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.

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