She is celebrated as South Africa’s “golden girl”. But Olympic champion Caster Semenya is now pushing the sports world to potentially dash through a challenging hurdles’ course peppered with issues of gender, hormones and performance.
Amid the raging controversy over new eligibility regulations for female classification introduced by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the basic question of who is a male or female is becoming increasingly irrelevant.
The IAAF regulations for athletes with differences of sex development (DSD) have been challenged by middle-distance runner Semenya, a two-time Olympic champion in the 800 metres, in the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). The Lausanne (Switzerland)-based court is an international quasi-judicial organisation that deals with disputes within sports, mainly anti-doping matters, athletes’ rights, commercial disputes and eligibility issues.
The DSD rules are the extension of the IAAF hyperandrogenism regulations that were set aside by CAS in July 2015 when Indian sprinter Dutee Chand questioned her ban from athletics because of her higher testosterone levels. The CAS, while staying the rules, gave the IAAF two years to bring forward evidence that female athletes would gain an advantage of 10-12 per cent over their rivals because of the extra testosterone in their bodies. Otherwise, it seemed to agree, it would be similar to other natural advantages that athletes gain because of long limbs or broad feet.
Hyperandrogenism is a medical condition that sees disproportionate levels of androgens, or male sex hormones such as testosterone, in the female body and the associated effects.
Instead of going back to the CAS panel with its modified rules, the IAAF brought in an entirely different set of rules based on research done by scientists engaged by it. These were scheduled to be effective from November last year but kept in abeyance following the Semenya appeal to CAS. The IAAF research has not been able to show the 10 per cent advantage that CAS talked about, and only at much lower levels.
If Semenya prevails, as several activists and many observers hope would be the case, there could be another attempt by sports organisations to bring some other regulations or even suggest a third category for transgender or transsexual or inter-sex athletes. All Olympic sports are dependent on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) laying down regulations and the organisation is waiting for the Semenya case to be resolved.
Semenya, 28, looks unbeatable over 800m today and she is gradually gaining the same superiority over the 1,500m. Following the stay of the hyperandrogenism regulations, Semenya has clocked national records of 1:55.28 (2016), 1:155.16 (2017) and 1:54.25 (2018). Previously, the runner had clocked a sub-1:56 in the 2009 World Championships, winning in 1:55.45.
Semenya was apparently asked to undergo hormone therapy to reduce testosterone levels after the 2009 World championships. The South African slowed down considerably till receiving a boost from the Dutee Chand ruling in 2015. If there is a classic example of how much additional testosterone would matter to a female athlete, all that is required for anyone is to study Semenya’s timings.
The efforts of the IAAF and of the IOC to devise a method that would not be intrusive and would be based on scientific principles to determine eligibility rules for females have met with more opposition today than there was in the 1990s. The pro-Semenya lobby does not agree that testosterone is the determining factor in athletics advantage. It has found flaws in the research funded by the IAAF and has questioned the idea of healthy humans being advised to take drugs for a non-existent “disease”. It has also opined that there was so much of grey area in androgen sensitivity that athletes insensitive to testosterone might fall victim to the new rules and processes.
Should the law of a country determine who is a female, as many have argued? Suppose there is no such law in a country, who will certify someone is a female or transgender or intersex?
Today, after many years of explaining testosterone levels, gender ambiguity, conditions that may lead to confusion and exceptions including polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), the IAAF, in its statements, has mentioned “testes” as a crucial factor in its bid to bring a “level-playing field” for women. How everyone missed this point all these years is a mystery.
The IAAF DSD regulations, however, do not mention “testes” that are the primary source of testosterone in males. Females also produce testosterone from ovaries and adrenal gland, but in much smaller quantities compared to males.
In a subject that is complex and open to debate, scientists have sniped at each other without providing a solution. Androgen insensitivity in a female having one of the seven DSD conditions listed by the IAAF may lead to a state where the individual is incapable of utilising the testosterone produced. The IAAF has covered this situation by mentioning that in all cases the athletes who may be selected to undergo tests would be fully androgen sensitive. Critics say this is complicated science and it is difficult to establish androgen insensitivity in many cases.
The normal testosterone levels are above 10 nanomoles per litre for males and 0.1 to 2.8nmol per litre for females. The IAAF has fixed 5nmol per litre for DSD females. If exceeded, they would be ineligible to compete in select women’s events ranging from 400m to 1,500m and the mile at the international level, though they could compete at the national level and other meets that are not specified.
The cry of “discrimination” is loud across the world. From a United Nations group on human rights to scientists to activists to writers all are prepared to brand the IAAF as guilty. The organisation has said it has the support of a wide representation of the athletics community. Most of them are wary of coming forward, though. This, in a way, has harmed the interests of the non-hyperandrogenic females.
World marathon record holder Paula Radcliffe of Britain has suffered in expressing her opinion in favour of regulations, but someone like Kelly Holmes, also of Britain, a double gold winner in the Olympics, received encouraging support from her followers, when she tweeted: “Anyone can live how they want to live, but let women have their rights too!” Tennis great Billie Jean King – who famously beat 55-year-old retired male player Bobby Riggs when she was 29 in the Battle of the Sexes match in the 1970s – has offered Caster Semenya her full support. However, fellow legend Martina Navratilova has said that allowing transgender women to compete in women’s sport is “insane”.
Only a few active athletes have so far tried to show the hopelessness in competing against Semenya or a couple of others who are yet to sweep the races like the South African but are still formidable. There is a genuine apprehension that if Semenya wins her appeal in CAS, the stage might be set for hyperandrogenic athletes to be prepared consciously and methodically by nations that are out to gain Olympic glory. India might not be an exception in this hyperandrogenic exercise. If doping could be institutionalised to the extent that it has been shown to be in Russia, the testosterone-driven female athletes, supported by the State, could well become a reality, many have argued. CAS holds the key to the future of women’s sports in the world.
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