The IAAF has a long and checkered history when it comes to verifying the sex of female athletes. Following on from the crude debasement of naked parades and the obvious flaws of chromosomal testing, the latest frontier in evaluating womanhood comes in the form of hormone testing and the measurement of testosterone levels.
In 2011 the IAAF introduced a regulation that banned female athletes with testosterone levels of higher than 10 namomoles per litre. (By comparison the normal range for women is 0.12 - 1.79 nmol/L, while for men it's 7.7 - 29.5 nmol/L.) The regulation stood until 2015, when it was suspended, following an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) by Dutee Chand, an Indian sprinter. Her legal team successfully highlighted the glaring inconsistencies at the heart of an IAAF sanctioned scientific report which underpinned the threshold's level. To reinstate the regulation the IAAF were ordered to present clear evidence, within a two year time frame, of the relationship between enhanced testosterone levels and increased athletic performance in female athletes with hyperandrogenism.
In 2017 the IAAF did so and what is more used the accumulated data to argue that the upper testosterone threshold should be reduced to 5 nmol/L from 10 mnol/L. To substantiate their case researchers appointed by the IAAF pointed to advantages conferred by hyperandrogenism across 5 separate sports; 400m, 400m hurdles, 800m, hammer, and pole vault. Once again however, the IAAF's report simply doesn't stand up to scientific scrutiny. Errors account for 17-33% of the data used to justify the report's recommendations; while some athletes and times were duplicated, other times were excluded completely. These inconsistencies were compounded by the fact that the effect of elevated testosterone was not analysed independently from the source of the increase. So athletes who boosted their testosterone levels by doping or through the use of Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUEs) were not differentiated from hyperandrogenous women. Evidently, this second report is every bit as flawed as its predecessor, but despite this fact, the IAAF is standing over its findings, though implementing them in a peculiarly selective manner. Neither hammer throwers or pole vaulters will be subject to the proposed testosterone limit but milers, and 1,500m runners, will be, despite the fact that the report failed to find performance benefits in those events. Nothing in sports administration is ever arbitrary, this was politics infringing on science.
Regardless of the underlying motivation, as it stands, the ban is set to be introduced across the 400m, 400m hurdles, 800m, 1 mile and 1,500m. Consequently, hyperandrogenous female athletes in those disciplines face a stark choice; do they a) submit to testosterone suppression treatment, or b) find new jobs. Faced with no real choice at all, women are effectively being railroaded into medical treatment to fundamentally alter their hormonal makeup in order to conform with completely arbitrary testosterone levels designated by the IAAF. This scandal echoes some of the darkest chapters of human history and yet, somehow manages to slip unseen past even the permanently outraged. Why? Is it because hyperandrogenous women don't conform to heteronormative notions of femininity; that they look a little bit different? If so, what we are witnessing is xenophobia in action, its dark introspection spawning a sanctified in-group of femininity which must oppose at all costs the out-group; namely the hyperandrogenous.
The move isn't just the inevitable consequence of the IAAF's overweening patriarchy, it has several high profile cheerleaders drawn from among female athletes. Paula Radcliffe, the marathon world record holder, testified in support of the IAAF at the original Chand CAS hearing. Her unsympathetic testimony alleged that she and other athletes like her felt that hyperandrogenous athletes had an unfair advantage. With no sound scientific support, such statements are little more than the hogwash of callous individuals attempting to defend their own self-interests. Paula's crusade for fairness has since seen her drawn parallels between hyperandrogeny and doping, or to put it another way between a woman's natural hormonal makeup and the practice of deliberately cheating. In essence Radcliffe is implicitly proposing that hyperandrogeny constitutes what could be referred to as athletic original sin. In making the charge she rather conveniently overlooks the significant physiological advantages she enjoyed as an athlete. Contrast a 17 year old Radcliffe's VO2 max reading of 70ml/kg/min with the threshold for superior performance among females in that age range of 41.9ml/kg/min and the scale of her own natural advantage becomes clear. When Radcliffe's arguments are distilled down to the rancid whiskey of their hypocrisy it becomes evident that she is peddling unscientific mythologies with the alacrity of a seasoned fearmonger to selectively target a specific population of women. I'm afraid Paula that without any sound scientific backing your words are misinformed and worse still dangerous.
There are many however who do side with Radcliffe. Proponents of a testosterone limit contend that its introduction is necessary to protect the sanctity of the female category in sport. From this perspective, categorisation is key; other potentially advantageous biological factors such as height in basketball aren't categorised for, you can play irrespective of your height, but sex most definitely is, men don't play against women, and hence the "maleness" of testosterone becomes problematic. But this argument runs the risk of conflating testosterone for sex, and ignoring the multitude of other measures which differentiate women from men. Neither, consequently, can recourse to testosterone levels alone indicate a definitive dividing line between the sexes. Naturally, the question arises where do you draw the line? And moreover, who draws it? Regardless, at the end point somewhere is a hyperandrogenous woman coming to terms with the implication that she is not considered a woman.
More often than not the woman placed in that position is Caster Semenya, the double Olympic 800m gold medallist, and the highest profile hyperandrogenous women on the planet. Remember the seeming arbitrariness of the IAAF's decision to extend the testosterone regulation to cover the 1 mile and 1,500m, well she, and her dominance over middle distance events, is the reason why. She's also the reason why the regulation may never be enforced. Following in the footsteps of Chand, Semenya has also appealed to CAS over the legality of the proposed regulation. If, as seems likely, given the precedent established by the Chand case, her appeal is successful, the focus should immediately turn to the underhand machinations of Seb Coe and his cossetted mates at the IAAF. The vindictiveness of a campaign which eschews the principles of good science to target a group of people is bad enough, add in the institutional bullying of an individual, and it's unforgivable.
One of the golden strands of justice is the presumption of innocence, by effectively shoehorning bad science into the scheme of their preconceptions, the IAAF has denied Semenya and other hyperandrogenous athletes of this fundamental right. These athletes are condemned not just to run through their guilt but to chase their identity as women also. Doping allegations levelled against Paula Radcliffe were dismissed on the basis of unscientific procedures. How would she feel if the allegation alone was sufficient to substantiate her guilt?