Biochemistry failing elite athletes in human rights decision

The Court of Arbitration for Sport, the independent judicial tribunal in Switzerland presiding over many international cases, released its landmark verdict setting limits on testosterone levels in females competing in international mid-distance track races ranging between 800 meters and a mile. The margin was two votes to one. Despite the verdict with enormous ethical and legal ramifications, the feud is likely not over between the prevailing International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) which serves as the world governing body for track and field, and the defendant, phenom Olympic gold medal multi-world record holder, Caster Semenya, from South Africa.

Following the decision, headlines from Washington Post and L.A. Times read “We celebrated Michael Phelps Genetic Differences: Why Punish Caster Semenya…” and “The Only Cure for Caster Semenya is Let Her Compete.” Similarly, headlines for the Guardian, a respected international media source for world sports, read “Caster Semenya ruling Tramples of the Dignity of Elite Athletes, S. Africa Says.”

It seems the public court of opinion favors the athlete supported by a bucket full of human rights issues, but the judicial ruling favoring scientific discrimination will prevail unless an appeal is warranted. The floodgate is now open for international sport federations (e.g., weightlifting, wrestling, etc.) to propose their own supported biochemical stipulations in the name of competitive fairness and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is ready to pounce with a set of proposed guidelines to assist in crafting gender-related policies.

The (IOC) has been in the business of policing gender boundaries for decades. The IAAF and IOC instituted the first official gender testing at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics using a buccal smear (swiping the inner side of the check to collect DNA) to determine chromosome composition. The first individual banned from competing in the Olympics due to failing the gender-verification sex-text was a sprinter from Poland supporting the speculation that the Soviet Union and eastern European bloc countries were notorious for infiltrating international female competitions with male imposters, primarily in sports such as weight lifting and track and field. The sprinter has won a gold medal as part of the women’s 4×100 relay team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

One of the earliest gender controversies can be traced to the 1936 Berlin Olympics where a suspected male high jumper finished in fourth place in the women’s event. Reportedly, the individual who claimed he was pressured by the Nazis to pose as a man, was born with ambiguous genitals and raised as a female. The IOC testing in the late 60s resulted in numerous elite athletes from especially Eastern European countries withdrawing from competition fueling suspicions of male impostors in women’s events.

The IOC permitted transsexual qualifiers to compete for the first time in the 2004 Athens Olympics, providing sex-reassignment surgery was complete and recipients had undergone a minimum of two years of post-operative hormone replacement therapy. A male judo competitor from Brazil who also was born with female organs had gender surgery to transform into a female and subsequently competed in the 1996 Atlanta, 2000 Sydney, and 2004 Athens Olympics. Caster’s situation is not the same as the Brazilian because she is classified as an intersex, not a transsexual or transgender athlete. There has been no gender-reassignment surgery in Semenya’s case.

Intersex is often described as an individual born with sexual anatomy that doesn’t fit typical definitions of female or male which fit the description of the Brazilian judo competitor before having surgery. There is no shame in being classified as intersex which for Semenya, means she has extremely atypical high levels of testosterone in her body, a condition known in the science world as “hyperandrogenism.” Unfortunately, the IAAF has succeeded in demonstrating the unfair advantage of hyperandrogenism has for mid-distance competitors. The new stipulation is that eligibility for competing as a female requires Semenya and other individuals with high levels of testosterone to undergo medical treatment to suppress their levels to 0.5 nanomoles-per-liter (nmo/L) for a continuous period no less than six months prior to competition. The CAS executive summary noted that normal range of testosterone levels in females ranges between 0.06 to 1.68 nmol/L compared to 7.7 to 29.4 in males.

A reprieve has been permitted for Semenya and other female athletes with hyperandrogenism to compete in the 2019 IAAF World Championships in Doha, Qatar this fall because of the timing of the ruling. However, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics are another story unless the CAS reverses its ruling in the wake of an appeal (which is highly unlikely). The CAS indicated that the ruling appears discriminatory, but it represents a “necessary, reasonable, and proportionate means” to ensure fair competition in female athletics.

Incidentally, there is no shame in being classified as a transgender or transsexual athlete either. Just ask Caitlyn (a.k.a. Bruce) Jenner who obviously didn’t have an unfair advantage competing as a male when she won the gold medal in the decathlon at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.

On a side note, in the sport column April 11 (The End of March Madness…), the paragraph on NCAA college basketball programs involved in point shaving scandals inadvertently read San Diego “State” University instead of the “University of San Diego.” There’s a big difference … imagine if Ohio State was misrepresented in a case that actually involved Ohio University!!!

Stay tuned for next month’s column featuring more interesting sport stories from around the world, around the nation, around the state, and right here in Tiffin, Ohio.

Bonnie Tiell is a professor of sports management at Tiffin University.