As the Court of Arbitration in Sport (CAS) begins hearing on Caster Semenya’s plea, which challenges the International Association of Athletics Federations’ proposed rules that aim to restrict testosterone levels in female athletes, The Indian Express takes a look at the sensitive issue that can have far-reaching implications.
Late last year, South African middle-distance runner Caster Semenya challenged the International Association of Athletic Federations’ (IAAF) rules, which put a cap on the testosterone levels of female athletes if they wanted to compete in certain races. The hearing will begin at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Lausanne on Monday.
Just last week, Semenya said she was “unquestionably a woman”, after reports emerged, which were later denied, that the IAAF would argue that she should be classified as a biological male. “Ms Semenya is unquestionably a woman. She is a heroine and an inspiration to many around the world,” her lawyers said in a statement.
Here is a lowdown on the sensitive issue that will be debated in court. It has divided the international sports fraternity, as the case is not only about gender but about science and fair play as well.
What is the crux of the controversial classification?
In April, the IAAF introduced ‘new eligibility regulations for female classification’ (athletes with differences of sexual development or DSD) which said that female athletes should have 5 or less than five nanomoles of testosterone (male hormone) to participate in track events of between 400 metres and a mile. These rules were to come into effect from November 1 last year, but after Semenya knocked on the doors of CAS they remain suspended currently. These events were termed as ‘restricted events’. The IAAF argues that these rules help ensure a ‘level playing field for women athletes’ because high levels of testosterone, even if naturally occurring in DSD athletes, gives a performance advantage.
How did IAAF arrive at 5nmol/L restriction?
The IAAF largely went by a study, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, in July 2017. The study involved 1,332 elite female athletes and 795 male athletes and looked at a correlation between performance and higher testosterone levels. Blood samples of each of these athletes, a number of whom participated in the 2011 and 2013 World Championships, were studied and compared to on-field performances. The conclusion was that women with higher levels of testosterone were seen to have an advantage in 400m, 400m hurdles, 800m and also in hammer throw and pole vault.
After consulting experts and looking at the research, the IAAF said that female athletes with levels of testosterone above 5nmol/L are either intersex/DSD, doped athletes or athletes with adrenal or ovarian tumours. The IAAF has concluded that female athletes with testosterone between 5nmol/L and 10 nmol/L have a 4.4 % advantage in muscle mass and a 12 to 26 % increase in muscle strength. Most women, including elite female athletes, the IAAF said, have testosterone levels only between 0.12 to 1.79 nmol/L.
Why is Semenya up in arms?
The South African athlete is the Olympic 800 metre champion and also competes in the 1500 metres. Both these distances fall under the ‘restricted events’ category. She has also been under the IAAF scanner for the past decade. After her breakthrough year in 2009, when she won the 800m gold at the Berlin World Championships, questions were raised about her gender because of the vast improvement in her timing – eight seconds in less than nine months – and her strong physical traits. The IAAF asked her to undergo gender verification and though it is not clear if she took medication to bring down hormonal events as the results were never revealed publicly, she was allowed to return to competition in 2010.
How can an athlete classified as DSD participate in ‘restricted events’?
In order to participate in events of a length between 400 metres and a mile, a female athlete with higher levels of testosterone must reduce her levels to below 5 nmol/L, according to IAAF rules. 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 before returning to competition. The IAAF has said that an athlete does not have to undergo any kind of surgery.
The other option for such athletes is to participate in the male category or in the ‘intersex’ category, if one exists in a competition. DSD athletes, according to IAAF eligibility rules, are free to participate in any track events other than those between 400 metres and a mile. There are no restrictions in domestic competitions.
What is the reason for opposition to the IAAF rules?
Critics of IAAF’s eligibility criteria have been vocal about how it is targeting female athletes from the ‘global south’ — mainly Africa, Latin America and developing countries in Asia. Speaking to The Indian Express after the IAAF rules were published last year, Katrina Karkazis — who testified as an expert during the Dutee Chand vesus IAAF hearing — said this: “The new regulations are not logical when it comes to the restricted events — track events from 400 metres to one mile. This is because in a study the greatest performance advantage was in the hammer throw and the pole vault and 800 metres was the lowest. But why are the hammer throw and pole vault not part of this regulation? I would argue that it is because they are not sports in which women from the Global South – Indian sub-continent and Africa – excel in. The IAAF need not tell us who they are targeting but we can see from the nature of the regulations who they are targeting. Moreover, in the 1,500m, there was no performance advantage according to the study.”
Incidentally the biggest differences in performance were in hammer throw (4.53%) and pole vault (2.94%).
In July last year, the Women’s Sport Foundation and Athlete Ally, a prominent member of which is multiple tennis Grand Slam champion Bille Jean King, signed an open letter to the IAAF asking it to recall its “discriminatory” regulations. Among the signatories was Dutee Chand, the Indian sprinter who had successfully challenged similar eligibility criteria of the IAAF which had existed till 2015.
What is the IAAF defence?
The IAAF says that the female category is a ‘protected’ one because men and women don’t compete together as it would be unfair to the latter. The IAAF sees enhanced level of testosterone as the single biggest factor (other than doping) to give a DSD athlete a performance advantage. To those who argue that height and weight — both attained during natural growth — are not being classified separately so why should testosterone, the IAAF argues that such ‘natural advantages’ are different as they are deemed to be ‘natural talent’ and not performance-enhancing like testosterone.
What was the previous CAS ruling?
Before the IAAF introduced the ‘new eligibility regulations for female classification’, CAS had suspended the athletics body’s hyperandrogenism (natural but elevated level of testosterone) rules. These regulations were slightly different because it had placed a ban on women with testosterone levels of 10 nmols/L or above from participating in the female category across events.
Chand had successfully challenge the hyperandrogenism guidelines at the highest court for sport. CAS ruled in 2015 that there was lack of evidence about the competitive advantage that a hyperandrogenic athlete could derive. CAS gave the IAAF two years to come up with fresh evidence. The IAAF, on its part, removed the hyperandrogenism rules, but came up with new eligibility rules which didn’t put restrictions on the 100 and 200 metres, which meant Chand could participate. However, Semenya has dragged the IAAF to CAS over eligibility requirements for restricted events, including her pet disciplines the 800m and the 1500.