28 July, 2015

Gender issues and the IAAF rules (I disagree with)

Once I had finished the article on Semenya I was convinced (just as in the case of doping) that I was not going to come back to a gender-determination discussion in any foreseeable future. It turned out I was wrong.

In a recent post at the IAAF official site the Federation commented on the recent decision of the Court of Arbitration of Sport concerning the appeal of Ms. Dutee Chand against the decision of the Athletics Federation of India (sustained by the IAAF) to ban her from participation at women’s events.

D. Chand is a young Indian sprinter who has had some success in national, mainly junior, events. Her best performances are 11.62, 23.57 and 54.09 over 100, 200 and 400 m respectively. Her best international result is a 6th place at the 2013 World Youth Championships over 100 m. Following a protracted battle with her national federation, she managed to reverse an initial decision which made her non-eligible for women’s events.

I will not delve longer into the case of Dutee Chand. I will only remark that, to my eyes, she looks more feminine than Caster Semenya. But the whole discussion made me have a closer look at the question of hyperandrogenism and the related regulations. 

So, what is hyperandrogenism? According to IAAF’s own regulations hyperandrogenism is a term used to describe the excessive production of androgenic hormones, and in particular the performance enhancing hormone, testosterone, in females. Men typically achieve better performances in sport because they benefit from higher levels of androgens. Since it is known today that cases of female hyperandrogenism do exist, in order to guarantee the fairness of women’s competitions for all female competitors, the IAAF regulations stipulate that no female with hyperandrogenism shall be eligible to compete in a women’s competition if she has functional androgen levels (testosterone) that are in the male range. The operative term here is “functional”. In fact it may turn out that a female athlete with hyperandrogenism is androgen-resistant in which case she derives no advantage from her elevated levels of testosterone.

But let us be a little bit more specific. The IAAF rules are based on an existing scientific consensus that the sex difference in sports performance is mainly due to the marked difference in male and female testosterone levels. The normal concentration of testosterone in serum for females is in the range of 0.1-2.8 nmol/L while for males the concentration exceeds 10 nmol/L. Starting from these data the IAAF regulations stipulate that a female athlete with testosterone concentration in excess of 10 nmol/L should either prove that she is androgen-resistant or undergo a hormonal treatment so as to bring the testosterone levels below 10 nmol/L. At this point I beg to differ. If the normal testosterone concentration for women is below 3 nmol/L how come the IAAF accepts cases with concentrations, say, three times higher? And what about the remanence effect of androgens already brought up in the case of doping? If a woman with hyperandrogenism has just to bring the level of her testosterone concentration to a almost-male level of 9 nmol/L does this guarantee the fairness and integrity of the competitions that are organised under IAAF rules? And one could easily imagine a totalitarian-state situation where female athletes could be selected (provided a large population basis exists) on the basis of the enhanced presence of androgen hormones. (But, of course, my argument is purely theoretical: it is so much easier to provide male hormones externally, a classic doping scenario).

Be that as it may, the regulations of the IAAF concerning hyperandrogenism have been suspended by the Court of Arbitration for Sport for a period of two years. During this period the Federation will have the opportunity to provide the court with scientific evidence about the quantitative relationship between enhanced testosterone levels and improved athletic performance in hyperandrogenic athletes. Past this period the hyperandrogenic regulations will be declared void. (Does this mean that Semenya does not have to pursue her alleged hormonal treatment? We will probably have a better idea next month).

Note added on 08/08/15.

J.-P. Vazel in his blog "Plus vite, plus haut, plus fort" (hélas, in french) has published an article on the same subject on 29/07/15. You can find it at this URL. If you understand french I strongly recommend that you read his article. He does a better job than myself at explaining things.

03 July, 2015

The Semenya puzzle

Caster Semenya burst upon the athletics world in 2009 when she won the World championships over 800 m with a blazing 1:55.45. Previously unknown, her only participation at a major international event was that of the 2008 World junior championships where she did not progress beyond the heats. Her best 2008 performance was a respectable 2:04.23, registered in October.

I will not discuss the almost 10 seconds’ leap from 2:04 to 1:55 in just a few months. Things like that may happen (although they are extremely unlikely) in particular with young athletes. What has always been bothering me was the fact that not only Semenya was looking like a man

but most probably feeling like a man, if one judges by the choice of her attire. 

The story is known. After her victory at the 2009, Berlin, World championships, there has been an outcry of the other competitors claiming that Semenya was a man. Given the importance of the matter the IAAF decided to investigate but this resulted to Semenya being allowed to participate in women’s races. However the medical details of the case remain confidential. Other sources did not hesitate to piece together what is known in the Semenya gender case, based on sources closely related to the official test. Semenya has both male and female sexual characteristics. She has no womb or ovaries and has (undescended) testes, causing her to have triple the levels of testosterone of other female athletes.

Does this mean that Semenya is a man?

Gender testing is really complicated. At the beginning, let’s say the 60s when serious gender testing was established, gender testing was essentially based on anatomy. Of course this is a first but clearly insufficient step. So, chromosomal testing was introduced and it was accurate in most cases. Most but not all, unfortunately. While in most cases having an XX profile means that you were a woman there were cases where somebody with an XY profile could have female genitalia. The condition is known as the Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome. It is due to the fact that the gene for male foetal development did not work properly and thus both male and female genitalia did develop. While in this case male hormones are not produced at quantities which would have been normal for men they may be present in excess to what is normal for women. Still, the IOC has decided that athletes who have the CAIS syndrome should be considered as female. So, although we do not know for sure whether her case is the one just described, Semenya is allowed to participate to competitions as a woman.

Why does this business bother me?

Since that 2009 victory, Semenya has participated at two other major competitions, the 2011 World’s and the 2012 Olympics finishing second each time. I remember the commentary of Colin Jackson on the 2012 olympic race. He was convinced that Semenya threw the race. Having watched a number of times the video of the race I am convinced of the same. Perhaps after the 2009 outcry Semenya has settled for places of honour in order to provoke fewer reactions. If this were the case, and the probability is not zero, I, for one, would be deeply disappointed by the current state of athletics and the laxity of the governing bodies. 

I am afraid that there is no solution to the Semenya mystery. The most recent piece of the puzzle is the announcement (later refuted) that Semenya got officially engaged to her girlfriend, fellow runner, Violet Raseboya.

There is also a rumour that Semenya has been compelled to take hormones in order to keep her testosterone levels within an acceptable range but has never been confirmed. On the other hand the most recent photos of Semenya present a slightly more feminine figure. However this can be easily arranged by other means. 

So, is Caster Semenya a man or a woman? I do not know. Should she be allowed to run as a woman? I would be tempted to say no, but I will reserve my verdict for after the 2015, Beijing, World championships. If Semenya, after a series of lacklustre performances over the past two years, manages to win another medal, that would definitely mean that there is something very fishy going on.