New controversial track and field rule penalizes women with more testosterone

South Africa’s Caster Semenya celebrates with flag after winning the women’s 800-meter final during the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games on April 13. Critics of a new IAAF rule about female levels of testosterone say Semenya is the undeserving target. (Photo: Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty Images)

On Thursday, track and field’s governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF), announced a new rule requiring female athletes with a naturally high level of testosterone to lower it medically before competing in certain events. The regulation, posted on the IAAF’s website, extends to the 400-, 800-, and 1500-meter events, and is set to take effect Nov. 1. And it has many people outraged.

“Nowhere else do you have to lower your testosterone to be understood as a woman,” Katrina Karkazis, a noted anthropologist and bioethicist and vociferous critic of the new rule, points out to Yahoo Lifestyle. “You sure don’t have to do it to get a driver’s license.”

Included in the new rule is language instructing female athletes with more than 5 nanomoles per liter (nmol/L) of circulating testosterone (in serum) to lower it through oral contraceptives, and to keep it there for six months. On average, most women have between 0.12 and 1.79 nmol/L of circulating testosterone, a number that decreases with age. The IAAF argues that female athletes with higher levels possess a “difference of sexual development” that provides them a competitive advantage.

But what is the cause of this elevated testosterone — and does it actually give female athletes a leg up?

Hyperandrogenism, as it’s medically known, is a disorder marked by elevated levels of male hormones (such as testosterone) in females. It is thought to affect between 5 and 10 percent of reproductive-age women, and to be caused by hormonal imbalances like polycystic ovary syndrome or hypothyroidism.

The science world remains undecided on whether hyperandrogenism actually enhances female athletic performance, and the majority of evidence suggesting that it does comes from a single researcher named Stéphane Bermon, who is directly employed by the IAAF. But even if it did offer women a competitive advantage, critics note that forcing these athletes to alter their natural bodies is at best irrational and at worst manipulative, misinformed, and cruel.

But in the world of track and field, unfortunately, that’s nothing new.

The IAAF’s rule, in fact, is just a stricter version of a 2011 mandate, which called for testosterone levels at or below 10 nmol/L. That regulation was challenged by an Indian runner named Dutee Chand, after she was disqualified from competing as a result. The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled in favor of Chand, suspending the regulation and asking the IAAF to provide scientific proof.

In a press release about the new rules, the IAAF says it’s doing just that, providing a study published in the British Medical Journal, again by Bermon. In this study, researchers looked at 21 track and field events and concluded that in five of them, female athletes with higher testosterone had a competitive advantage. “The latest research we have undertaken, and data we have compiled, show that there is a performance advantage in female athletes with DSD over the track distances covered by this rule,” said Bermon, who works in the IAAF’s medical and science department.

But in an opinion piece for the Guardian, gender experts Karkazis and Rebecca Jordan-Young point out a glaring issue with the IAAF’s story: The events it chose to regulate with this new rule are the ones that showed the weakest relationship to testosterone (with some, like the 1500 meters, showing no relationship at all). Furthermore, Karkazis and Jordan-Young offer findings of a new Harvard University study, which concluded that it “remains unclear” whether testosterone has an effect on female performance in athletics.

The IAAF, in a statement emailed to Yahoo Lifestyle, suggested there is sealed research. “Our new regulations are based on a range of published research, expert review and most importantly, evidence collected over 15 years,” a spokesperson wrote. “The evidence and data, some of which we are unable to share publicly due to confidentially, but has been shared with CAS [The Court of Arbitration for Sport], shows elevated testosterone levels give athletes the biggest performance advantage in the events from 400m to 1 mile.”

Whether or not that’s accurate, it seems, is up for debate. But who the new rules will impact isn’t. The women who dominate the events the IAAF chose to regulate mainly are women of color who have been forced to undergo gender testing for high testosterone levels in the past. Among them is South Africa’s Caster Semenya, who took home Olympic gold for the 800m and 1500m. Karkazis and Jordan-Young included don’t consider it an accident that the events she has a mastery over were included. “This was never about science,” Karkazis and Jordan-Young write. “This regulation is about targeting and impeding a few exceptional women of color from the global south, especially Caster Semenya.”

IAAF refutes the idea that the rule targets specific individuals, telling Yahoo Lifestyle that it’s “neither sexist nor racist.” “The sport has a lot of athletes with DSD. It is not just the one or two females you hear about in the media,” IAAF says. “In elite female athletics, the number of intersex athletes is 140 times more than you might find in the normal female population.”

Chand, whose own story refutes that, seems to agree with Karkazis and Jordan-Young. Although not affected by the ruling, she has already offered Semenya the aid of her successful legal team. “I have emailed her offering my support and help,” she told the BBC on Friday. “I am happy and relieved after four years of uncertainty, but I feel for athletes like Semenya.”

If Semenya is indeed the target, it wouldn’t be the first time. The record-breaking runner first set off alarm bells as early as 2009, when the IAAF’s then-secretary, Pierre Weiss, notoriously said that it was “clear that she is a woman, but maybe not 100 percent.” In the wake of Thursday’s IAAF announcement, Semenya tweeted out a quote with an angry-faced emoji reading: “I’m 97 percent sure you don’t like me but 100 percent sure I don’t care.”

As other opinion pieces began to build condemning the IAAF’s new rule, the organization took to Twitter to offer a defense. “As world governing body we need to ensure a level playing field for all athletes,” the IAAF wrote. “The research and evidence clearly shows there is a performance advantage in female athletes with DSD over the track distances covered by this rule.” The organization went on to point out the differences between male and female categories, and to clarify that no athlete “will be forced to undergo surgery.” (As if that needed stating.)

To Karkazis, a cultural anthropologist who specifically focuses on “sex testing” in sports, the new regulation is indicative of a larger problem.

There is so much speculation about women’s bodies — they look at her gait, the way she runs,” Karkazis tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Reading outward signs of gender leads to doubt about an individual’s sex. But that’s not how gender works. It’s complex.”

On top of projecting artificial gender norms onto individuals, the concept that a governing body in sports can have the authority to determine an athlete’s gender renders Karkazis nearly speechless. “The idea that you’re going to look at someone’s biology and say that trumps your legal documents, how you were raised, everything you’ve ever known about yourself? The hubris of that is stunning,” she says. “I can’t even wrap my head around it.” Put in the larger context of feminine identity, it becomes even more absurd.

In addition, Karkazis says, the rule itself undercuts the hard work that athletes like Semenya put in to become superior athletes — from nutrition to trainers to endless hours and days on the track. “They attribute Semenya’s spectacular performance to this molecule, as if it alone earned her her medals,” says Karkazis. “You see this language in the regulation. It’s a way of hinting at cheating.”

Now that the rule is taking effect, Karkazis and other gender experts are bracing for what’s to come. “I’m really worried,” she admits. “The idea that policymakers are telling people what to do with their bodies is a real problem.” She hopes that in the wake of the news, another athlete like Chand will be willing to challenge it. If they do, she believes the IAAF’s rule will be blocked.

“I think it’s bigotry plain and simple, so I think it’s a winnable case. We just need an athlete willing to take on the burden,” Karkazis says. “We have plenty of evidence showing different views around gender and that things are shifting. But the problem is that we have old generations with tired ideas writing the rules. The old guard needs to go.”

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