World Athletics accused over 'abusive sex testing' of athletes from global south

Kaamil Ahmed
·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

World Athletics, the sport’s global governing body, targets women from countries in the global south for “abusive sex testing” based on arbitrary definitions of femininity and racial stereotypes, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).

A report by the rights group, published on Friday, claims female runners are being pushed out of competitive events, which some rely on for their livelihoods. Athletes struggle with emotional trauma and feel discriminated against and humiliated by the testing, said HRW.

“These regulations demean women, make them feel inadequate and coerce them into medical interventions for participation in sports. Modern sport should adapt itself to support inclusion and nondiscrimination rather than perpetuate exclusion and discrimination,” said athlete rights advocate Payoshni Mitra.

“World Athletics has targeted women from the global south for decades, treating those with high testosterone as less than human,” said Mitra.

South Africa’s Caster Semenya and India’s Dutee Chand were barred from competing because of their testosterone levels. The report argues there is not enough scientific evidence that higher levels of testosterone impact performance.

World Athletics rejected the report and accused the authors of being “advocates for one side of the argument” and not asking for comment from World Athletics.

Dutee Chand
Barred from competing: India’s Dutee Chand. Photograph: Hindustan Times/Getty Images

“We remain committed to fairness for women in sport and reject the allegation that biological limits are based on race or gender stereotypes,” the organisation said in an email.

The statement said their measures were an “objective and scientific” way to ensure fair competition.

Athletes interviewed for the report described how they were singled out for testing, not informed of the reason for it, and often not given their results.

The report said the system, which regulates athletes running distances of between 400m and one mile, encourages discrimination and forces women to undergo medical interventions.

Men face no comparable testing.

Uganda runner Annet Negesa was tested in 2011 but not told she was banned from participating until July 2012, when she was in the final stages of training for the London Olympics.

Negesa told HRW she was informed by an official at World Athletics – then known as the International Association of Athletics Federations – that she would need to undergo surgery to continue running. The surgery caused her pain for years afterwards, she said. World Athletics has strongly denied the allegations.

HRW said women are scrutinised and those deemed “suspect” are chosen for testing.

“Identifying athletes through observation and suspicion amounts to a policing of women’s bodies based on arbitrary definitions of femininity and racial stereotypes,” said Agnes Odhiambo, senior women’s rights researcher at HRW.

Related: Field of broken dreams: football’s slave trade – photo essay

The report said India runner Chand was subjected to testing after others judged her “stride and musculature” as masculine.

The rights group is calling on World Athletics to stop sex testing, and for the International Olympics Committee to recognise racial and gender biases in the testing system and end regulations that force medical intervention.

In 2019, the World Medical Association told its members not to participate in procedures to alter testosterone levels in female athletes, questioning the “ethical validity” and science behind the World Athletics regulations.

Responding to a question about Semenya appealing against a ruling that restricts testosterone levels in female runners to the European court of human rights, the president of World Athletics, Lord Coe, said on Wednesday: “We believe – and it has been upheld by the court of arbitration, subsequently in the Swiss federation court – that our regulations were lawful, they were legitimate and they represent a reasonable and necessary proportionate means of ensuring … the rights of all female athletes to participate on fair and equal terms.”