Szuhaj: Don't Let PC Ruin the Games

by Ben Szuhaj | 5/17/16 5:45pm

In July 2015, the Court of Arbitration for Sport handed down a ruling decried by some as “ending women’s sports as we know them.” They revoked the International Association of Athletics Federations’ regulation that required hyperandrogenic track and field athletes to keep their testosterone levels below 10nmol/L or face suspension. The normal female range of serum testosterone is 0.1-2.8nmol/L. For men, the figure is 10.5. The Court of Arbitration for Sport suspended the IAAF’s regulation for two years and will abolish it completely unless the IAAF could scientifically prove that hyperandrogenic athletes perform better due to their elevated testosterone levels. In all likelihood, the IAAF will be unable to do so. Many factors contribute to athletic success — not just testosterone. Proving a scientific link between testosterone and performance is difficult, not to mention that some hyperandrogenic athletes are androgen insensitive and do not benefit from elevated testosterone levels. That being said, some clearly do.

In 2009, South African middle-distance runner Caster Semenya burst onto the international stage after winning the women’s 800-meter race at the world championship at the age of 18. Her winning time, 1 minute, 55 seconds, was the fastest time run by a woman that year. Following the race, she underwent gender testing by the IAAF. They discovered that Semenya had been born with internal testes, a dangerous condition of which she was unaware. Rather than stripping Semenya of her win, the IAAF removed her from competition for a year and reinstated her in 2010. In 2011, they passed the regulation requiring female athletes to keep their testosterone levels below 10nmol/L. Semenya had a high-caliber 2012 season, but has been a non-factor on the world stage for the past three years.

Now that hyperandrogenic athletes are not required to regulate their testosterone levels, Semenya has been on fire, recently becoming the first woman to win the 400, 800 and 1500 at the South African National Championships. Semenya is considered a shoe-in to win Olympic gold unless the ruling is overturned.

Some people have voiced concerns, wondering how women with average levels of testosterone are supposed to keep up. The answer is unsatisfactory: they cannot.

While some androgenic athletes may not experience a performance boost from elevated levels of testosterone, many do. There is a reason that testosterone is considered a banned substance: it leads to gains in sports. Semenya would not be competitive if she raced against men. Now that the regulation has been suspended, there is no clear metric that can be used to differentiate men and women into their respective races. If there is nothing stopping someone who would have previously been forbidden from running the women’s race from choosing to run in the women’s race, it is clear who will lose out: women.

That is why the testosterone rule is so important: it is the least biased, most objective metric I am aware of that can be used to separate genders based on biological advantage. Until the 1990s, this differentiation was done through “gender testing,” which was invasive and crass. That is the same testing that Semenya underwent in 2009, testing which elicited outrage from many of her supporters. However, whereas in previous decades Semenya would have been told she was not a woman and banned from competing with women for life, she was instead told of her medical condition and advised to begin hormone therapy if she wished to continue competing with women. The new system is not perfect, but it is necessary.

Semenya is every bit a woman as any other woman, but the truth is that she has elevated testosterone levels which almost certainly give her an advantage. Whereas taking medication to lower those levels — to lower them only below that of men, mind you, as they can still be two or three times as high as average female levels — constitutes a temporary treatment whose effect will wear off once a patient stops taking the medication, erasing all quantifications for defining gender in sports is tantamount to discriminating against the vast majority of people who fit within those boundaries.

While the 2010s have been full of successes for the LGBTQIA community and for those who argue that gender identity is something determined by a person and not by birth, elite sporting competitions must have a way to differentiate competitors based on biological advantage. The alternative is that everyone runs in one big race. While that may fit some people’s vision of total inclusivity, in this case, that inclusivity would exclude women who wish for the right to compete on an equal playing field.