Tests exist today that could easily determine if a female were introducing synthetic testosterone into their system in hopes of enhancing performance. Regardless, sports highest court recently ruled in favor of a regulation capping the amount of testosterone a female athlete can have in their system. This ruling means women with naturally elevated testosterone, as provable by testing, must chemically or surgically lower their testosterone levels to compete. Not only must they lower their testosterone levels before a competition but they must maintain that reduced level for six months prior.
It is important to note, that while often referred to as such, testosterone is not a male hormone. It merely is a hormone that is produced in differing amounts in both males and females. Some females naturally produce elevated amounts of this hormone as is the case of Olympian and World Champion middle distance runner Caster Semenya.
The International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF), the body responsible for the regulation, suggests that females achieve this through the use of hormonal contraceptives. It is well documented that contraceptives can have adverse side effects such as nausea, excessive thirst, and electrolyte imbalance. Use of hormone lowering medications may even lead to an irregular heartbeat in some users. Another option for these women is the surgical removal of hormone-producing organs although the IAAF stresses that surgery is not a requirement.
Critics of the ruling claim the regulation is discriminatory because it imposes restrictions that have no equivalent for male athletics. When a male athlete is suspected of using artificial testosterone for performance enhancement, tests are performed. If the elevated testosterone proves to be naturally occurring, no further investigation or penalties are imposed. The double standard is made more evident when you consider that medical tests have shown that Michael Phelps’, has the unique advantage of producing less lactic acid as a byproduct of performance than average. Rather than being forced to suppress this advantage, Phelps was instead praised for his genetic advantage.
This is in stark contrast to the case of Caster Semenya who, due to this recent court ruling, must take hormone suppressing medications to lower her body’s naturally occurring testosterone if she hopes to compete. Unfortunately, similar standards, like that of the International Olympic Committee, have been used to ban women from competing in the past.
This is not the first time Semenya was surrounded in controversy. In 2009, shortly after becoming the world champion, the IAAF asked Semenya to prove she was female officially. She was only 18 at the time.
Semenya has remained defiant saying she hopes only to show the world that anything is possible. She has also made it clear that she has no intention of chemically altering her hormone levels. She will, no doubt, go down in history for having challenged the binary gender classifications of sport, which fail to recognize the vast spectrum of biological possibility.
Despite the setback, Semenya wrote in a statement “I know that the IAAF regulations have always targeted me specifically. For a decade the IAAF has tried to slow me down, but this has actually made me stronger.“
It is clear that both science and ethics indicate the wrongness of this ruling. Because athletes are, by definition, physiologically abnormal, no athlete should be punished because of their naturally occurring strength, reflexes or chemical cocktail. Additionally, as the vast continuum of biological possibilities is revealed by science, it may be time to reconsider the current binary structure in sports.