In August 2009, South African runner Caster Semenya won the 800m Women’s World Championship race. Her appearance, which includes aspects that may be interpreted as belonging to the male sex, suggested high levels of testosterone, prompted the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) to conduct ‘sex verification’ tests on her, to verify that she was biologically female. It was the first time a testosterone test was used to verify sex, and was widely condemned as discriminatory, and described as ‘humiliating’ by her coach. Semenya was deemed female, and allowed to keep her medal.
Because testosterone is often artificially injected to improve athletic performance, questions were raised as to whether Semenya was taking artificial testosterone. The use of testosterone testing to determine sex has since been used on other athletes. While it is known that artificially injecting testosterone improves athletic performance, there was no conclusive proof that athletes with naturally higher levels of testosterone were at a great advantage over those with naturally lower levels. The Court of Arbitration for Sport wrote that: “it is not self-evident that a female athlete with a level of testosterone above 10 nmol/L would enjoy the competitive advantage of a male athlete,” in a 2015 ruling concerning the case of Indian sprinter Dutee Chand.
This year, a study commissioned by the IAAF, and published by the British Journal of Sport Medicine, claims to offer that conclusive proof. After studying athlete performances at the 2011 and 2013 World Championships, the study found that those athletes with higher testosterone levels enjoyed advantages of up to 4.5% (in the hammer throw), and an advantage of 1.8% in Semenya’s discipline, the 800m race. The IAAF will head to court in at the end of July to challenge a 2015 ruling by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) that stated they could not restrict the permitted levels of testosterone in female athletes.
While nothing will change before World Championships in London this August, the new study is expected to be used by the IAAF to strengthen their argument for restricting the permitted levels of testosterone. If they win the ruling against the CAS, athletes like Semenya, or sprinter Dutee Chand of India, would be forced to take hormone therapy to lower their testosterone levels- or stop competing at IAAF events, including the Olympics.
In a year when Usain Bolt – one of the world’s biggest athletic stars – is retiring, McDonald’s has pulled its 41-year sponsorship from the Olympics, and political controversy has overshadowed South Korea’s preparations for 2018’s Winter Olympics, the playing field of athletics is shifting. Semeya’s possible expulsion (or forced hormone therapy) would only harm the sporting world, and more importantly, the athletes. By allowing Semenya, Chand, and other hyperandrogenic athletes to compete as the genders they identify with, the IAAF could resume its role as a pioneering force in the world of sports. With the next Olympics in Tokyo, athletics has the opportunity to grow its base enormously. A little bit of progress and a little bit less of the Orwellian sex classification, hormonal therapy, and expulsion would serve the sport well.