South African runner Caster Semenya won a gold medal at the Rio Olympics this year, but there are many that feel that the 25-year-old should not have been allowed to compete, arguing that she had an unfair advantage because her body produces more testosterone than the average woman.
The History of the Controversy
The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) is the world’s governing body for track and field. The IAAF has historically imposed various types of sex testing to make sure that female athletes aren’t men trying to pass as women or intersex women with masculine traits that might give them an unfair advantage. Between 2011 and 2015, the IAAF had a rule that women must have less than 10 nanomoles of testosterone per liter of blood to compete in women’s events. Healthy men can produce more than 35 nmol/L, while women usually produce less than 3 nmol/L.
Dutee Chand, an Indian athlete, filed an appeal with the Court of Arbitration for Sport against the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) and the IAAF. Chand challenged the validity of the IAAF regulations governing eligibility of females with hyperandrogenism to compete in women’s competition. The hyperandrogenism regulations restricted women with high levels of naturally occurring testosterone from competing in competitive sports. Under those restrictions, Chand was not eligible to compete in in competitive sports.
Chand argued that the hyperandrogenism regulations were discriminatory, based off of flawed assumptions about the relationship between testosterone and female athletic performance, disproportionate to any legitimate objective, and an unauthorized form of doping control.
The Court for Arbitration for Sport suspended the hyperandrogenism regulations for a period of two years and ordered the IAAF to submit further evidence and expert reports regarding “the actual degree of athletic performance advantage sustained by the hyperandrogenic female athletes as compared to non-hyperandrogenic female athletes by reason of their high levels of testosterone.” If the IAAF does not submit such evidence within the next 2 years, the hyperandrogenism regulations will be void.
Experts have testified both for and against the IAAF’s hyperandrogenism regulations.
IAAF Expert, Martin Ritzén, a Sweden-based professor who specializes in pediatric endocrinology, testified that, “the probability of a healthy woman reaching 10 nmol/L of testosterone was “zero.” Angelica Lindén Hirschberg, professor of gynecology, testified that she had never seen such a high level of testosterone in someone with healthy ovaries and normal adrenal glands. Ross Tucker, a professor of exercise physiology in South Africa, pointed out that while the IAAF’s rule was in effect, Semenya was required to suppress her testosterone levels and her performance dropped.
However, Richard Holt, a UK-based endocrinologist, pointed to a study showing variation in the testosterone levels of female athletes. The study showed that 32 of 234 female athletes had natural testosterone levels above 2.7 nmol/L, including 11 female athletes who had more than 8 nmol/L. Dr. Katrina Karkazis, a bioethicist at Stanford University, testified that there is not necessarily a big gap between normal male and female ranges of testosterone. She states, “[n]obody is saying that testosterone is not relevant to performance. It is…you can’t say women with higher testosterone levels will necessarily or always do better than women with lower levels. People are overdetermining testosterone’s effects in ways that don’t fit with what we know scientifically.”