1st October 2020

Technology Ocado overtakes Tesco as most valuable UK retailer

Technology Ocado overtakes Tesco as most valuable UK retailer


Technology Ocado delivery driverImage copyright

Online grocer Ocado has overtaken Tesco in terms of stock market value as investors continue to bet on the firm.

Ocado is now valued at £21.7bn, more than Tesco’s £21.1bn, despite having only a fraction of the UK grocery market share.

Analysts said a rise in online food shopping, plus Ocado’s new tie up with Marks & Spencer, had encouraged investors.

However, question marks remain as to whether Ocado is over-valued.

According to analyst firm Kantar, Ocado has only 1.7% of the UK grocery market, compared with Tesco’s 26.8% share – which far outstrips its nearest competitors, Sainsbury’s and Asda.

Technology ‘Charity’ jibe

Ocado was launched 20 years ago but in most of those years struggled to make money.

Ocado’s share price, which had been healthy after striking a number of big deals with overseas grocery businesses, began to climb quite quickly after the UK coronavirus lockdown in March.

A former Tesco chief executive once described the firm as a “charity” because of the losses it had racked up in its early years.

The business started to flourish in 2017 after cutting deals with US group Kroger, Casino in France, Sobeys in Canada, and ICA Group in Sweden. It then signed a partnership agreement with Coles in Australia.

Its stock market valuation has largely been driven by how investors view its technology, which provides retailers with the infrastructure and software to build their online service and compete with giants such as Amazon.

Technology Market value

That valuation picked up speed after the coronavirus crisis really started to bite in the UK and elsewhere in March as lockdown boosted demand for online groceries.

Ocado’s share price got a further boost recently after its switch to delivering M&S food and after it reported a 50% jump in third quarter sales.

This was despite some customers criticising Ocado when it launched its M&S range, saying orders made weeks earlier had been cancelled at the last minute.

The retailer also halted orders from its staff as it tried to clear an order backlog.

Technology Elephant

Despite its popularity with investors, Neil Wilson, chief market analyst at Markets.com, questioned its market valuation.

“Ocado holds enormous promise but whether it can deliver is quite another matter, the cash burn remains and the payback from all these overseas deals is taking a very long time,” he said.

One of the reasons for Ocado’s valuation is the expected revenue from its overseas deals, but these “have been slow to materialise”, he said.

While Ocado’s share price “has rocketed this year thanks to the boom in online retail”, one of the problems for Ocado is that “setting up fulfilment centres costs a lot and the returns are slow,” Mr Wilson said.

He added that “investors put an enormous premium on growth so are prepared to pay a lot for any company that has a strong growth profile.”

Julie Palmer, partner at Begbies Traynor, said the coronavirus pandemic had aided the firm: “Where there is crisis, there is opportunity. These words have never been truer for logistics businesses at the moment, which is one of the reasons that Ocado appeals to investors.”

However, she said the challenge for the business is now to retain the growth it has seen since the Covid-19 outbreak.

“There is an elephant in the room with Amazon, which could strike this sector hard with innovation through technology at any point,” she said.

“This is a fact that must play on the mind of chief executive, Tim Steiner, and should make sure that he doesn’t become complacent,” Ms Palmer added.

Amazon, which launched an online supermarket service in the UK in 2016, has been making further moves into selling groceries.

These include a partnership with Morrisons, which said on Tuesday it would be taking on 1,000 permanent staff for its services on Amazon.

1st October 2020

Technology Coronavirus: Test demand ‘significantly outstripping’ capacity

Technology Coronavirus: Test demand ‘significantly outstripping’ capacity


Media playback is unsupported on your device

Media captionBaroness Harding: It is “quite hard to give you an accurate figure” on the level of demand for coronavirus tests

Demand for coronavirus testing is “significantly outstripping the capacity we have”, head of NHS Test and Trace Baroness Harding has told MPs.

She told the science and technology committee that the return to school meant test demand in England from under-17s had doubled.

She also acknowledged that results were also taking “slightly longer”.

But she said she was “very confident” of raising capacity to 500,000 tests a day by the end of October.

“I am certain we will need more as we go beyond the end of October. We have plans to go beyond 500,000 a day,” Baroness Harding said, before adding there was no formal target beyond the October deadline.

The test and trace programme has come under increasing pressure in recent days, with reports of people unable to access tests or being directed to test centres many miles away.

Figures published on Thursday also showed the turnaround time for community tests was getting longer. Only a third of these tests came back in 24 hours in the week up to 9 September, compared to two-thirds a week earlier.

It comes as the UK reported another 3,395 confirmed cases of coronavirus, and a further 21 deaths were recorded within 28 days of a positive test.

The number of people calling 119 and visiting the website to book tests was three to four times the number of available tests, Baroness Harding told the committee – although she said that may exaggerate the problem as some people call repeatedly from different numbers.

Committee chairman Greg Clark said it was “dispiriting” that despite the “entirely predictable” circumstances of the return to schools and offices “we haven’t had the right capacity put in place”.

Baroness Harding said they built the testing capacity for this autumn – which is now 242,817 a day – based on modelling from the Sage scientific advisory group.

“I don’t think anybody was expecting to see the really sizable increase in demand that has happened over the last few weeks,” she said.

Prof Carl Heneghan, a GP and epidemiologist at Oxford University, told the committee that the testing strategy was “utter chaos” at the moment because other illnesses with Covid-like symptoms such as colds and flu had risen by 50% in children in September.

He said there was only a “slight increase” in hospital admissions and deaths, however, and increased testing may explain some of the rise in cases.

“What’s happening at the moment is the language and the rhetoric is making people so fearful and terrorised that they’re going beyond the guidance because they’re so fearful of what’s coming next,” he said.

An unpublished study suggested that coughs and fevers from other winter viruses could rise to 445,000 a day in December, overwhelming test capacity.

In Sunderland, meanwhile, more than 100 people were left waiting at an empty car park where they said they had been booked in for Covid-19 testing, although no staff or equipment was there.

Bolton Council, which faces the highest levels of infection nationally, said it was “incredibly frustrated” after problems with the national booking system led to long queues and people with appointments being turned away.

Similar problems were reported in Lewisham, south London, where the approach to the centre was “gridlocked”.

Baroness Harding said testing was limited by the laboratory processing capacity, and that they had to restrict the number of people at centres because it would be “very dangerous” to send too many samples to the laboratory that would then go untested.

An NHS Test and Trace survey showed 27% of people seeking tests had no symptoms but had only been in contact with an infected person. Tests should only be provided for members of the public with a continuous cough, a high temperature or a change in sense of smell or taste.

“We don’t want to push away people who are scared,” Baroness Harding said. But she added that they must “protect the capacity we have for the people who most need it”.

The current priorities for testing are NHS patients, NHS staff and care home residents and staff. Together these account for 50% of testing, she said.

After that, areas with serious outbreaks are given priority. Baroness Harding said they were looking at putting key workers next, particularly teachers, “but work is still ongoing”.

In other developments:

1st October 2020

Environment Extinction crisis: World leaders say it is time to act

Environment Extinction crisis: World leaders say it is time to act


environment Fires in BrazilImage copyright
Getty Images

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According to the UN, 75% of the Earth’s land surface has been significantly altered by human actions

As nearly 150 global leaders lined up – virtually – to address Wednesday’s UN biodiversity summit, the stakes could not have been higher.

“The house is on fire and we are all locked in, because of a disease that came from our mismanagement of nature.”

This was how Inger Anderson, head of the UN Environment Programme, put it in a briefing the day before the event.

“I think there is a realisation that if we don’t take care of nature, we could end up in dire straits,” she added.

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Many primates, including the endangered gold snub-nosed monkey, are in decline due to loss of habitat

With the world grappling with the public health, social and economic devastation of the Covid-19 pandemic, leaders are under increasing pressure to act on their promises to reverse the decline in the natural world.

Media playback is unsupported on your device

Media captionVictoria Gill reports on what’s at stake and what can be done to help

Environment Why does this summit matter?

This summit is primarily a high-profile forum for world leaders. Its aim is to “highlight the crisis facing humanity from the degradation of biodiversity, and the urgent need to accelerate action on biodiversity for sustainable development”.

But the point at which genuine commitments will be made – to take action to protect nature – will be at the biodiversity conference in 2021. That conference, postponed because of the pandemic, is where all member countries are expected to adopt a new “biodiversity framework” – essentially a global contract to put nature on a path to recovery by 2030.

But a UN report published just two weeks ago, revealed that none of the 20 biodiversity targets that countries signed up to back in 2011 would be fully met.

Image copyright
Victoria Gill

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Insects contribute hundreds of millions of pounds to the global economy by pollinating food crops

Those targets were ambitious, encapsulating every aspect of how our human lives intersect with the natural world.

They ranged from reducing the rate of loss of natural habitats like forests and protecting the most precious landscapes for wildlife, to more fundamentally economic shifts, such as eliminating subsidies for “activities that are harmful”, including intensive, polluting farming and fishing practices.

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Getty Images

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Covid-19 is not the first pandemic to be caused by a zoonotic disease – a disease that “spilled over” from animals

Xi Jinping, President of China, the host country of the 2021 conference, used his pre-recorded address to stress his country’s commitment to turn the tide on biodiversity.

“We need to find a way for man to live in harmony with nature,” he said.

Mr Xi also stressed the need for economic recovery, saying that green development would “increase the potential for high-quality economic recovery from Covid-19.

“We need to recognise that our solutions are in nature – to achieve a win-win.”

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson used a pre-recorded address to highlight the plight of the scaly, critically endangered pangolin:

“I don’t believe any of us would choose to bequeath a planet on which such a wonderfully bizarre little creature is as unfamiliar to future generations as dinosaurs and dodos are to us today.

“Yet that is what awaits us if we continue down this road. And that’s not just bad news for the pangolins – it is bad news for all of us.”

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Getty Images

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The pangolin is one of the most threatened mammals on Earth and was also a suspected “missing link species” in the coronavirus pandemic

But in the wake of the UK government’s recent announcement that it would protect more land for nature, the country’s record on biodiversity loss is under scrutiny.

Prof Kate Jones of University College London (UCL), who studies the interplay between nature and human health, described the “massive historical declines” in biodiversity in the UK as “terrible”.

Environment What is different this time?

Inger Anderson insisted that the the “trillions of dollars being invested in stimulus packages” because of the pandemic, provided an ideal opportunity to invest in sustainable growth. “We surely do not want to go back to our damaging ways,” she said.

Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, a multilateral treaty that aims to conserve species, added: “Businesses, banks, the youth – all are ready to take action. This is our last chance and everybody has a role to play.”

By destroying the natural world, Prof Jones explained, “we are currently degrading our asset. So our financial systems need to change”.

She added: “With climate change, our house is on a cliff and it is going to fall off soon. Biodiversity loss and land use change means that it is also on fire – our current trajectory is not sustainable so we have to do something.

“There is more talk and action now than there ever was before, and I am more hopeful now that I have ever been, but it’s a low bar.”

Follow Victoria on Twitter

1st October 2020

Environment Plastic straw ban in England comes into force

Environment Plastic straw ban in England comes into force


environment A collection of colourful drinking strawsImage copyright
Getty Images

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People in England use an estimated 4.7 billion plastic straws each year

A ban on single-use plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds has come into force in England.

The measure, originally due to start in April, makes it illegal for businesses to sell or supply the items.

People in England use an estimated 4.7 billion plastic straws, 316 million plastic stirrers and 1.8 billion plastic-stemmed cotton buds each year.

Environmental campaigners welcomed the ban but called for a crackdown on further single-use items.

An exemption will allow hospitals, bars and restaurants to provide plastic straws to people with disabilities or medical conditions that require them.

Environment Secretary George Eustice said the government was “firmly committed” to tackling environmental “devastation” caused by single-use plastics.

Campaigners welcomed the move but said the items formed only a “fraction” of the plastic waste littering the environment.

Sion Elis Williams, of Friends of the Earth, said ministers “must also do more to challenge our throwaway culture by forcing a shift away from all single-use materials in favour of reusable alternatives”.

Tatiana Lujan, of environmental law charity ClientEarth said straws, cotton buds and stirrers were “some of the most pointless plastics out there” and the ban on them was “a no-brainer”.

But they remained “a tiny fraction” of single-use plastics, she said, adding that countries such as Ireland and France had “shown far more ambition” with targets on reusable packaging and deposit return schemes.

Mr Eustice said the government was “building plans” for a 5p deposit scheme to encourage recycling of single-use drinks containers.

The Welsh government has said it is also considering a similar ban on plastics.

A number of national restaurant chains ditched plastic straws before the ban was announced.

1st October 2020

Science Biodiversity: Why the nature crisis matters, in five graphics

Science Biodiversity: Why the nature crisis matters, in five graphics


science Butterfly exhibition, LondonImage copyright
Getty Images

Human activities are destroying the natural world, leading to the extinction of animal and plant species at an alarming rate. Now, world leaders are promising action to tackle the problem. But will it be enough?

Science What is biodiversity and why does it matter?

Biodiversity is the variety of all living things on Earth, and how they fit together in the web of life, bringing oxygen, water, food and countless other benefits.

Recent reports and studies have produced alarming news about the state of nature.

Last year, an intergovernmental panel of scientists said one million animal and plant species were now threatened with extinction.

And this month, a report found global populations of mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles plunged by 68%, on average, between 1970 and 2016.

Science Are we living in an age of extinction?

Scientists have warned that we are entering the sixth mass extinction, with whatever we do now likely to define the future of humanity. The other five mass extinctions include the asteroid strike that killed off the dinosaurs and many species in the sea.

“We have no time to wait. Biodiversity loss, nature loss, it is at an unprecedented level in the history of mankind,” says Elizabeth Mrema, the executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

“We’re the most dangerous species in global history.”

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Getty Images

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The destruction of forests is altering ecosystems

Humans are pushing other species to extinction through hunting, over-fishing and cutting down forests and grasslands.

We are almost entirely responsible for extinctions of mammals in past decades, according to one recent study.

And predictions suggest a further 550 mammal species will be lost this century, if we continue along our current path.

One of the biggest problems for the species we share the planet with, is the rate at which we’re transforming the natural landscape, through building roads and cities, and taking up more land to grow food.

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Getty Images

Off land, we are putting plastic into the oceans and depleting fish stocks.

Assessments suggest 75% of land and 66% of the oceans has been degraded by human activity.

Science How do we get off the path to destruction?

Moving off our current devastating trajectory will require some big changes.

At the United Nations Summit on Biodiversity in New York on 30 September, world leaders are expected to declare their countries’ commitments to nature, and possibly a new way of doing things.

“They are not going to say: ‘We will continue a path of destruction.’ They are going to say: ‘We will get on a path of sustainability’,” says Inger Andersen, the head of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

Science What is the plan for the future?

Countries are being urged to put their names to an agreement which would be to biodiversity what the Paris climate accord is to climate change.

This comes under the remit of the Convention on Biological Diversity, an international treaty agreed to at the UN Earth Summit in Brazil in 1992.

The convention has three goals: the conservation of biological diversity; the sustainable use of nature; and the sharing of benefits arising from genetic science.

Countries had until this year to reach the targets set a decade ago, which range from stopping extinction to cutting pollution and preserving forests. Despite some progress, none of the targets were achieved.

World leaders are now being asked to sign up to a pledge to protect 30% of the world by 2030 through a ten-point plan that puts wildlife and the climate at the heart of recovery plans from the pandemic.

They have to promise to address the likes of climate change, deforestation, ecosystem degradation and pollution

Scientists say a huge amount is at stake; but it is still possible to reverse the decline in nature, if words and promises are acted upon.

Follow Helen on Twitter.

1st October 2020

Science Coronavirus: Test rules set for Covid-19 African herbal remedies

Science Coronavirus: Test rules set for Covid-19 African herbal remedies



image copyrightAFP

image captionCovid-Organics was launched in Madagascar in April after being tested on fewer than 20 people over three weeks

The World Health Organization (WHO) has agreed rules for the testing of African herbal remedies to fight Covid-19.

Sound science would be the sole basis for safe and effective traditional therapies to be adopted, it said.

Any traditional remedies that are judged effective could be fast-tracked for large-scale manufacturing.

Madagascar’s leader has been promoting an untested product he says can cure the disease despite the WHO warning against using untested remedies.

The WHO said the new rules were aimed at helping and empowering scientists in Africa to conduct proper clinical trials.

The move comes as the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus worldwide passes 30 million, with reported global deaths standing at more than 957,000. In Africa there have been more than 1.3 million cases and than 33,000 reported deaths.

Around 140 potential vaccines for Covid-19 are being developed around the world, with dozens already being tested on people in clinical trials.

Science ‘Accelerating research’

Alongside these efforts, the green light has now been given for phrase three clinical trials using African traditional medicines.

A panel of experts, set up by the WHO, the Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention and the African Union Commission for Social Affairs, has agreed on the protocols.

Phase three trials usually test the safety and efficacy of a drug on larger groups of participants.

“The adoption of the technical documents will ensure that universally acceptable clinical evidence of the efficacy of herbal medicines for the treatment of Covid-19 is generated without compromising the safety of participants,” said Prof Motlalepula Gilbert Matsabisa, the panel’s chairman.

Science You may also be interested in:

media captionThe coronavirus diagnostics kit made in South Africa

“The onset of Covid-19, like the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, has highlighted the need for strengthened health systems and accelerated research and development programmes, including on traditional medicines,” the WHO’s Dr Prosper Tumusiime said in the statement.

In April, Madagascar’s President Andry Rajoelina launched Covid-Organics to great fanfare, saying it was a prevention and remedy. It had been tested on 20 people over a period of three weeks.

Mr Rajoelina stands by the herbal concoction, despite the Indian Ocean island having had 15,925 coronavirus infections and 216 Covid-19 deaths.

The drink, which has also been sent to dozens of African countries, is produced by the Malagasy Institute of Applied Research from the artemisia plant – the source of an ingredient used in a malaria treatment – and other Malagasy plants.

Dr Tumusiime said that via the WHO’s African Vaccine Regulatory Forum, there was now a way for clinical trials of medicines in the region to be assessed and approved in fewer than 60 days.

1st October 2020

Science Venus: Will private firms win the race to the fiery planet?

Science Venus: Will private firms win the race to the fiery planet?


science Image of Earth taken from PhotonImage copyright
Rocket Lab

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A picture of Earth taken from a Rocket Lab Photon. The craft will go to Venus in 2023

With astronomers detecting a potential signature of life in the clouds of Venus, there’s obviously going to be a big push to get some new space missions to the planet.

We don’t know if the phosphine gas recently observed by telescopes is coming from floating microbes or has a simple non-biological origin. Right now, nothing is conclusive. But the only way we’re likely to find out for sure is by taking some scientific instruments there.

The Japanese space agency’s Akatsuki orbiter is the one mission at the planet at present, and it was built long before the phosphine question came up – so it’s not really best-suited to study the issue.

What’s needed are some dedicated investigations. And the first opportunity we’ll probably get to perform these will be with the private Rocket Lab company.

This start-up has been making waves with its small Electron rocket, which launches from the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand’s North Island.

The company’s CEO, Peter Beck, is fascinated by Venus and has already announced his intention to send a mission there in 2023. He’s funding and constructing it in-house.

Rocket Lab will do it with the Photon “kick-stage” that goes on the top of an Electron.

In Earth orbit, this stage does the final placement of small satellites in the part of the sky they want to operate. But the Photon is extremely capable and could shepherd a probe to another planet, and even carry some sensors of its own.

Beck’s plan is to drop off an atmospheric entry probe at Venus. As this falls through the “air”, it would radio back its observations of Venusian clouds to the Photon, which in turn would relay that data back to Earth.

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Peter Beck says Venus deserves a little more love from space missions

The entrepreneur’s team is working on a payload mass of 37kg.

“That might not sound a lot, but 37kg can get you an awful lot of instrumentation, especially if you’re now very targeted in what you’re looking for and what you’re trying to measure,” Beck told BBC News.

“Venus hasn’t had a lot of love recently, and I think 2023 is the opportunity to put that right. It’s very hard for governments to move quickly but a private mission can. We can go there for a small amount of money, and we can go there many times and have many goes at it, and iterate the learning.”

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Rocket Lab

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Rocket Lab’s Photon: It will drop off an entry probe to fall through the Venusian atmosphere

It’s true, the big space agencies operate by a different philosophy. They aim for super, high-fidelity science and engineering – but this means their top-notch missions fly infrequently and at high cost. It’s a question of trade-offs.

A Rocket Lab entry probe when it falls through the atmosphere at Venus is not going to spend long in the key zone where phosphine has been detected – between 50km and 60km in altitude. The measurements will be brief.

Ideally, what you need is some sort of long-lived platform, dwelling in the clouds of Venus for weeks or months at a time. Like a balloon. That’s the kind of thing big space agencies do.

“This would allow detailed measurement of cloud,” explains Dr Colin Wilson from Oxford University, UK, who worked on the European Space Agency’s Venus Express probe (2006-2014)

“We proposed such a mission – the European Venus Explorer – to Esa in 2010, unsuccessfully. This year, in a Nasa-run Venus Flagship Mission study, we proposed including a balloon that would explore the cloud layer for two months, with specific instruments designed to detect biological material if present.”

It’s a fantastic idea and follows in the pioneering footsteps of the Soviet Vega balloons at Venus in the 1980s, although they only worked for a couple of days.

Image copyright
Tibor Balint

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A Nasa concept study earlier this year proposed a long-lived balloon

The problem is that, even if approved for development, we wouldn’t see a Nasa Venus flagship mission – and its balloon – fly until the 2030s at the earliest. And the more modest mission concepts now before Nasa and Esa for consideration are looking at launch slots no sooner than the back end of this decade. Which brings us back to the Rocket Lab type of approach if we want quicker results.

Prof Jane Greaves from Cardiff University led the team that detected phosphine in the atmosphere at Venus. She hopes scientists can find inventive ways of getting new probes to the planet.

“I think in the fairly near-term, we’d like to send even just a really small probe that maybe some other mission could drop off on the way – you know, something going to the Sun. Perhaps it could drop a tiny ‘lab on a chip’ package through the atmosphere so we can get some new data back.”

Peter Beck’s message is “give me a call. If anybody wants to join the team, come join us. But, you know, the bus is leaving; we’re going!”

Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

1st October 2020

Science Caster Semenya: ‘Once I though she was cheat. Now I’m sure she belongs in women’s athletics’

Science Caster Semenya: ‘Once I though she was cheat. Now I’m sure she belongs in women’s athletics’


science Madeleine Papae taking part in a race in Australian in 2009
Madeleine Pape ran against Semenya in 2009

Madeleine Pape weaved her way patiently through a crowded room in Botswana’s Gaborone Conference Centre.

She was determined to catch up with Caster Semenya, the celebrated – and controversial – South African athlete who had once been Pape’s rival.

The Australian wanted to make amends with the women’s 800m triple world champion and double Olympic gold winner, who was the star of an international conference in the African country in May 2018.

“I finally was able to approach her,” Pape tells the BBC.

“I told Semenya how much I respected her and enjoyed seeing her compete.”

This was not how Pape felt the only other time the two women met, in 2009. Back then, she had thought that Semenya did not even belong on the same track as her.

The Berlin controversy

In August 2009, the Australian was one of the runners who lined up alongside Caster Semenya in an 800m heat at the the World Athletics Championships in Berlin.

It was one of the first times Semenya had ever raced outside Africa, but she was already under intense scrutiny.

science Caster Semenya stretches before training
Caster Semenya is at the centre of one of the most controversial debates in sport

At 18, the South African had won a junior tournament earlier that year with a time that was only marginally slower than that of more established 800m competitors, such as the 2004 Olympic Champion Kelly Holmes.

Semenya had also managed to shave seconds off her 800m personal best in the space of only nine months.

But those criticising the runner were not accusing her of using banned substances.

Instead, she was “guilty” of being too fast for a woman. Her gender was being questioned.

In the words of Michael Seme, Semenya’s coach at the time, she “looked like a man”.

Many in the world of athletics had reservations about her participation in the World Championships. Madeleine Pape was among them.

“At that time I did think it was unfair for her to compete against the rest of us,” she recalls.

science Madeleine Pape dressed in formal clothes
Madeleine Pape studied sociology after retiring from the track

Even the governing body for athletics (IAAF, now rebranded as World Athletics) had expressed doubts about Semenya’s biological sex during the World Championships – news that it had requested a gender verification test leaked to the world’s media just a few hours before the 800m final.

“It was by far the easier option for me to join the chorus of voices condemning her performance,” Pape adds.

“It was just convenient to go along with what most of my colleagues and coaches were saying.”

Once against the idea of Semenya even stepping on a running track, the Australian is nowadays a vocal supporter of the South African’s fight to compete.

What made her change her mind?

Different tracks

Madeleine Pape didn’t have a good run at all at the World Championships.

She finished next to last among seven runners and failed to qualify for the next round.

Semenya, on the other hand, won the heat and never looked back, winning the gold medal in Berlin by crossing the finish line more than two seconds clear of the other runners in the final race.

science Snapshot from the 2009 World Championships 800m showing Madeleine Pape on the left and Caster Semenya
Madeleine Pape (left) raced Caster Semenya in the 2009 World Championships. In the picture, the South African runner is between Ukraine’s Petyuk and Kenya’s Jepkosgei

It was such an impressive margin of victory that one of the competitors in the final, Italy’s Elisa Cusma, accused Semenya of “being a man”.

Pape’s career would end with an injury in 2010. She then pursued an academic career, with a PhD in Sociology and studies on gender issues in sport.

It is as an academic, rather than as a former athlete, that the 36-year-old Australian mostly comes up in internet searches.

In the classroom, Pape saw what she had never recognised on the track.

Difference of sex development

Semenya, now 29, has hyperandrogenism – a genetic condition that makes her body produce higher levels of testosterone.

Testosterone is a hormone that most women have in much smaller amounts than men, and is associated with stronger performance in sports.

In its artificial form, testosterone is part of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of banned substances.

science Picture showing Caster Semenya will ahead of the pack in the women's 800m finals at the 2009 World Athletic Championships
Semenya has faced sever questioning of her gender since breaking through in 2009

Semenya’s condition results from what is known as difference of sex development (DSD).

People with a DSD do not develop along typical gender lines.

Their hormones, genes, and reproductive organs may share a mix of male and female characteristics.

Many in athletics argue that hyperandrogenism offers Semenya an unfair advantage on the track.

Pape used to be among them.

“My views changed when I went to university and had access not only to different perspectives but also to the science behind the arguments that were used against Semenya,” says the Australian.

Run on the track, fight off it

The results of Semenya’s gender verification tests have never been made public and she continued to compete in international events such as the Olympics.

However, World Athletics last year issued a new ruling that forces Semenya and other athletes with hyperandrogenism to take testosterone-reducing drugs in order to be eligible to compete in women’s events between 400m and a mile (1,609m).

science Gates outside the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland
The runner’s challenge to the rules demanding she take testosterone-reducing drugs was rejected by the Court of Arbitration for Sports

The South African challenged the ruling but has lost an appeal in the Court for Arbitration of Sport.

A further legal challenge in the Swiss Federal Supreme Court was dismissed on 8 September this year.

Semenya refuses to take the drugs, arguing that it could endanger her health and that the ruling denies her and other DSD athletes the right to rely on their natural abilities.

As things stand, the South African will not be allowed to defend her 800m title in the Tokyo Olympics next year unless she accepts the drugs, whose effects will almost certainly slow her down.

The fairness argument

For Pape, the stance of World Athletics is harmful to the sport.

“Their agenda so far has been to look for ways to exclude some women,” she says.

“They are missing the ability to listen to these women and to relate to what they are going through.”

science The women's 800m medal winners at Rio 2016 pose for a picture
Burundi’s Francine Niyonsaba and Kenya’s Margaret Wambui, who won silver and bronze in Rio 2016, also have hyperandrogenism

Semenya is not the only high-profile case of DSD in athletics.

In the 2016 Rio Olympics, the 800m silver and bronze medal winners were Burundi’s Francine Niyonsaba and Kenya’s Margaret Wambui, who also have hyperandrogenism.

In a statement issued on 8 September, World Athletics stood by the argument that it was pursuing fairness.

“For the last five years, World Athletics has fought for and defended equal rights and opportunities for all women and girls in our sport today and in the future,” the statement read.

“We therefore welcome today’s decision by the Swiss Federal Tribunal to uphold our DSD regulations as a legitimate and proportionate means of protecting the right of all female athletes to participate in our sport on fair and meaningful terms.”

“She’s an exceptional athlete”

Pape, however, sees it differently.

science World Athletics President Sebastian Coe speaks at a ceremony in 2019
Sporting authorities like World Athletics President Sebastian Coe argue that the rules are there to guarantee fairness in competition

“The system has stacked the odds against Semenya from the beginning,” Pape says.

If in 2009 the Australian thought her rival had an unfair advantage, her views could not be more different now.

“Semenya is an exceptional athlete. Anyone who has won all those medals has got to have something that sets her apart,” she says.

“I don’t think that it is testosterone.”

Is testosterone really so significant?

The link between testosterone and higher performance is controversial among sport scientists.

Julian Savulescu, a professor in Biomedical Ethics at Oxford University, told the BBC that the science behind World Athletics’ arguments is “inadequate”.

He refers specifically to the 2017 study commissioned by the governing body, which claimed that high testosterone was responsible for as much as 3% improvement in runners’ performances.

“It is a single study, conducted by World Athletics, and the full data have not been released for independent replication,” Savulescu explains.

“Semenya has been singled out above any other athlete. I don’t know why that is.”

Supporters of Semenya have often expressed the view she is the victim of prejudice.

science Caster Semenya celebrates a win with her trademark
Semenya’s camp claims she is being singled out for reasons other than performance levels

The South African athlete is openly gay, and married to another runner, Violet Raseboya.

In July this year, the couple announced the arrival of a baby girl.

Madeleine Pape thinks Semenya’s fans have a strong point.

She argues that other women athletes who dominate the sport in a more emphatic way than Semenya do not get the same scrutiny. She uses the American swimmer Katie Ledecky, owner of a large collection of medals and world records, as an example.

“Semenya is no more exceptional than Ledecky, but Ledecky’s gender has not been openly questioned,” Pape observes.

“But Semenya is a black South African woman who isn’t straight and acts a bit like a tomboy. She doesn’t conform and expresses her identity in her own ways.”

“So, the problem here clearly doesn’t seem to be based on her performances,” she adds.

science Autographed pictures showing Pape running alongside Caster Semenya in 2009
Madeleine Pape’s souvenir of that race in 2009 was later embellished with Caster Semenya’s autograph

Indeed, Semenya has not always crossed the finish line in first place.

The South African failed to win the 800m both in the 2011 World Championships and the 2012 London Olympics – she was only awarded the gold medals retrospectively in 2017, after the original winner, Russia’s Mariya Savinova, was disqualified for doping.

Making peace with the past

In that conference in Botswana, Madeleine Pape was not sure if Semenya would remember the only time they had met.

So, the Australian sociologist carried a picture of them together.

It was a snapshot of that 800m heat in 2009.

In the picture, Pape is running alongside other competitors. Semenya is partially “hidden” behind Ukraine’s Tetiana Petlyuk and Kenya’s Janeth Jepkosgei.

It’s an image that Pape still treasures, but with a much-valued addition: Caster Semenya’s autograph.

30th September 2020

In_pictures Week in pictures: 19 – 25 September 2020

In_pictures Week in pictures: 19 – 25 September 2020



A selection of powerful news photographs taken around the world this week.

image copyrightPhil Noble / Reuters

image captionBritish Prime Minister Boris Johnson is reflected in a woman’s eye as she watches his TV address to the nation about a marked increase in coronavirus infections across the UK. Johnson urged the public to “summon the discipline and the resolve” to follow newly introduced measures, which, he said, could last up to six months.

image copyrightAdrees Latif / Reuters

image captionHorses are seen on Withers Ranch, as smoke rises in the distance from fires burning in the Fremont National Forest in Paisley, Oregon. The wildfires on the West Coast of the US have destroyed vast areas of land and killed at least 36 people since early August. Smoke has spread to the east of the country, casting a haze over New York and Washington DC.

image copyrightAlexander Nemenov / AFP

image captionWater-propelled flyboarders perform at the Moscow Water Area festival in Russia.

image copyrightAthit Perawongmetha / Reuters

image captionAnti-government protesters install a plaque near Bangkok’s Grand Palace declaring Thailand “belongs to the people”, in a bold show of opposition to Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn. Student-led protests calling for reform of the country’s monarchy and political system have been taking place since July.

image copyrightKim Hong-Ji / Reuters

image captionA woman rides a bike through an array of artificial full moons installed at a park in Seoul, in celebration of the forthcoming Chuseok (harvest festival) holiday in South Korea.

image copyrightJonathan Ernst / Reuters

image captionUS President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump stand behind the casket of the late justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, at the top of the steps of the US Supreme Court in Washington. The president was met with boos and chants of “vote him out” by the assembled crowd.

image copyrightAlain Jocard / AFP

image captionA worker wields an axe during a public demonstration in front of Paris’s Notre-Dame cathedral to demonstrate the medieval techniques used to lift part of the reconstructed framework of the cathedral. In July, French President Emmanuel Macron announced that the spire of the cathedral, which was destroyed in a fire in April 2019, will be restored according to the original Gothic design.

image copyrightAaron Chown / PA Media

image captionPolice officers leave flowers outside Croydon Custody Centre in south London where a fellow officer was shot by a man who was being detained in the early hours of Friday morning. The male sergeant was treated at the scene before being taken to hospital, where he subsequently died.

image copyrightThomas Mukoya / Reuters

image captionMaasai men of Matapato attend the Olng’esherr (meat-eating) passage ceremony in the Maparasha hills of Kajiado, Kenya. The ceremony unites the older Ilpaamu and the younger Ilaitete into senior elderhood at the final rite of passage. The event was initially postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

image copyrightLeonardo Munoz / AFP

image captionRiot police are pictured as citizens demonstrate against police brutality in Bogota, Colombia. At least seven people have been killed in protests as outrage spreads over the death of a man who was pinned to the ground and repeatedly tasered by police in the Colombian capital. The officers were arresting him for allegedly breaking social distancing rules by drinking with friends.

All pictures are subject to copyright.

30th September 2020

In_pictures In pictures: Seaside photos taken 800 miles apart

In_pictures In pictures: Seaside photos taken 800 miles apart



image copyrightTommy Black/Guðrún Kristín Valgeirsdóttir

Seaside swimmers, snowy landscapes and the aurora borealis are some of the contrasting local scenes captured by pairs of photographers working over 800 miles apart.

Professional and hobbyist photographers in Portobello, Edinburgh, and Akureyri, Iceland, connected online over their mutual seaside locations.

Despite their distance, virtual pairs produced images on shared themes around their local areas.

An outdoor exhibition of their work, Two Places at Sea, forms part of Edinburgh’s Art Walk Porty 2020 festival.

Here is a selection of some of the pairs’ photographs, and their comments on their work.

In_pictures Theme: On the way home

Poppies by the Sea (Deplasólir við sjóinn) – Jon Davey

“During the Scottish Covid-19 lockdown, I kept to a relatively strict pattern of activity, staying indoors except for twice-weekly visits to shops, even when the restrictions allowed outdoor exercise.

“I think the stress of shopping in those early days put me off from venturing out for any other reason.

“It was only as things eased further and we all became used to the ‘new normal’ that I resumed walks along the beach to Joppa and beyond.

“This view from Joppa looking back towards Portobello and home after a longer walk to Musselburgh also represents my personal journey back to being the sort of person who walks along the beach where I live.”

image copyrightKristjana Agnarsdottir

Kvöldkyrrð (In the Still of the Night) – Kristjana Agnarsdóttir

“One night I was strolling around my neighbourhood, which I think is the most beautiful part of Akureyri.

“The old town by the pond.

“It is so peaceful in that area, enjoying the stillness and the birdlife, people walking, one or two cyclists, geese raising their young ones and the sun sinking into the sea in the north.

“It was waving goodnight to me on my way home.”

In_pictures Theme: Life on the Beach

image copyrightAnna Moffat

Sunrise Swimmers (Synt við sólarupprás) – Anna Moffat

“I’ve lived in Portobello for 14 years and often noticed small groups of swimmers out in all weathers.

“It was not until around a year ago that I was persuaded to give it a go, and in an instant was hooked.

“The cold water hit is addictive and the feeling of togetherness enriches my life in so many ways – there’s no better way to start the day.”

image copyrightLilja Guðmundsdóttir

Vetrarbirta (Winter Light) – Lilja Guðmundsdóttir

“There is not much going on at the beach during this time of the year, but sometimes we get visitors who make us happy and are fun to photograph.

“In the wintertime the daylight is often very beautiful, and occasionally the frost fog brings a fairy-tale glow to the environment.”

In_pictures Theme: Looking Out

image copyrightJennifer Elliot

Do Whatever Makes Your Heart Smile (Gerðu það sem fær hjarta þitt til að brosa) – Jennifer Elliot

“It was the light in the jasmine plant leaves that caught my eye while making dinner for the family, but this window gives me a lot of pleasure.

“I’ve gathered friends and family there.

“The purple plant was a gift from my French mum; the paper flower was made by my mum and daughter a few years back; the jasmine is a survival story; the glass jars a wedding gift from the Danish friend who introduced my husband and me; an Ocean Fire pot; the candles and other plants were gifts; the paint brushes drying – a result of my lockdown DIY frenzy; the crabs and scallop shell gathered by my son; my wedding rings on the window ledge; and all looking out to our own birch tree and wee walled garden.

image copyrightGuðný Pálína Sæmundsdóttir

Útsýnið úr stofuglugganum (Living Room With a View)​ – Guðný Pálína Sæmundsdóttir

“I’ve lived in the same house, built by my parents when I was three years old, for most of my life.

“I did move out when I met my husband and we lived in Norway for a while, but when moving back to Akureyri we bought the house from my mother (then a widow).

​”This photo, taken in January this year, shows the view from our living room window at sunset.

“Having such a wonderful, ever-changing view is one of the reasons I’m not so keen on selling the house, even though it has become too big for us now that our children have left the nest.”

In_pictures Theme: My Favourite Place

image copyrightTommy Black

From the Ground Up (Frá jörðu til himins) – Tommy Black

“We both chose photographs taken from the beaches to the west of our respective communities, which we love for the sense of space.

“My photo was taken one evening as lockdown started to ease, at 22:44.

“It was one of those summer evenings that seems to go on forever.

“A few folk were having fires just behind where the shot was taken.

“There was a feeling of lightness as I walked out along the sand (tunes on, of course).”

image copyrightGuðrún Kristín Valgeirsdóttir

Frá jörðu til himins (From the Ground Up) – Guðrún Kristín Valgeirsdóttir

“I chose this place because this is where I go to relax and gather my thoughts.

“I take my dogs there, allow them to run free in playful games.

“This is also my favourite spot to capture the auroras while they dance in the night sky in their most beautiful way.

“I know few other things that are more fulfilling than to stand there with my camera and stare at those lights while they brighten up the cold dark winter sky.”

In_pictures Theme: Expand Your Horizon

image copyrightAdam Varga

Crossroads (Krossgötur) – Adam Varga

“The west end of Portobello has been influential to the town, as the local industry and industrial landscape dominated the town’s life, both socially and economically.

“The post-industrial changes brought new horizons into the life of the people of Portobello, as recently the Baileyfield area has been redeveloped with housing and expanded our community.

“We are here to celebrate the new landscape and the people who will live in and transform this landscape.

“My picture reflects on both the post-industrial transformation and serves as a memento in the history of the ever-changing west end of Portobello.”

image copyrightBerglind H Helgadóttir

Speglun (Reflection) – Berglind H Helgadóttir

“I have often stopped the car at this exact place close to Akureyri to take a picture over the fjord.

“It has usually been at sunset during summer, when the sun shines golden or red light on the clouds and the sea.

“This time it’s not the redness in the sky that makes me step out of the car, but the light and the gloomy cloud that lies over part of the fjord.

“Luck is with me because as soon as I have placed the tripod and adjusted the camera, the streetlights in the town turn on and the sea calms down.

“I take a few pictures and observe the interplay of light and shadow as the dark cloud spreads.

“Underneath it, the town looks a bit small and at the horizon you can see the mountain Kaldbakur bathing in the spotlight.”

Part of the Art Walk Porty 2020 festival,

Two Places at Sea runs from 5 September-31 October 2020 in Portobello, Edinburgh. A simultaneous outdoor exhibition is being held in Akureyri, Iceland.

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