Tue | May 21, 2019

Dalton Myers | A look at the IAAF's 'testosterone rule: Part One

Published:Saturday | May 5, 2018 | 12:00 AM
IAAF president Sebastian Coe

The new IAAF Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification have reignited a discussion on sex and gender in sport, particularly female participation in athletics. The new regulations require female athletes who are considered to have a 'difference of sexual development' (DSD), which means that their levels of circulating testosterone (in serum) measure five nanomoles per litre (nmol/L) or above, and who are androgen-sensitive to meet certain criteria to compete in IAAF-sanctioned events. The IAAF argues that the average female range of circulating testosterone in serum is 0.12 to 1.79nmol/L, and the average male range is 7.7 to 29.4nmol/L. It further indicates that most females with DSD or who are classified as intersex have levels in the male range and , consequently, have an unfair advantage.

The general premise of this regulation is that excess testosterone in females or intersex athletes who compete in female-classified events creates an unfair advantage over other female competitors. It also presupposes that with this increased testosterone, females or intersex athletes will be superior to other athletes. The rule raises several complex questions centred on ethics, politics, sports and law.

The IAAF's attempt at fairness is problematic and can be considered discriminatory as it now asks female athletes who have naturally high levels of testosterone to adjust this through unnatural processes, including oral medication or surgical procedures. It states that female athletes must reduce their "blood testosterone level to below 5nmol/L for a continuous period of at least six months (e.g. by use of hormonal contraceptives)" when World Anti-Doping Agency code strictly prohibits artificial measures to adjust the body's function. While the contraceptive will reduce the performance of the female, there should be other considerations such as privacy, health concerns and ethical issues surrounding such invasive measures. Additionally, the IAAF does not identify what is considered a 'fair' testosterone level for females. In fact, there is no scientific evidence that suggests the "normal testosterone level" for females, and since each athlete is different, what levels will create an unfair advantage for that particular female?

The IAAF also suspiciously targets females in particular events which, to me, does not signal the proposed 'fairness'. The IAAF argues that "it appears that these events (track events run over distances between 400m to a mile) are where the performance-enhancing benefits can be obtained from elevated levels of circulating testosterone... therefore taking a conservative approach, the new Regulations only apply to such events".

What the IAAF has done is create a rule that only applies to some DSD or intersex athletes, and this does not suggest fairness, either. It is debatable that athletes in, for example, shot put, discus, hammer throw wouldn't benefit from enhanced performance garnered from elevated levels of testosterone. In essence, the new regulations seem to target women from a particular geographical region, especially Caster Semenya, which can be considered discriminatory.


Unfair advantage?


There is the argument that elevated testosterone levels may give an unfair advantage. While this could be true in some instances, what is important here is females, who through no fault of their own, are being punished for a naturally-occurring hormone, as well as missing other gender-specific markers. There is something fundamentally wrong with this. We do not punish males for having any naturally superior talent because differences in their body. The IAAF has made it clear that it is not questioning athletes' sex or gender but rather trying to provide fairness in the broader classification of female. However to date, it cannot explain what exactly is 'fairness' , but who is it 'fair to?. In essence, the new regulation creates exclusion rather than inclusion as females will be required to make changes to their body to compete in their category, or be barred from competition. Athletes like Caster Semenya consider themselves as female, and there is no proof to suggest otherwise. The fact that she is currently faster than other women in her event. The discussion of fairness is quite relative and subjective as I believe that a naturally high elevation of testosterone is fair similar to any other athlete with an advantage due to height, reach, or other biological makeup. To unnaturally adjust that, then, makes it unfair to the individual athlete.

The credibility of data on which the IAAF relied to create these regulations has been questioned. If the IAAF cannot provide overwhelming evidence in order to ask females to dramatically alter their bodies, then the rules may be considered flawed and be subject to attacks from all sides of the fence.

This is not about cheating. We are not talking about doping to create an unfair advantage. We are talking about females born with naturally high testosterone. For too long, we have been policing and creating restrictions on women's bodies.

Obviously, athletics is divided into male and female groupings, and as such, there are definitions for both categories. The definitions for male and female have also changed over time, and this is something to further discuss.

There are still lingering questions at what age will classification be applied? What will be the age for female classification and mandatory supressing of natural testosterone levels? What about privacy and invasion of that privacy? What's next?

- Dalton Myers is a Sports Consultant and administrator. Send feedback to daltonsmyers@gmail.com or @daltonsmyers on Twitter.