

 Caster Semenya of South Africa celebrates her May 6 victory in the women's 800 at the Doha Diamond League event // Getty Images

Semenya doesn’t deserve to do anything but get to run, and run as fast as possible. At the 2009 world championships in Berlin, she ran away with the 800, in a crazy-fast 1:55.45. Then it was disclosed that she had elevated testosterone levels. The gender testing — and, more, the shaming — that she endured thereafter proved unconscionable.

The rules are the rules. The rules say she can run in women’s events.

The real question is: what should be the rules?

Because it’s perhaps not that difficult to explain why Semenya is — after silvers in the 800 at the 2011 worlds and 2012 Olympics and then injuries and subpar performances since — running so fast again now.

It’s all about testosterone levels.

Because of Semenya, track and field’s international governing body, the International Assn. of Athletics Federations, as well as the International Olympic Committee, put in place a new policy: you could run in women’s events if your testosterone levels fell under a threshold of 10 nanomoles (that’s what it’s called) per liter. In scientific jargon: 10 nmo/L.

Context: as the South African scientist and writer Ross Tucker points out in a brilliant Q&A on what is called “hyperandrogenism” with the activist Joanna Harper, 99 percent of female athletes registered testosterone levels below 3.08 nmo/L.

From the science department, part I: “hyper” is science talk for what in ordinary speech might be described as “way, way more.” The primary and probably most well-known “androgen” is testosterone.

Part II, simple math: the upper limit of 10 is more than three times higher than for 99 in 100 women.

Last year, in a decision that pleased human rights advocates but left knowledgable track observers puzzled (to say the least), sport’s top court, the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport, ruling in the case of sprinter Dutee Chand from India, said the IAAF (and IOC) could no longer enforce the testosterone limit.

In real life, and particularly as we look toward Rio, this means what?

The IAAF and IOC are trying to come up with a new policy.

In the meantime, Semenya, “plus a few others,” as Tucker writes, “have no restriction.” The erasure of the limit has “utterly transformed Semenya from an athlete who was struggling to run 2:01 to someone who is tactically running 1:56," Tucker goes on to say, adding, "My impression, having seen her live and now in the Diamond League, is that she could run 1:52, and if she wanted to, would run a low 48-second 400 meters and win that gold in Rio. too.”

He also writes that Semenya is “the unfortunate face of what is going to be a massive controversy in Rio” — my words here, not his, about who is a “female” and gets to run in “women’s” events. He writes, "It won’t be any consolation to Semenya, [that] the media, frankly, have no idea how to deal with this – nobody wants it to be about the athlete, and it certainly is not her fault.  However, it is a debate we must have, and I want to try to have it from the biological, sporting perspective, and steer clear of the minority bullying that so often punctuates these matters.”

Tucker is right. The debate — calm voices only, please — needs to be held, and in short order.

4. UCLA, per a report first from ESPN, landed the biggest college sports apparel deal ever, with Under Armour. Terms: 15 years, beginning in July 2017. The deal is believed to be worth $280 million.

Biggest-ever is likely to be relative, depending on what comes next.

Because, in recent months:

Michigan, 11 years (option to extend to 15), Nike, $169 million,

Texas, 15 years, Nike $250 million.

Ohio State, 15 years, Nike, $252 million.

Boosters of these schools, and others, typically tend to react with glee at these sorts of numbers.

Rhetorical question, part I: why, when USA Track & Field chief executive officer Max Siegel scores a $500 million, 23-year deal with Nike, do some number of track fans bemoan Nike’s influence as a death star of sorts and claim the federation is verging on stupidity if not recklessness?

Rhetorical question, part II: how is it that dismissive claims about the USATF/Nike deal become gospel among the disaffected when track athletes actually get paid to run for a living but college athletes, as UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen noted in a Tweet that quickly got deleted, don’t — and likely won’t —get to see a dime of any of those millions?

Just a thought here: maybe Siegel was, you know, ahead of the power curve.

5. More on USATF, now on the dismissal this week per 11-1 vote of the federation’s board of directors of the Youth Executive Committee and its chairman, Lionel Leach:

Many, many things could be said here about Leach and the conduct that led to this action.

For now, this will suffice:

This is a movie whose ending we can all know, and now.


Because it’s a re-run.

What’s at issue, at the core, is a power struggle between the volunteers and professional staff.

Here’s news: the professional staff is going to win. As it should.

It used to be that the U.S. Olympic Committee found itself consumed by precisely this sort of petty, personalized politics. That changed when governance reforms became real; when the board empowered the chief executive to run the show; and when the chief executive proved professional and hugely competent (USOC: Scott Blackmun, USATF: Siegel).

It's a fact that USATF has a long and contentious history. But this is a fact, too: Siegel's first four years have shown dramatic, and consequential, improvement for the federation, and the sport.

6. Moving along, to an international sports federation president who also gets it, even if the IOC often doesn't want to admit so: Marius Vizer, president of the International Judo Federation.

Vizer, in advance of the start Friday of a major IJF event in Guadalajara, Mexico, spent about two hours doing a live Q&A on Twitter.

Imagine: actually doing exactly what the IOC says it wants to do, to reach out to young people in those ways, like Twitter, by which young people connect with each other.

Far too many federation presidents might have something resembling a panic attack at the thought of entertaining questions about whatever from whoever. Vizer, who has never had anything to hide and has consistently been a forceful voice for accountability and change (to the IOC's chagrin), made it plain: bring it on.

Indeed, Vizer ended by saying more such Q&A's would be forthcoming.

7. Switching to 2024 bid news:

If you might be tempted to look past those potentially significant developments related to the allegations of Russian doping — first, a potential U.S. Justice Department inquiry and, second, U.S. Anti-Doping Agency chief Travis Tygart’s bombshell of an op-ed in the New York Times — it was otherwise a good week for the LA24 bid committee, at least for those things it could and can control.

Los Angeles, behind a bid headed by Casey Wasserman, who is also in charge of LA24, won the right to stage the 2021 Super Bowl.

Plus, a rail line from downtown to Santa Monica opened, to real excitement and big crowds. Roll that around in your head: LA. Rail. It’s real. Really.

8. Still a long way to go in the 2024 race, which the IOC will decide by secret ballot in September 2017 at a meeting in Lima, Peru. Three others are in the race: Paris, Rome, Budapest.

It’s a proven that what wins Olympic elections are, first, relationships, and two, telling a story that will move IOC members emotionally.

Right now, only two of the four are telling a real story: Los Angeles. And Budapest.

9. Turning to the 2020 Summer Games campaign, won by Tokyo:

The Japanese Olympic Committee announces a three-person investigation of allegations of bribery. This from the same place that brought you the burning of the Nagano 1998 books so as to avoid embarrassing the IOC.

Let’s all wish for really good luck in getting a genuine answer.

Why in the world would you need to send $2 million to Ian Tan Hong Han, a consultant based in Singapore, who is close friends with Papa Massata Diack, son of Lamine Diack, the then-president of the IAAF, when virtually no one in the Singapore international sports community knew of Han or his firm, Black Tidings?

Black Tidings had precisely what know-how to provide such high-level consultancy services?

More: those who were there for the Singapore 2010 Youth Games know there had to be external help when Singapore was bidding for YOG. Curious.

10. Russia uses sports as an instrument of what’s called “soft power,” meaning president Vladimir Putin has sought to use sports to project a Russian image of strength, not only abroad but, crucially, within Russia itself.

The United States, which under President Obama has clashed with the Kremlin over issues ranging from the disclosures of the activist Edward Snowden to the composition of the formal U.S. delegation to the Sochi 2014 Winter Games, has if not unparalleled then at least significant resource available to its spy agencies.

How is it that Sochi 2014 lab director Gregoriy Rodchenkov could flee Russia and end up so quickly in the United States? No one in the American spy apparatus would want to embarrass the Russians, would they?

Again: just curious.

11. What a surprise! The London 2012 doping re-test positives became public on a Friday!

The numbers: 23 athletes from five sports and six countries, based on 265 re-tests

More numbers, 32 doping cases from London 2012, 57 for Beijing 2008. Previous high, according to IOC figures: 26, Athens 2004.

To reiterate a central point: you have to be frighteningly stupid to get caught doping at the Olympic Games themselves.

It’s one thing to be caught in no-notice, out-of-competition testing. But at the Games?

You know there are going to be drug tests. You know the samples are going to be kept in the freezer for (at least) 10 years to allow for advances in testing.

It has been said many times but is still worth repeating: failing a drug test at the Olympics is like failing an IQ test.


12. If you’re thinking of going to Rio, don’t. Sorry to say so but — don’t. Watch on TV.

The pictures will be beautiful and the only danger in overloading on TV is breathing in that funky orange-red Doritos powder.

In Brazil, meanwhile:

The case of the Spanish sailors getting held-up at gunpoint, lucky to escape with their lives, underscores the No. 1 challenge ahead of these Games. More than dirty water, or maybe even Zika, or presidential politics, or corruption scandals. More than anything. To compete, or to be at, the Games in Rio, you have to deal with life in Rio as it is. Maybe — maybe even probably — it will be fine. But one wrong misstep, even with no fault, and you might well find yourselves in a scene evoking Tom Wolfe’s 1987 masterpiece, “Bonfire of the Vanities.”

Who wants that? Be a master of your TV universe.


Track and field -- going nowhere fast in the United States

A friend and I were sitting outside at a great little restaurant in Eugene, Oregon, on Friday when some dude with his shirt off, two feathers pasted to the back of his head, went riding by on a bicycle, smoke billowing around him. The feathers were black and red. Each was at least two feet long. Not sure what kind of smoke it was but many fine people in Eugene are often, you know, mellow.

Watching the dude go by, I thought, everything seemed pretty much normal in Eugene, which bills itself as Track Town USA.

It's a lovely thought, Eugene as Track Town USA, except -- really -- it's not. There's no place that's Track Town USA. It's a big problem. After this weekend's Prefontaine Classic, before the meet this weekend in New York, before the nationals back in Eugene later this month -- it's time for everyone connected to the sport to recognize that it's time for a thorough re-think.

Track and field is going nowhere fast in the United States.

It can, and must, do better -- especially because USATF, track and field's governing body, is getting $4.4 million annually in grant money from the U.S. Olympic Committee, the most any governing body is getting, and with that kind of cash comes heavy responsibility.

USA Swimming, for comparison, is doing all kinds of clever stuff. At its Olympic Trials, they're plunking down a temporary pool inside a basketball arena. They shoot off fireworks and they play cool music and they have hard bodies and, frankly, it rocks.

Track and field needs to do the same kind of out-of-the-box thinking.

For instance:

What about holding the track Trials at, say, Cowboys Stadium? Make the event an -- event. If Cowboys Stadium is good enough for the Super Bowl, it's good enough for the Trials. Okay, the 2012 Trials are set for Eugene. Beyond?

In the meantime: Why isn't there a reality-TV show where, for example, a bunch of sprinters are all living in the same house and vying for a shot at the Olympics? Surely some cable network would buy that concept.

At meets, why aren't camera crews on the infield, up close and personal, listening to the athletes grunting and breathing hard and talking smack with each other? Why not at the Trials? The cameras are right there on the floor on the basketball floor during NBA games; they're practically in the huddles during time-outs.

Track needs more personality and it needs to develop strong personalities; it needs sweat and drama dripping in high-def TV.

Frankly, the sport needs a lot more TV and, at the same time, a lot less TV. That is, it needs to be on the air a lot more but in shorter blocks.  It needs to be on regularly but  for, like, an hour. That's all. An hour. It can be done. You don't need to watch every prelim, every throw, every everything.

Track needs this kind of stuff to move past its doping-soaked past, and the sooner the better. When I got home from Eugene, I asked my youngest daughter, who's 12 -- our three kids are not big sports fans -- to name some basketball players. Shaq and Kobe and other names came right out. Football players? Tom Brady and some others. Track? "Usain Bolt and that Marion lady who went to prison."

That's what track must confront.

And this:

Eugene has a dedicated and knowledgeable group of track enthusiasts. Yes, Hayward Field is soaked in history and the University of Oregon program is traditionally one of the best.

So what?

That's a subculture even in Eugene.

You don't think so?

Check out the website of the Eugene Register-Guard, purported protector of the faith. Now click through to the sports section. Read the line at the very top of the page, where the newspaper gets to promote how it sees itself. Does it say even the first word about track and field? Nope.

It says, "Oregon Football, breaking sports updates, NCAA and Pac-12 news, prep sports."

Now let's get really real.

I am truly fond of Eugene. I saw it for the first time when I was 17, just three days after I was graduated from high school in southwestern Ohio. It looked like nothing I had ever seen before; it was love at first sight. During college at Northwestern, I came back to Oregon, to do a three-month internship at the newspaper in Bend, the Bulletin. After graduation, I tried to get a job with one of the Oregon newspapers but couldn't get any takers. My loss.

Oregon is a long way from everywhere. Eugene is farther still.

All the things that can make it charming can sometimes make it seem a lot less so when we're talking about the kind of logistics and production values associated with the major-league sports that track is competing against.

Parking around Hayward Field is difficult to begin with (by the way, thank you to Jeff Oliver for helping me out with a pass to the Pre meet -- much appreciated). It was more complicated this past weekend because it was move-out weekend at the university dorms across the street.

Those of us who have had the privilege of covering the Super Bowl had to laugh when the note went out that it would be helpful to bring our own ethernet cable to Hayward Field so as to ensure internet access. Do you really think the writers and broadcasters in Dallas this week covering the NBA Finals are being asked to bring their own cables so they can access the internet?

The New York Times was not in Eugene this weekend. Neither was the Los Angeles Times. These were just some of the other outlets not there, either: the Chicago Tribune, Miami Herald, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Sports Illustrated.

But then, why would an editor at any of those publications authorize the expenditure of roughly $1500 to go to Eugene?

Sports depend on stars.

Bolt wasn't in Eugene. In fact, unless something changes, he's not due to run anywhere in the United States in 2011.

Tyson Gay wasn't in Eugene. (Instead, he was in Clermont, Florida, where he ran a 9.79 100 meters in a heat in something called the NTC Sprint Series, according to Reuters. He did not compete in the final, according to official results. A YouTube video shows that he ran before a crowd of dozens.)

Tirunesh Dibaba, the distance queen from Ethiopia, appeared in Eugene. But that's all she did. She appeared. She didn't actually run, citing injury.

South Africa's Caster Semenya, the women's 800 meter world champion, made her first American appearance in Eugene, and ran. She finished second in the 800. But she inexplicably didn't show at a pre-meet news conference. After the race, she had to be tracked down to talk to reporters for two minutes and three seconds.

Galen Rupp, the American distance standout, didn't run in the 10k Friday night. He and his coach, Alberto Salazar, cited concerns about allergies -- along with the worry, further spelled out on the USATF Facebook page, that if Rupp ran and had an allergy fit he wouldn't be ready for the nationals.

That decision underscores a major part of the problem.

There are really only two meets this year that matter -- the nationals, June 23-26, and the worlds, Aug. 27-Sept. 4.

The rest has devolved, regrettably, to varying degrees of noise, and everyone knows it.

Why should fans care if the athletes, coaches, shoe companies and other sponsors -- everyone else who has a meaningful stake in the game -- make it plain that an event such as the Pre, allegedly one of the nation's top meets, is something you can skip without any real consequence because you're way more worried about the nationals?

This disconnect has manifested itself at the top leadership levels of the sport. USATF's chief executive's job has now gone unfilled for months amid the departure of Doug Logan. Now there is talk, as reported by my colleague Philip Hersh in his Chicago Tribune blog, that the USATF board wants to pluck the president and chairwoman of that board, Stephanie Hightower, and put her in the CEO job.

For real?

That didn't work for the USOC -- see the example of Stephanie Streeter -- and it's going to draw special scrutiny if that's the decision at USATF.

For those who would say, oh, it did work at other, smaller national governing bodies -- track and field is not archery or fencing. Again, USATF gets $4.4 million a year from the USOC. It is the bellwether NGB. The situation is different.

It boggles the mind that USATF seemingly can't get anyone in the entire United States to take this job. Why, a reasonable observer might ask, might that be?

For starters, all the reasons detailed above. Plus, USATF is based in Indianapolis, which on the excitement scale beats out Milwaukee because Indianapolis has the Colts and the Packers play in Green Bay but maybe doesn't out-do New York; the factions within track and field can be notoriously partisan; there are the road runners and there is USATF and it's not clear where the two communities converge, even though it seems incredibly obvious that they should; the federation holds no realistic chance of staging a world championships in the United States in the foreseeable future; and on and on.

Oh, and the other reason USATF seemingly can't get anyone in the United States to take the job is because, after the Logan experience, USATF doesn't seem to be looking too far outside the existing track community.

When it's precisely outside-the-box thinking that's needed.

It all makes you sometimes just want to think to yourself -- what, exactly, is the USOC getting in return for that $4.4 million? Relay teams that keep dropping the baton at the Olympics and world championships and -- what else?

Caster Semenya, two years later

EUGENE, Ore. -- Two years ago, I sat on press row in Berlin and watched a teen-ager from South Africa named Caster Semenya demolish the field and win the women's 800 meters at track and field's world championships. The controversy that race triggered shows no signs of abating. Zero.

The only thing that can be said that I found truly remarkable about Caster Semenya's appearance here at the Prefontaine Classic this weekend is that she didn't win.

Everything else pretty much went according to script, and unless that script changes, and changes pretty dramatically, and pretty quickly, track and field still has on its hands a major, major challenge.

To wit: what to do with Caster Semenya?

The challenge is that nobody really knows how to proceed, and everyone seems to be dancing around the matter, including apparently Semenya herself and her handlers.

She gave an interview to a columnist to the local newspaper, the Eugene Register-Guard, that was published Friday morning, then proved a no-show for a news conference that afternoon at which she had been touted as one of the featured panelists. No one knew why she didn't show. Was she -- were her people -- miffed about the column? No one knew anything.

She came in second Saturday in the 800, behind Kenia Sinclair of Jamaica. Sinclair ran 1:58.29, the best time in the world this year. Semenya crossed in 1:58.88, her best 2011 finish.

It's early in the season; the times don't matter much.

What matters more is what happened after the race.

Semenya went to a cool-down area and, appropriately, cooled down. After athletes rest up, they're supposed to walk through a tent where they meet us, their friends in the press. The meeting area is called the "mixed zone."

The way the process tends to work at a complicated meet like Pre, and especially with higher-profile athletes such as Semenya, is that reporters ask for athletes we want to talk to; the process is further complicated here because the system is really in place for American athletes and Semenya is of course not American. But it's the best we had.

Freelance writer Meri-Jo Borzilleri, covering the meet for espnW, and I put in a request for Semenya. Duly noted. We waited.

After roughly 10 minutes, we were told, oh, she left.

Meri-Jo thereupon took it upon herself to try to find Semenya, or someone who could find Semenya. Several minutes later, Meri-Jo was back, and here, just behind her, was Caster Semenya. Kudos to Meri-Jo.

The ensuing interview lasted, according to my tape recorder, two minutes and three seconds, and that included some thank-you's at the end.

I asked Semenya whether she was ready for what seems sure to be a media madhouse this summer at the world championships in Daegu, South Korea. Those championships will be the first time most of the world's press will have seen Semenya since Berlin.

This was her response: "Press to me is nothing. It's just media. You know, always media. I'm always ready for them."

Frankly, it all seems rather silly.

Semenya has, according to everyone close to the medical and legal issues in the process, been cleared to run in the women's races.

Unless and until there's reason to reconsider the judgments of experts in their fields, everybody else needs to get with the program.

Semenya is 20 years old and there has to be some human dignity about this, and the history books would reflect better on all of us if we would get about that sooner than later.

To that end, someone in South Africa -- or if it's somewhere else that's in charge of her image -- ought to recognize that she needs some media training.

She needs -- they need -- to understand there is a natural curiosity about her.

She is going to get asked questions, and in that process there are likely to be stupid questions, maybe even ugly questions. She needs to learn to deflect them and move along.

Semenya is hugely likely to win the women's 800 again this summer in Daegu. Her race is the final individual race on the entire calendar of the championships -- at 8:15 at night on Sept. 4, immediately before the last two events themselves, the men's and women's 400 relays.

What that means is that the world's press will have the better part of nine days to write about Usain Bolt, who will already have run the 100 and 200 and will be running once more in that 400 relay, and Caster Semenya, who could do so much -- before she so much as steps foot on the track for that final -- to change the way things are to the way they should, and could, be.