Why new hormone rules for women runners affect one and not the other

World athletics body has introduced regulations that restrict the participation of female athletes with high testosterone levels in certain international track and field events. The Indian Express explains.

Written by Nihal Koshie | Updated: April 27, 2018 8:50:03 am
Why new hormone rules for women runners affect one and not the other South Africa’s athlete Caster Semenya (Source: Reuters)

World athletics body has introduced regulations that restrict the participation of female athletes with high testosterone levels in certain international track & field events. The Indian Express explains.

Why did the international athletics body come with these new eligibility regulations for female runners?

The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) had been asked by the Court of Arbitration for Sports (CAS) to finalise regulations that would clearly specify events in which women with high but naturally occurring levels of testosterone could participate. This was after the CAS had directed the IAAF to provide fresh evidence to prove that women athletes with higher than normal levels of testosterone had a distinct advantage. It all started after Indian sprinter Dutee Chand had successfully challenged the now suspended guidelines for hyperandrogenism (a medical condition characterised by high levels of male sex hormones such as testosterone) in 2014.

What were the old guidelines and how have they changed?

Earlier, women with testosterone levels of 10 nanomoles per litre or more were ineligible to participate in track and field events. Dutee challeged the rule, arguing that she had naturally occurring high levels of testosterone. CAS ruled in favour of the Indian sprinter. This opened the doors for several other athletes with hyperandrogenism. Now, IAAF has said that female athletes with 5 or more nanomoles per litre testosterone cannot participate in 400m, 800m and 1500m races.

How much do testosterone levels vary between males and females?

Testosterone levels in females usually range between 0.12 to 1.79 nmol/L while the male range is much higher — 7.7 to 29.4 nmol/L. The IAAF has concluded that it is only possible for a woman to have a testosterone level of 5 nmol/L or greater in the case of a tumour or if the athlete falls in the intersex category.

Why new hormone rules for women runners affect one and not the other Earlier, women with testosterone levels of 10 nanomoles per litre or more were ineligible to participate in track and field events.  (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

Who is an intersex person?

An intersex person is one who has both male and female sex organs or other variations including chromosomes and does not fall exclusively into the defined male or female physical characteristics.

What do the guidelines mean for Dutee Chand and who else do they affect?

Chand is free to compete in her two pet events — the 100 metres and the 200 metres — because these do not fall under the ‘restricted events’ category. However, the new guidelines will make it difficult for South Africa’s Caster Semenya to compete in 800m and 1,500m at international events. Semenya had to undergone therapy after winning the gold in 800 metres at the 2009 World Championships, to reduce her testosterone levels.

When do the new regulations come into effect?

From November 1, 2018.

What did the IAAF base its guidelines on?

The IAAF based the evidence in part on a study, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, in July last year. The study, which researched the link between track and field performance and higher than usual testosterone levels, involved 1,332 elite female athletes and 795 male athletes — a total of 2,127 subjects. A blood sample was taken from each of these athletes, a number of whom had participated in the 2011 and 2013 World Championships. Women with higher levels of testosterone were seen to have a distinct advantage in 400m, 400m hurdles, and 800m and also in hammer throw and pole vault.

So, why did the IAAF not include hammer throw and pole vault in the guidelines?

Katrina Karkazis, an expert on testosterone and its effects, who testified when sprinter Chand knocked on the doors of CAS, feels that the IAAF wanted to target women from the Global South — Indian subcontinent and Africa — which specifically means Semenya.

Why new hormone rules for women runners affect one and not the other Dutee Chand (Source: File)

Is there any way that an athlete with higher testosterone levels can now participate in the female category in restricted events?

In order to participate in events of the length between 400 metres and a mile, a female athlete with higher levels of testosterone must reduce her levels to below 5 nmol/L. This can be done, the IAAF says, through medication or use of hormonal therapy. Moreover, the athlete has to show that her testosterone levels are below the upper limit for a period of six months. The IAAF has said that an athlete does not have to undergo any kind of surgery.

What if an intersex athlete does not wish to comply with the new regulations?

The athlete will not be debarred from competing in the female category in ‘restricted events’ if the event is a national competition, and will also be allowed to compete in other events outside the restricted events. The other option for an intersex athlete is to compete against men at any competition, or participate in the intersex category.

What is the logic of the IAAF in asking women to keep their testosterone levels below the upper limit for a six month period?

The time period is essential, the IAAF says, to ensure that an athlete does not get any advantage of previously high levels of testosterone which was present in the body.

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