Bob’s weekly newswrap – #180withBob
Politics is quite fluid this week, so I thought we’d look at athletics and Mokgadi Semenya. In earlier Olympics, they might have been disqualified, or even accused of being men. That didnt happen, at least officially, in Rio. But the whole world was looking very closely at our Mokgadi and two of her closest competitors; and perhaps we need to establish some facts about the inter-sex Olympic runner and the brouhaha likely to envelope her best event, the women’s 800m.
Semenya and others like her, are representative of a rare condition on the continuum of human biology. They’re neither classically male or classically female. Although privacy laws prevent us from knowing medical specifics about Semenya, she appears to have DSD, a disorder of sex development, sometimes called inter-sex. As a result, her body might produce atypically high levels of natural testosterone, which might, in turn, enhance her running performance. She’s big, muscular, deep-voiced, and this year’s fastest woman at 800 metres, having run a lifetime best of 1:55.33 on July 15. Some believe she shouldn’t be allowed to compete as a woman.
It’s obviously not the first time Semenya has seen some controversy. The first was in 2009. But there have been several important plot twists since then.
During 2009, the then-18-year old Semenya improved her 800-metre best by more than eight seconds, and won the World Championships title by more than 2 seconds – a huge margin in a world-class race at such a short distance. Her speed and appearance created a media frenzy and some of her competitors voiced suspicions regarding Semenya’s sex. As a result, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) launched an investigation.
After examining Semenya, the IAAF presumably told her to begin taking female hormones to lower her likely high level of testosterone. (We have to say “presumably” and “likely” because the entire investigation should have been done in private, and what little we know comes from various leaks and/or from knowledge of customary procedures). To this day, Semenya’s past and present hormone levels are not in the public domain. While Semenya was presumably undergoing hormone therapy, the IAAF barred her from racing for 11 months. She was allowed to return to competition in July 2010.
The IAAF also organized an expert consensus committee for advice on dealing with DSD women. In this report, the committee recommended that no woman be allowed to compete as a woman if she has a testosterone level of 10 nmols/litres or more, unless she has a documented testosterone-insensitivity (androgen resistance), which would render her testosterone non-functional, and thereby not contribute to muscle strength, speed, and other parameters of performance. The IAAF officially adopted this position in 2011, and the Olympics followed suit in 2012. The new rule was called the Hyperandrogenism Regulations, and it was intended to be used in cases like the Semenya situation.
So obviously the question has to be asked; why is Mokgadi in the news again?
Because in early 2015, a 19-year-old Indian sprinter named Dutee Chand, with a condition similar to Semenya’s, challenged the IAAF’s Hyperandrogenism Regulations in the Court of Arbitration for Sport, the “Supreme Court” of the sports world. In July 2015, the CAS issued a more than 100 page report that sided with Chand, thus striking down the Hyperandrogenism Regulation. (The IAAF, the losing side in the Dutee Chand case, was given two years to gather more evidence and re-submit to the Court. It has not done so to date.)
What did the CAS decide?
First, the court decided that the Hyperandrogenism Regulations are clearly discriminatory, in violation of the IAAF and IOC charters, because they apply only to women. There is no equivalent rule disqualifying high-T men from competition. Second, both Chand and the IAAF agreed that there should be a distinct female category of competition, and such competition should be “fair.” Third, the Hyperandrogenism Regulations are unlike other athletic bans in that they are essentially a lifetime ban, not a time-limited ban. Fourth, Chand failed to prove that a high-T woman taking oestrogen and other female hormones would suffer a significant decline in performance.
Fifth and most important, the IAAF failed to establish that a woman born with naturally high testosterone levels has a significant performance advantage over other women.
According to the court, the IAAF did not produce convincing scientific evidence that endogenous testosterone (produced by a woman’s own body) has the same powerful performance benefit as exogenous testosterone (from drugs). All parties agreed that exogenous testosterone has a significant effect on performance, and that exogenous testosterone should be universally banned.
In closing, the challenge posed to the IAAF by the CAS is a very stiff one. That’s because almost nothing is known about the effects of endogenous testosterone on women’s strength and speed. The handful of experts and studies in this arena do not agree with each other.
As a result of the 2015 CAS decision, Chand, Semenya, and other similar athletes no longer need make any efforts to lower their natural testosterone. In Semenya’s case, she is running dramatically faster a year after the Hyperandrogenism Regulations were voided. Her best time so far this year is more than 4 seconds faster than her best time of 2015, which is a massive difference in the 800.
Article penned in part by Amby Boorfoot of Runners World