Caster Semenya vs IAAF: Why are athletics world body's critics claiming its hyperandrogenism rules are racist and unfair

  • Support for Caster Semenya in her fight against IAAF's hyperandrogenism rules has increased among claims of racism and scientific errors in IAAF's study.

  • Athletes have signed an open letter from Athlete Ally and Women's Sports Foundation to IAAF to revoke the hyperandrogenism regulations.

  • The integrity of the IAAF research, conducted by Dr Stéphane Bermon has also been challenged in a paper by three academics.

With the world of athletics at a crossroads, the CAS will decide on Caster Semenya's case against IAAF's proposed hyperandrogenism rules after an unprecedented five-day hearing. The IAAF, the world governing body for track and field, wants to put in place rules which mandate that women with naturally elevated testosterone use medication to lower their levels before they're allowed to compete in world-class races from 400 metres to one mile.

The hearing, which is expected to continue for five days, is expected to lead to a judgement that straddles the intersection of sports, science and gender politics.

(Read Firstpost's detailed explainer about how the Caster Semenya case against the IAAF on hyperandrogenism will have wider ramifications in athletics, here)

 Caster Semenya vs IAAF: Why are athletics world bodys critics claiming its hyperandrogenism rules are racist and unfair

Caster Semenya's running future will be decided by the CAS in a landmark case. AP/Dita Alangkara, File

Support from activists and fellow athletes

Semenya's case has been championed by United Nations human rights experts, women's sport activists and tennis legends like Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova, who see potential abuse and discrimination in the track federation's proposal. Critics of the rule also point that forcing anyone to take medication is an invasive stipulation.

Athletes, former and current alike, have signed an open letter from Athlete Ally and Women's Sports Foundation to IAAF to revoke the hyperandrogenism regulations, which they allege will force women to alter their bodies to compete.

Among the 60 signatories are India's Dutee Chand — who had successfully challenged IAAF's regulation at the CAS in 2015, Asian Games gold medalist Pinki Pramanik, former India Olympian Ashwini Nachappa and US women's World Cup winner and Olympic gold medallist Abby Wambach.

Steve Cornelius, a South African legal expert, resigned from the IAAF's disciplinary tribunal in protest of the hyperandrogenism rules in April 2018.

He said in his resignation letter that he could not in good conscience continue to associate himself with "an organisation that insists on ostracising certain individuals, all of them female, for no reason other than being what they were born to be."

"The adoption of the new eligibility regulations for female classification is based on the same kind of ideology that has led to some of the worst injustices and atrocities in the history of the planet," Professor Cornelius added.

Scientific errors in IAAF study

The integrity of the IAAF research, conducted by Dr Stéphane Bermon, Director of IAAF Health and Science Department, has also been challenged in a paper by three academics: Roger Pielke in the United States, Erik Boye in Norway and Ross Tucker in South Africa.

They claimed errors in the data included duplicate times for the same athlete, counting times for athletes later disqualified for doping and "phantom" performances with no athlete recording that specific time.

"The unwillingness of the IAAF to correct or acknowledge errors highlights its conflict of interest," wrote the authors, saying it was "uncommon and unadvisable that IAAF sees its role as serving as both the regulatory body and the primary producer of evidence justifying its own proposed regulations."

The IAAF study claims that when compared with female athletes with lowest testosterone levels, women with the highest testosterone levels performed better in 400m, 400m hurdles, 800m, hammer throw, and pole vault with margins of 2.73 percent, 2.78 percent, 1.78 percent, 4.53 percent, and 2.94 percent, respectively.

However, these performance advantages are still below the 10 percent mark set by the CAS in Dutee Chand's case, somewhat weakening IAAF's arguments.

In a blog post for the British Journal for Sports Medicine, researchers Simon Franklin, Jonathan Ospina and Dr Silvia Camporesi argued that the IAAF have "cherry-picked a few events for which a statistically significant correlation was shown...and applied restrictions on athletes only for those events." This, they alleged, "constitutes a seriously wrong application of scientific findings."

Peter Sonksen, a professor of endocrinology in London, conducted a research for the IOC that eventually led to the development of an anti-doping test for Human Growth Hormone. However, he is far from impressed with its work on testosterone.

"They have got it completely wrong with this idiotic rule. This rule is unfair, gross and unscientific. It is clear discrimination," told the BBC.

Sonksen's objection to the rule stems from his research which found that 16 percent of his male athletes had lower than expected testosterone, whereas 13 percent of his female athletes had high levels of testosterone "with complete overlap between the sexes".

Simply put, the gap between men with lowest testosterone levels and women with the highest testosterone levels in the general population, does not exist among elite athletes.

Accusations of racial bias

While track events from 400m to 1,500m races have been brought under the hyperandrogenism rule, the fact that the IAAF have not restricted hammer throw and pole vault, the two events which showed the highest advantage at 4.53 percent and 2.94 percent respectively, has come under scrutiny.

This, according to Katarina Karkazis — a bioethicist and activist and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University along, and Rebecca Jordan-Young — an associate professor in Barnard College, Columbia University — shows racial bias against female athletes from middle-distance running events who belong to the 'Global South'. They go on to term the IAAF's implementation of the rules as "the science-y sideshow the IAAF uses in order to dazzle and distract from this bias."

Bruce Kidd, a Canadian Olympian and one of the people who helped Chand in her case at the CAS, concurred with Karkazis and Jordan-Young's accusation.

"They have targeted the mile, an event that is currently dominated by black women. And the mile isn't even part of their study. It's hard not to draw the conclusion this is a racist, targeted test," Kidd said.

What's athletic body's controversial hyperandrogenism rule, and why some runners are backing it

With inputs from Agencies

Updated Date: Feb 18, 2019 20:41:11 IST