Caster Semenya’s future in athletics has once again been called into question after a recent study, jointly funded by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and the World Anti-Doping Agency, found that women athletes with high levels of testosterone have a “significant competitive advantage” in certain events.
One of the events is the 800m, where Semenya claimed gold in the 2016 Rio Olympics after running it in 1:55.28. Burundi’s Francine Niyonsaba took silver (1:56.49) and Kenya’s Margaret Nyairera Wambui bronze (1:56.89).
The findings of the study, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, could potentially lead to the reinstatement of a maximum limit of 10nmol/l on the level of testosterone allowed for women athletes.
Although Semenya’s specific value is unknown, if her testosterone level is deemed high enough, she, and others, could be banned from competition unless she undergoes hormone replacement therapy or surgery.
Since Semenya burst onto the scene by claiming the 800m title at the World Championships in Berlin in 2009 she has been dogged by speculation. Politicians, journalists and competitors have scrutinised every detail of her physique, often in the most crass manner.
For Professor Ross Tucker, a prominent sports scientist who has written extensively on Semenya and hyperandrogenism, the findings do little more than poke at dull embers.
“The study finds that the advantage of higher levels of testosterone is between 1.8% and 4.5%, and only in a few events,” Tucker explained. “Compared to what the IAAF already knew, that is neither a large enough benefit, nor a benefit that exists across enough events. I doubt Semenya will be required to go back on to testosterone suppressing medication.”
Apart from the 800m, the evidence also suggests a leg-up in the 400m, 400m hurdles, hammer throw and pole vault events.
Some might scoff at insignificant margins, but at the elite level, others argue that 1.8% could be the difference between winning a gold medal and missing out on the top three.
That is why advocates for a testosterone limit such as Joanna Harper, a self-described “scientist first, an athlete second and a transgender person third” believe the only way to ensure fair competition is to divide men and women athletes by testosterone count and not by a chromosome-based distinction.
Tucker is a fan of a testosterone limit. “The previous upper limit set was based on research that found that the 99th percentile for testosterone was 3.08nmol/l,” he says. “That means that 99% of women fall within that level.”
Writing for The Guardian, Harper — who was a witness for the IAAF during the
hearing of Dutee Chand, an Indian sprinter who was barred from competing in the 2014 Commonwealth Games as a result of high levels of testosterone — hopes the new
findings will be “effective in persuading the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) to reinstate the hyperandrogenism rules in short order”.
The IAAF has until the end of this month to make its case before a CAS panel, which will decide the future of women’s sport. As it stands, Semenya and those who believe testosterone is a natural genetic advantage in sport — in the same way that height or lung capacity may be — hold the advantage.