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Women with elevated testosterone face limitations in Olympic events

After much controversy and a research process that took two years to carry out, the International Association of Athletics Federations, which governs the sport of track and field worldwide, has decided to enact regulations that target female athletes who have hyperandrogenism, a medical condition that produces high levels of testosterone.

The rules — seemingly an extension of the ones that the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland suspended for two years in 2015 — require women to lower their elevated testosterone levels months before a competition and keep them lowered, or risk not being allowed to compete internationally. The new regulations will start to go into effect around November 2018.

At first glance, the new rules may appear to enforce fair competition between women who compete in races that are 400 meters to a mile long. However, the way that the IAAF decided to address this issue could be deemed more offensive and difficult for the elite group of athletes who dominate the international stage of track.

If the women affected by the regulations cannot or will not lower their testosterone, they could potentially face hormone therapy, be forced to compete in the men’s version of the sport, compete on only the national level or leave the sport entirely. All of this is done in order to make sure that the women do not have a competitive edge over their opponents, an edge that peaks at less than 5 percent.

While races are often decided by fractions of a second and any small performance boost could be an advantage, the regulations still seem to target female athletes who are successful in their sport but do not conform to certain societal standards of “femininity.”

The example cited most frequently in this case, according to The New York Times, is Caster Semenya — a South African athlete who won gold in both the 2012 and 2016 Summer Olympics for the 800-meter race, who also has elevated levels of testosterone and who has been ridiculed by many reporters and track race fans for being androgynous. Semenya has been subjected to bans from certain races and pre-race tests to confirm that she is, in fact, a woman running in the correct race.

It is worth mentioning that even women with hyperandrogenism often do not come close to having the testosterone level of their male counterparts. The IAAF regulations affect women who have five nanomoles per liter or above. However, the normal range of testosterone for men only starts at 7.7 nanomoles, the Times reported.

And while Semenya is a remarkable runner, her time is still nearly 15 seconds slower than the time set by the record holder of the exact same race for men. Pitting her against men would be monumentally unfair to her future success. Meanwhile, hormone therapy could cause numerous side effects such as mood swings and a risk of heart disease, breast cancer and stroke, as noted by Mayo Clinic.

If other competitive advantages such as certain athletes having access to better training facilities, nutrition or conditions that mimic the actual games are not being regulated by the IAAF, then maybe the newest rules that the organization chose to enact should be revised or suspended yet again.

It is understandable why this issue is controversial and also frustrating to both the athletes competing in women’s track and the governing body that presides over it. As citizens all over the world strive for equality between every person regardless of their natural sex or chosen gender, athletics is still one area that continues to struggle in bridging the gender gap while also making every competition as fair as it can be for every competitor involved.

Unfortunately, sporting events are segregated due to differences in natural biology, as men and women tend to have wide disparities in overall muscle mass, weight and strength, among other things.

The issue becomes slightly more convoluted when a certain woman has biological characteristics that give her an upper hand over her fellow female competitors, but not enough to make her a serious competition for the men.

However, no matter what kind of edge, biological or not, that female athletes have over their competition, they should be able to compete in the category of race that they identify with and feel most comfortable in. Taking extra steps in order to prevent this is too tedious and potentially unethical. In a global competition such as the Olympics, the most elite sportspeople all over the world come together, each unique and admirable in their own way.

No one should be punished for how they were born and raised, as long as every athlete plays for the love of the sport.

Diana Shishkina

Diana Shishkina

Diana intends to pursue a double major in Political Science and Journalism. She enjoys writing, dancing, drinking coffee, studying law and napping.
Diana Shishkina
May 7, 2018

About Author

Diana Shishkina Diana intends to pursue a double major in Political Science and Journalism. She enjoys writing, dancing, drinking coffee, studying law and napping.


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