Thu | Oct 18, 2018

Paul Wright | The testosterone test

Published:Tuesday | May 1, 2018 | 12:11 AM
Semenya

The reaction of some Jamaican sport fans to the news that the IAAF has invoked a rule that would result in ladies with Testosterone levels higher than five nano-mols/liter, being banned from competing in some specific events, viz: 400m, 400m hurdles, the 800m and the 1500m baffles me.

As I understand the new rule, women who find themselves in this category have three choices: reduce their levels via medication; have the organ that produces the hormone surgically removed; compete against men.

 

A FAIR RULE

 

I am of the opinion that this is a fair rule, and essentially levels the playing field for women who have to compete against these ladies with naturally occurring high testosterone levels. I heard Jamaicans refer to this rule as "racist," "targeting Caster Semenya," et cetera. I do understand that as an exceptional athlete, this young South African runner has had to suffer innuendo after innuendo and whispers, since her appearance on the track scene as a teenager. Semenya has dominated middle distance running, winning global events at the Olympics and World Championships with an ease that has me thinking that she can go faster, any time she feels like it. She has won races from in front, from the back of the field and from mid-pack. She was simply the best. The problem was that leaked information pointed to the fact that she had a medical condition called Hypergonadism, which results in her naturally occurring testosterone levels being much higher than that of her competitors. She had a much sought after competitive edge that ALL athletes crave. I heard the usual "she has never failed a drug test" excuse. So did Marion Jones. The other excuse was "How can you fault her for a condition that is beyond her control?"

With Semenya, the IAAF in a most ham-fisted way, tried to prove that some ladies had this competitive edge and prematurely banned some of them from competition. An Indian sprinter, Dutee Chand, took the case to the Court of Arbitration in Sport, (CAS) who ruled in her favour citing the lack of scientific evidence proving that high levels of naturally occurring testosterone is indeed performance enhancing. The IAAF was given two years to prove its case. Thus, these affected ladies could compete against women in the interim with no problems. The IAAF did what was requested of them by the court.

I have been informed that the study looked at some athletes who were divided into three groups based on testosterone levels, and the performance of the highest and lowest tertile (any of the two points that divide an ordered distribution into 3 parts, each containing a third of the population being tested) were compared. The hammer throw showed a 4.3% improvement, Pole Vault: 2.94%, 400 meters (flat) 2.73%, 400 meter hurdles: 2.78 %, 800 meters: 1.78 %. The 1500 meter race showed no effect. The ban as of now only targets the 400m, 400m hurdles, the 800m, and the 1500m. The obvious inclusion of the 1500m and the exclusion of the pole vault and the Hammer throw seems to be a reason for the howls of protest form some fans. Also, in the study, the performances of 3 athletes who had their testosterone levels reduced medically had significantly poor results.

 

Exceptions to the rule

 

As of now, I cannot explain why the IAAF has not seen it fit to include the pole vault and the hammer throw among the events listed as needing testosterone levels of 5 nano-mls /liter (or lower) for the affected ladies to compete with females with normal levels of testosterone. It is known that early in life, the difference in testosterone levels between males and females ranges from 10 to 12 percent. Beginning from childhood, males produce 10 to 30 times more testosterone than females. Therefore, post puberty males have a clear advantage in terms of size and strength.

Historically, females have been protected from competing against males because of the obvious advantage of size and strength.

Recently in Texas, a transgender child who loves wrestling, wrote to the governing body of junior wrestling requesting permission to wrestle boys in the upcoming state competition. The child's request was denied. So the child competed against girls - unbeaten in every bout, and became a state champion. Unfair?

I think so. In the study of the five events conducted by the IAAF, a similar pattern was not found in any of the male only events. The conclusion: female athletes with high testosterone levels have a significant advantage over females with low testosterone levels in the 400m, 400m hurdles, 800m, the hammer throw and the pole vault. The rule advocated by the IAAF, is the beginning of a genuine effort to level the playing field. That makes it fair.