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The Caster Semenya debacle or the controversy to do with women who produce very high levels of testosterone is the most complex issue for the sport to be confronted with all-time. It continues to rage on. For example, there is a group of former athletes who formed a campaign to lobby World Athletics (#LetHerRun) to change a recent ruling. The rule affects women who live with a condition called hyperandrogenism. Going forward, they must take testosterone-suppressing medication to compete in certain events.
For many, it is nearly impossible to take a side and not feel fully confident in that decision, it is that complex.
In order for women who naturally produce testosterone at typical amounts, they would have to take performance-enhancing drugs to compete at Semenya’s production level. They would therefore be contravening the World Anti-Doping Code. They could test positive and would be suspended; it is a ridiculous conundrum.
Jackie Silva fails to score
Former beach volleyball player, Jackie Silva, of Brazil, raised her voice in support of Semenya. Unfortunately for Silva, beach volleyball results do not rely on the exacting standards that rule over a track race. Athletes don’t just run against each other they also compete against the clock. The track length is a very specific distance at 400m or 200m for indoors. With the variable surface of the sand, the variability of the third element – the ball – and points that are adjudged by a referee, there is no comparison – in short, there is too much variability in the game. Beach volleyball requires a lot of skill, little of it relates to running a middle-distance event.
She added that authorities do not look at the upper limit of testosterone in the men’s category. This is somewhat incorrect. The result of taking performance-enhancing drugs can be abnormally high levels of testosterone. That is the manifestation. The drug is typically what testers are looking for. However, the Athlete Biological Passport or ABP keeps track of blood and urine profiles. An abnormally high spike in testosterone is all the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) or WADA needs to further investigate. However, there may be a specific number as a limit (I do not know this), because there is no next gender above men. The difference between men and women through all running events consistently has been 10 percent.
The first marker of doping that attempts to detect prohibited substances not based on its presence in urine or blood but instead, the deviations in biological parameters is the testosterone over epitestosterone ratio (T/E). The T/E ratio has been used for over 40 years. The purpose at first was to detect anabolic steroids in urine samples. Around the year 2000, markers for blood doping were introduced, such as the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) to attempt to prevent the abuse of EPO that was previously undetectable at that time.
World Athletics is trying to protect the women’s category – otherwise, it is meaningless to have a women’s category.
Silva goes on to ask why the difference in testosterone levels aren’t compared between Usain Bolt and Justin Gatlin. This is another misdirected question. To date, Bolt has not tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs that we know of. Gatlin has, at least twice. Bolt owns the 100m world record at 9.58. In theory Bolt’s testosterone levels could be higher. However, Gatlin’s may have been higher than Bolt’s when they were competing head-to-head because he tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs (some drugs raise T-levels). There are other variables that go into performance. Bolt, overall, may have simply been more talented. Most importantly, both Bolt and Gatlin are male athletes. Unfortunately, a woman who lives with hyperandrogenism is stuck somewhere between being a man or a woman (whether we like that terminology or not, it’s the case). Self-identifying as a woman alone does not actually make a person a woman, unless, perhaps a complex gender reassignment surgical process is undertaken.
Like it or not, the former International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) commissioned a test on Semenya. She was found to not have a womb, does have internal testes, and yes produces at least four times the volume of testosterone as the average woman 99/100. Testosterone is the primary difference between men and women and that 10 percent difference in performance.
It was a sad day for women who live with hyperandrogenism when the Court of Arbitration for Sport or CAS ruled that Semenya will need to take testosterone-suppressing medication to compete in certain events. The examination of her body was invasive and inhumane, the media scrutiny is harsh and some of her competitors have been cold. It is the most complex issue to be presented to World Athletics and there is no winning for anyone on either side of the decision.
However, the decision affects the vast majority of young women coming up through the sport. If they see that it will be impossible to compete because in the women’s category are people who live with hyperandrogenism, they will find another sport, effectively killing the women’s category.
It was also a tough day watching the 2016 Rio Olympic women’s 800m finals when we saw that the gold, silver, and bronze medal winners were women who are all believed to suffer from hyperandrogenism, the fourth-place finisher doesn’t. How could she compete?
For Silva, her category was safe, she won gold. The misinformed former athlete should let the athletics experts do the talking.