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Caster Semenya vs IAAF: Believing that testosterone is a superhuman hormone is a masculinist myth

On 1 May, the Court of Arbitration for Sport upheld the International Association of Athletics Federations’ (IAAF) new rules that make it mandatory for women athletes whose bodies produce high levels of testosterone to lower their levels to less than 5 nmol/L for six months before competing in track events from 400m up to the mile. While this is a huge setback for South African athlete, Caster Semenya — who appealed against the IAAF rules last year — this also sets back our discourse on sex/gender by at least a decade.

Since the 1936 Olympics, high performing athletes like Stella Walsh of Poland and Helen Stephens of the United States, who competed in the female category, have been questioned about being “male imposters” and subjected to physical examinations.

 Caster Semenya vs IAAF: Believing that testosterone is a superhuman hormone is a masculinist myth

File image of Caster Semenya. AP

German athlete Dora Ratjen, is often portrayed as part of a Nazi scheme to fraudulently pass off a man as a woman at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. However, police and medical records of the time show that Dora was an intersex person, raised as female but who identified as male since the age of 10, never revealing it to anyone. In fact, some narratives talk about Dora’s relief at being found out and his social transition to Heinrich Ratjen (in today’s nomenclature, he would have possibly identified as a trans man with intersex variations or an intersex trans man).

Subsequently, suspicions among countries fueled by the Cold War and anxieties about the unmanageability of gender categories prompted international sports administrators by the mid-1940s to seek medical “femininity certificates” to verify the sex of  athletes competing in female categories.

By the 1960s, it was decided that individual nations could not be trusted to certify their own athletes and a mandatory genital check was introduced by international sporting authorities. This was replaced by a chromosomal test in the late 60s.

If history should have taught us a lesson, it is that gender testing is never conclusive due to the fact that the categories of gender difference, like racial differences, were made on flimsy, unscientific grounds with too much diversity within a category to really be separable.

However, here we are in 2019, with the IAAF asking athletes competing in the female category to fit into a predetermined hormonal range, or chemically alter themselves till they conform to the range. This is based on yet-to-be proven grounds that higher levels of testosterone provides significant advantage in athletics.

In an ironic moment I wished that the IAAF fantasy of testosterone boosting performance was true. As a trans man who competed in track events successfully when my testosterone was in the “female range” and who huffs and puffs up flights of stairs now that my testosterone is in the “male range”, I know only too well how far from reality this simplistic fantasy is. Testosterone as a superhuman power generating hormone is just a masculinist myth.

If we were to expand on the point about advantages, don’t athletes from the global north with better training facilities, access to sports physicians, healthcare, equipment and nutrition have an unfair advantage over the athletes from the global south, who don’t have the same resources?

Furthermore, Sylvia Karpagam, public health doctor and nutrition specialist, says, “When making population level measurements, the blood range only gives an idea of what applies to a majority. This doesn't automatically mean that those who lie outside this range are ‘abnormal’. They can only be called as outliers. The acceptable ranges also change according to developments in medical science. For example, the cut-off for diabetes is currently being revised. This means that people who were being diagnosed and treated as diabetic before, are now within the 'normal' range and don't even need medications. The role of nutrition should also not be underestimated. In India, it is a fact that those who eat beef are likely to have stronger muscle mass. Considering India's caste prejudices, it won't be long before there is a call to exclude beef eaters from sports for having ‘undue advantage’”.

In the Indian context, Dalit athlete from Tamil Nadu, Shanthi Soundarajan faced humiliating gender tests and disqualification after finishing second in the 800 metres at the 2006 Asian Games in Doha. While South Africa has stood staunchly by Semenya’s ten-year-long struggle, the Athletics Federation of India leaked Shanthi’s reports to the media resulting in a brutal campaign against her which ended in a suicide attempt by the athlete.

In a cruel twist of logic, Shanthi, who was not allowed to compete as a woman, was paid lower wages at the brick kiln she later worked at (due to women being paid less than men). More recently, Shanthi has filed a Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) case against her colleagues at the Sports Development Authority of Tamil Nadu, where she works as a coach.

In 2014, Dutee Chand from Odisha won the gold in both the 200m sprint and the 4x400m relay at the Asian Junior Athletics Championships in Taipei. Following “suspicions” over her gender, the Athletics Federation of India subjected her to a non-consensual ultrasound along with routine blood and urine tests at a clinic in Delhi. Based on the reports submitted to the IAAF, she underwent invasive gynaecological tests, chromosomal analysis and MRIs, the results of which were leaked to the media.

In 2015, Dutee appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport against her disqualification which led to a three-judge panel concluding that the role of natural testosterone in athleticism remains unknown. They sought scientific evidence from IAAF and suspended the hormone regulation policy until July 2017.

The evidence the IAAF subsequently published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine was criticised for containing a number of errors. In fact, the World Medical Association (WMA) — representing physicians from 114 national member associations — has strongly rejected the IAAF policy on testosterone regulation.

WMA President Dr Leonid Eidelman said in a statement published on their website, “We have strong reservations about the ethical validity of these regulations. They are based on weak evidence from a single study, which is currently being widely debated by the scientific community. They are also contrary to a number of key WMA ethical statements and declarations, and as such we are calling for their immediate withdrawal”.

Apart from there not being any conclusive scientific evidence on testosterone providing significant advantage in sports, it is pertinent to look at the differences in how synthetic testosterone intake (doping) and natural testosterone acts on the body. The ability of the body to process natural testosterone depends on receptor function and this has not been taken into consideration in the recent public debates around hyperandrogenism.

There have been compelling arguments made by critics of this hormonal regulation policy. The biological differences like disproportionately vast wingspan and double-jointed ankles that gave Michael Phelps significant advantage as a swimmer, was in contrast, celebrated rather than scrutinised and condemned.

Dr Silvia Camporesi, bioethicist and senior lecturer in the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at King’s College, London, has pointed out that differences in hemoglobin receptors can cause higher red blood cells and if the RBC count is 50 percent more than others, it is like being naturally doped, significantly improving performance.

Finnish cross-country skier Eero Mäntyranta, who was born with a genetic mutation that increased his haemoglobin level to about 50 percent, enjoyed the privileges of his biological difference without censure. Why then, are the bodies of women athletes, particularly black women athletes and women athletes from the global south, under constant scrutiny, subjected to invasive tests and public trials?

The racist gender bias in sports is evident when we look at the ways in which the bodies of top black women athletes like Serena Williams have been subjected to inappropriate scrutiny and sexualisation. Semenya is the youngest in a long line of black women who have faced similar experiences. The mandatory rule of chemically altering her testosterone level is violative of her bodily integrity and human rights. Semenya, an openly queer black woman, has been nonchalantly advised to suppress her natural testosterone using contraceptives. This is highly insensitive apart from being medically unnecessary and violative.

Semenya may have intersex variations, but she identifies as a woman. It is her inalienable right to contest in sports without having to subject herself to arbitrarily fixed biological determinants of gender.

Making a third sporting event or enforcing conformity to the gender binary in biologically deterministic ways will not help the sporting world out of this conundrum. Gender diversity exists in the human world and is reflected in the field of sports. Unfortunately, a lot of people are unaware of this fact.

In 2014, Semenya was awarded the Order of Ikhamanga, a recognition of significant achievement, by the President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma. The proclamation said she was “one of the most well-loved daughters of the soil who won hearts of many by making running look like poetry in motion.” I wish we could say that we honoured and stood with our Indian women athletes the same way.

Suggested read — With the verdict against Caster Semenya, CAS has ushered us into world of performance-reducing drugs

(With inputs from Dr Sylvia Karpagam and Nadika Nadja)

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Updated Date: May 04, 2019 18:17:56 IST