The Testosterone Rule

Dutee Chand is an Indian athlete that has been in the focus of a recent drama in elite sport. Chand, a gifted athlete and champion, was suspended from participating in competitions by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), after she was found to have high levels of testosterone. A biological condition called “hyperandrogenism” caused Chand to have three times more testosterone than an average woman athlete, similar to that of men. Chand was given the unappealing alternative of undergoing surgery and hormonal treatments meant to “normalize” her so she could race again, or turning to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), she chose the latter.

One would think that in a world in which men and women’s sports are so profoundly separated, distinguishing between male and female athletes would be a no-brainer.  Well, it’s not like that at all. Chand’s case can be traced along a history of similar episodes in which female athletes (like South African runner Caster Semanya and others) were suspected for not being “true females,” having to undergo medical scrutiny in order to conclude on the matter. This ambiguity is not special to athletes. It even has a name – “intersex,” an umbrella term describing a range of conditions in which the person’s sex cannot be conclusively determined. To read more on intersex variations click here.

Chand’s determination to compete may have led to a big breakthrough, as the CAS allowed her to race without demanding any physical altering, while suspending the IAAF regulations regarding testosterone levels, also called “The Testosterone Rule”. The IAAF would now have to demonstrate exactly how high testosterone levels give an advantage that warrants suspension from competing against other women.

Despite my support for the court’s ruling allowing Chand to participate without forcing her to undergo any medical alterations, I’m not sure that eliminating the testosterone rule is the right path to do so. The fact that testosterone is not a good indicator to distinguish between males and females does not mean it has no influence on athletic capability. In fact, testosterone influences weight, height, fat, red-blood cells and other features that can create an advantage in sports competition.  Although there’s some overlap between men’s and women’s testosterone levels, it is generally agreed that the best female athlete could not successfully compete with the best male athlete. So what should we throw out the window, the unstable M/F categories, or the illusive testosterone criterion?

Some suggest we should move from sex categories to gender identification in sport, which means each person (trans/Intersex/queer) would be able to participate in whichever section they best identify with. If testosterone actually has no special influence on performance, we should have no problem with this rule. But if testosterone does provide a special influence, there is the potential to harm or disadvantage some stakeholders. The beneficiaries of this policy would be groups with natural higher testosterone levels, e.g. Intersex athletes competing in women’s sports or M to F Trans athletes, whereas those with lower levels would probably be disadvantaged by this solution, as they will have to compete against individuals with higher testosterone levels. Some will probably be omitted from participating altogether.

Another suggestion I’m grappling with, given the possible influence of testosterone levels, is to eliminate sex categories all together and divide participants according to their testosterone levels so that each athlete will be placed within a group of individuals with a similar range of testosterone regardless of their sex/gender identification. The biggest disadvantage I predict here is that it could harm women who used to be at the top of the charts, but who would now be ranked lower due to the inevitable obstacle of the ‘strongest woman athlete’ vs. ‘strongest man athlete’ mentioned earlier. I was afraid this solution might also lead to a general decline in women’s participation in sports because they will now have to fight for a spot in the race against men, but that can be solved if we don’t cut off the aggregated number of athletes eligible to participate. This new division does not necessarily mean a smaller cake, but rather that it’s sliced differently. It may actually be that such a solution could even benefit the entire group of female competitors that will (perhaps) now enjoy greater prestige usually associated with male sports.

Much more to be said here, but space doesn’t allow it, so let’s continue in the comments, I’d be happy to hear your thoughts.

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