© Copyright – 2017 – Athletics Illustrated
It’s the difference between barely making the qualification to get there and being a runaway gold medal winner.
A major controversy in track and field during 2016 was to do with women who naturally produce high levels of testosterone. A debate continues to rage around the subject of South African 800-metre specialist, Caster Semenya, who is *intersex and apparently produces three times the volumes of testosterone as do women who are not intersex or are not living with the condition called hyperandrogenism.
The subject has reared its ugly head again via Drs. Stéphane Bermon and Pierre-Yves Garnier.
Bermon has been a member of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) as well as the International Olympic Committee (IOC). He jointly headed a study with Garnier, Director of the IAAF Health and Science department for the purpose of discovering whether naturally produced elevated testosterone in women is a performance enhancer.
The study is titled: Serum androgen levels and their relation to performance in track and field: mass spectrometry results from 2127 observations in male and female elite athletes.
What the study apparently finds is that women producing higher testosterone levels may gain a 1.8% to 4.5% competitive advantage over women in the normal range. The study scientifically proves what has been observed anecdotally for some time.
When asked what the findings mean performance-wise, Coach, Author, and Sports Scientist Steve Magness told Athletics Illustrated, “We have to remember that this (study) was with athletes who competed at the 2011 and 2013 World Championships, so that amount of competitive advantage is huge. It’s the difference between barely making the qualification to get there and being a runaway gold medal winner. But, in many ways, the study confirmed what we already know, testosterone matters, even if it’s naturally produced testosterone in females.”
Magness described exactly the difference that exists between Semenya’s ability, while producing high levels of testosterone is and her lack of ability when the production is limited while on medication.
Semenya won silver during the 2012 London Olympics and gold in Rio at the 2016 games. It is speculated and not proven that in London she eased up and avoided winning to not draw too much attention towards herself. During the Rio Olympic Games, she appeared to easily float through the final for the win. She finished in 1:55.28.
There are athletes who say they would like to see her race all-out, just once.
In 2009, Semenya stormed onto the track scene. One year later, the South African dropped her personal bests from 2:04.23 to 1:55.45, while still a teenager. This is an unheard of improvement, which subsequently prompted the IAAF to put her through a sex verification test. After the tests, she was ordered to take testosterone-limiting medication.
During the time that she was receiving the testosterone-controlling protocol, her performances weakened considerably. For example, from 2009 to 2016 she ran annual seasonal bests at well under 2:00.00. Except during 2014, where she could manage a best of only 2:02.66, a performance that, just as Magness points out, would not have qualified her for the Olympics or World Championships.
In 2016, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) ruled that the IAAF did not adequately prove that elevated testosterone in hyperandrogenic women is a performance enhancer. So they subsequently overturned the IAAF’s requirement to have her T-levels governed through medication. They also called it a human rights violation.
When the CAS overturned the IAAF’s policy, the governor was lifted and Semenya was back to near world-record form. The world record of 1:53.28 by Czech Jarmila Kratochvílová from 1983 has always been viewed as suspicious – as have most of the next fastest performances between Kratochvilova’s and Semenya’s, which currently ranks at 20th all-time.
Not surprisingly, Semenya was once again dominant in 2016. She easily ran her personal best (and again the fastest time of the year in the world) of 1:55.28.
“The other interesting part of the study is that because it was on the world’s best athletes, doping plays a role in testosterone levels,” Added Magness. “So a few in the media have pointed out that they didn’t see a difference between low testosterone and high testosterone performers in the 100m for instance, so you might then claim, “Testosterone doesn’t matter for the 100m!” But if we dig deeper, the study shows us that in men, throwers have lower testosterone levels than marathoners and race walkers. Now, all jokes aside, that makes no sense. But if we realize that those numbers are skewed because when people are doping and taking synthetic testosterone and then get off of it just before a competition (so as not to test positive) you often see a big dip in testosterone levels in their body. So, the same thing could explain why the better 100m performers had lower testosterone levels than the slower ones. It’s speculation of course, but that’s the problem. Doping bias studies at the elite level.”
At the end of the day, it appears that Bermon and Garnier set about and successfully proved on behalf of the IAAF what they should have been armed with back in 2015, that testosterone matters and high levels of it appears to be a performance enhancer.
Bermon commented to the IAAF, “Our starting position is to defend, protect and promote fair female competition. If, as the study shows, in certain events female athletes with higher testosterone levels can have a competitive advantage of between 1.8-4.5% over female athletes with lower testosterone levels, imagine the magnitude of the advantage for female athletes with testosterone levels in the normal male range. This study is one part of the evidence the IAAF will be submitting to CAS regarding the degree of performance advantage that hyperandrogenic female athletes enjoy over female athletes with normal testosterone levels. We continue to gather more data and research on our journey to providing a fair and level playing field for females in our sport.”
Asked if there is any potential prejudice from Bermon and Garnier having worked for the IAAF and IOC and their stated starting position, Magness said, “It was a pretty straightforward analysis. The blood data was already collected, thanks to blood testing. So all you had to do was separate it out by performance and compare. So, for me, it’s not a large concern.”
The study was published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. The IAAF will be submitting the findings to the CAS.
*While Semenya’s sex verification test results that the IAAF ordered up in 2009 were not officially released, some information was leaked.
Semenya has internal testes, no ovaries or womb and endogenously produces at least three times the testosterone in comparison to the average woman, 99 times out of 100.
During the 2016 Rio Olympic final, the three medallists appear – and it is not known for sure – to all be intersex or hyperandrogenic.