European court rules on high testosterone women in track events

The Court of Arbitration for Sport, based in Switzerland, has handed down a decision in the case of Caster Semenya that may have wide-ranging repercussions in a variety of women’s sports around the world. As you may recall, Caster Semenya is the track and field athlete who managed a number of controversial victories in track events including taking the 800-meter gold medal in two Olympic Games. The controversy came because many suspected that Semenya was actually a man. It was later determined she actually had a massively high level of naturally produced testosterone owing to a genetic condition. This prompted complaints from other competitors over what was perceived as an unfair advantage. The court has now ruled that in order to compete in upcoming events, Semenya will have to take medication to suppress her testosterone levels below a standard level. (NY Times)

The highest court in international sports issued a landmark but nuanced ruling on Wednesday that will force female track athletes with elevated levels of testosterone to take suppressants to compete in certain women’s races at major international events like the Olympics.

The ruling was a defeat for Caster Semenya, a two-time Olympic champion at 800 meters from South Africa, who had challenged proposed limits placed on female athletes with naturally elevated levels of the muscle-building hormone testosterone.

The Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport addressed a complicated, highly charged question involving fair play, gender identity, biology and human rights that the world of track and field has been grappling with for a decade: Since competition is divided into male and female categories, what is the most equitable way to decide who should be eligible to compete in women’s events?

You can download and read a copy of the court’s full findings here if you wish. At the heart of the dispute is how women’s sports deal with any competitors with far more than the normal amount of testosterone found in average women. Adult women without any noticeable chromosomal anomalies have testosterone levels in the range of 0.12 to 1.79 nanomoles per liter. Males who have reached puberty generally have levels anywhere from 7.7 to 29.4 nanomoles per liter.

Semenya’s levels are reportedly well above the average for women and she’s being asked to have them suppressed to below 5 nanomoles per liter, still far above her female competitors. For quite a while, as mentioned above, competitors suspected Semenya was a man. (I confess to having had the same suspicions myself and I was incorrect.) Medical inspections were conducted and the full details were never released for privacy reasons, but the general consensus seems to be that she is intersex. That condition takes many forms, but she appears to have been born with a chromosomal anomaly of some sort that causes her to produce much higher testosterone levels, though not at the same level as a typical non-anomalous male.

The reason this case may resonate with other disputes is that the findings could be applied to cases where “transgender women” (men born with the normal Y chromosome, testes, and full testosterone levels, but who “identify” as women) have been competing in and frequently dominating women’s sports. The Olympics are now allowing such athletes to compete in the women’s divisions without having to complete the full surgical procedure that would remove the testosterone generating bits.

If the rules being applied to Semenya are allowable when her condition was completely beyond her control, then it only seems reasonable to place the same restrictions of fully functional biological males who may have testosterone levels as high as 29 nanomoles per liter. That likely still won’t even the playing field since they have had a lifetime to grow larger, biological frames and muscle mass, but at least it would give the actual women more of a chance and not see them driven out of their own sports.

In closing, in case you missed it previously, just look at how two high school boys have been totally dominating the girls’ track and field events in their home state. (Along with other transgender athletes in other sports.) Then ask yourself if this is fair to all of the naturally born women who work their entire lives, hoping for a chance to compete in the Olympics.