The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) has erred by failing to overturn a series of discriminatory rules that target female athletes who are transgender or have intersex traits.
By ruling in favour of the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF), the CAS has authorized regulations that require female athletes with naturally high testosterone levels — typically found in intersex women — to suppress their hormone levels if they wish to compete in races between 400 metres and a mile.
At the centre of this controversy is South African runner Caster Semenya. Semenya, who issued an appeal against the IAAF rules, has dominated the women’s track and field scene for the past decade. As a two-time Olympic gold medalist and a three-time World Champion in the women’s 800-metre race, Semenya has faced unrelenting scrutiny. Like several other intersex women who will be penalized by the new rules, Semenya identifies and competes as a woman.
In order to race, she has four options: either take hormonal contraceptives up to six months before competing; compete alongside men; compete in other events not subject to the regulations; or cease competing entirely. Even if Semenya gives in and undergoes hormonal treatment to lower her testosterone levels to the IAAF requirements, the possible side effects of the treatment may negatively impact her health and further prevent her from racing against other women in the events of her choosing.
The IAAF has argued that their new rules — which came into effect on May 8 — are intended to ensure fairness in women’s track and field. This argument is supported by the perceived correlation between testosterone and enhanced athletic performance.
It is commonly believed that an increased amount of testosterone can improve strength and speed levels. The IAAF and supporters of this ruling have relied heavily on this perceived correlation to argue that Semenya holds an “unfair advantage” over other women in her sport because of her naturally elevated levels of testosterone.
However, wouldn’t it be fair to argue that many successful athletes possess natural advantages that give them an upper hand in their respective sports? It’s no secret that height is beneficial in sports such as volleyball and basketball. Should the IAAF ban tall women from competing in basketball and volleyball matches to ensure fairness in these sports?
Take 23-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps. Phelps not only possesses an exceptionally long arm span and reportedly double-jointed ankles, but also produces significantly smaller amounts of lactic acid compared to his competitors. Lactic acid build-up contributes to muscle fatigue, and because Phelps produces less while competing, he holds an advantage over his competitors. Yet, Phelps is not required to undergo treatment to elevate his lactic acid. We still continue to praise him for his athletic achievements while discounting Semenya for hers.
The natural testosterone that Semenya produces differs from the exogenous testosterone which has been prohibited in the Olympics since 1976. The correlation between testosterone and enhanced performance is believed to be linked to the use of synthetic testosterone.
It has yet to be proven whether the same correlation exists for its natural counterpart in female sports. There is a possibility that natural testosterone improves performance, but this prospect is offset by the likelihood that it is unrelated to athletic capabilities. As reported by the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, there is “no clear scientific evidence” of a relationship between the two in female sports.
The argument that women with higher testosterone levels hold an unfair advantage is also based on the outdated association of testosterone with masculinity. Traditionally, it has been understood that there is a crucial distinction between men and women in terms of athletic ability, since it was assumed that men typically have more testosterone than women.
Categorizing testosterone as the sex hormone that exclusively belongs to men not only falsely categorizes women with naturally high levels of testosterone as somehow unwomanly, but also neglects the fact that women produce and rely on testosterone to survive as well.
The preoccupation with the role that testosterone plays in fuelling athletic performance also underestimates the importance of external factors, such as income, which play as much of a role in contributing to athletic success as do physical capabilities alone.
Large income disparities across the globe disadvantage athletes who are the product of lower-income environments. These athletes do not have access to the same quality facilities, coaching staff, treatment, or even the support system that are generally present for athletes living in more affluent areas.
U of T Professor of Kinesiology and Physical Education Bruce Kidd reflects similar sentiments in his article. There, he remarks: “Would Canadians who support the IAAF against Semenya like it if they were required to train under the same conditions as their competitors from the Global South? Of course not.”
The new IAAF rules also draw criticism because it seems to unfairly and unnecessarily target Semenya and other female runners from the Global South. An IAAF study on the effects of natural testosterone reveals that it has a greater influence on performance in events such as the hammer throw and the pole vault.
On the contrary, there is a much weaker correlation between natural testosterone and athletic capabilities in the 1500-metre race. Yet women with higher testosterone levels have not been barred from competing in the hammer throw and the pole vault, but have been banned from competing in the 1500-metre race.
This finding is especially daunting considering the fact that events, such as the hammer throw and the pole vault, have historically been dominated by white women from the West. Black women from the global South have typically been victorious in long-distance running events, thus leading some to believe that the IAAF’s policy may be racially motivated.
In response to the CAS’s rejection of Semenya’s challenge to the IAAF rules, the South African Sports Ministry has declared that their track federation, Athletics South Africa, will appeal the decision. Canadian Minister of Science and Sport, Kirsty Duncan, has condemned the ruling, saying that it exhibits “a total disregard for human dignity.” Furthermore, Semenya has vowed to continue running, even stating that she will not give in to the new rules and take hormone suppressants.
The unjust IAAF rules call for society to re-examine our traditional beliefs about fairness in sports. Is it fair to publicly humiliate intersex women on the unfounded belief that their genetics give them an unfair advantage over other women? If the goal is to ensure an equal playing field for female athletes, the IAAF should focus on securing equal access to adequate training facilities, coaching staff, and athletic gear, instead of resorting to inhumane measures that single out certain athletes because they are different.