The Poisoned Chalice – The Gender discussion
[PLEASE NOTE: There are few photos in this article as the author does not wish any reader to assume that a photo here implies gender or doping issues – no such implication is being made)
The following article was first published in @modern_athlete
One of the most contentious issues in athletics over the past decade has been the gender issue, and over the coming weeks it is going to hit the headlines again as the legal boffins battle their way around the IAAF’s proposed rules to define gender into clear-cut boxes. The Court for Arbitration in Sport (CAS) case is set to be resolved by end of March, and from the outset it’s important to unequivocally state that while this will affect Caster Semenya, it is not about Caster Semenya. The truth is that this affects each and every one of us, to some varying degree.
The spectrum of gender is about a natural scenario within the definition of gender that has existed since the evolution of humans, and one the human race has tried to ignore, even deny, in sport. There were many Greek and Roman statues of people shown to be between the two genders. In the past they were typically called hermaphrodites, and it is only since 1947 that the term ‘intersexed’ has been used. In many cultures, the subject of gender, sex, and the act of reproduction only started to emerge from a taboo status in the 1960’s. In other cultures, it remains a subject discussed only in private.
The sad, frustrating truth is that while a spectrum of physicality of gender has existed, it has taken 2000-plus years for it to be acknowledged. Worse still is that people appear to remain fixated on the need to be able to classify each person into two clearly defined genders, male or female, based solely on an outward appearance that only informs the viewer on a limited level of information.
As with many physical attributes, any population or community has considerable variations, such as foot size or height, or medical conditions such as asthma or inherited diabetes. The majority of people fall into the same ‘popular’ ranges, but there are around 5% to 10% at either end that are unusual, even extraordinary (outside what is defined by the community as ‘normal’). In scientific or mathematical terms, this is the inverted U distribution curve. Why would we expect gender to be any different?
The biological definition of gender is highly complex, and indeed the issue at stake in athletics has caused a much deeper investigation of variables in gender over the past decade. However, in the most recent proposed IAAF rules, this has now, in simplified terms, primarily been brought down to testosterone levels amongst those otherwise defined as female on a chromosome basis.
Caster at the forefront
The primary reason for any perception that these rules are targeting South African Caster Semenya is the fact that her 2009 case was the first one that was brought into the public domain. Her success at such a young age, and poor handling of the previously adopted (unethical) approaches to the subject, catapulted the subject onto the world stage.
In 2009 her 1:56.76 for 800m set the African Junior Championship record, and set the ball rolling on a gender-testing procedure that in all previous cases had been confidentially undertaken. However, in this case the decision to test was leaked to the media in the days before the 800m final at the Berlin 2009 World Championships. This saw the world’s athletic and news media all congregated in one venue, which ensured Semenya’s performances attracted global attention.
This also initiated complaints and objections from other athletes that they were not competing on an even playing field. This has split the athletics community, forcing the matter not only to seek resolution, but also keeping it in the public domain. In simple terms, this is why Caster has been perceived as a sole target for proposed rule changes, but the fact is that the ruling is expected to affect many others.
Caster’s case was not the first, but the previous cases are said to have been handled in considerably more private and coercive scenarios, where athletes had options that are claimed to include medical treatment or retirement from the sport. A similar, but more open approach, saw Indian sprinter Dutee Chand take the IAAF to the CAS. She was also a Junior when she made her breakthrough with attention-grabbing performances, and also has high testosterone levels. In 2014 Chand was dropped from the Indian Commonwealth Games team, and it was her case in 2015 that resulted in the suspending of the IAAF gender/natural testosterone level rules, as well as a requirement for the IAAF to provide scientific research that natural high testosterone automatically improved performance. Despite one paper being presented by the IAAF, the outcome of this research has not been tested at CAS, and it is this that is under the spotlight in a challenge brought by, and on behalf of, Caster.
In my opinion, athletics, world sport and even the global public should be applauding and thanking Caster for a decade of struggle. Her stand, along with Dutee Chand’s, at such a young age, and for so long, has been nothing short of amazing, when others may simply have buckled under the pressure and the abuse of her basic right to be respected. Without her ability to withstand this onslaught, the matter may well have been brushed under the carpet for another century or two. Of course, this challenge will again put Caster in the spotlight, but it is not about Caster, it’s about finding a solution to a ‘challenge’ that has existed since the beginning of gender-defined sport, one that has yet to be correctly and fairly addressed.
Is the Logic Flawed?
Amongst the contentions is the IAAF belief that high levels of testosterone in females provides an unfair advantage in performance. Strangely, this was said to only affect the 400m to 1600m distances, and this only went to serve a belief amongst some that the IAAF was specifically targeting Caster and other African middle distance athletes. (This will probably be a challenge in the court case, but is not being addressed here.)
The IAAF proposal requires the athlete to seek medical intervention to lower those levels to ‘normal,’ if the athlete wants to continue to compete as a woman. (Of course, this debate is related only to natural levels, and not to doping, which is universally accepted as cheating, and results in being banned.) The proposed ruling requires consideration of many facets:
- Has it been proven that testosterone is indeed an automatic unfair advantage?
Ironically, both Caster and Dutee Chand may well present input on this. It took both time to build back to their previous performance levels after they were able to return to normal competition after suspension. It is not the pure presence of testosterone that gives the performance, but rather the improved (reduced) recovery time of having higher testosterone, that allows the athlete to train either with greater load per session, or sooner between sessions. The key here is that the end performance is still based on the athlete’s dedication, diligence, determination, consistency and overall preparation.
- What is a normal level and how is it defined?
Who defines ‘normal,’ the IAAF? Or the mathematical ‘norm’ based on the inverted U curve? Is there an athletic norm? Is there an ‘event norm’? There are clearly defined upper testosterone levels for both male and female athletes in athletic and doping terminology, but how these were determined, and on what basis, will surely be questioned in the hearing.
Just as there are females with high testosterone, so there will be others with low testosterone. Similarly, there are males with high and low testosterone levels. Are these acceptable limits determined on levels of the ranges found in the general public? Is that a global level, or based on selective countries? Does this vary in elite sporting levels? It becomes a greater point of interest because there is no declared lower end to these ranges.
If, as the IAAF contend, the female athletes with high testosterone levels, have an unfair advantage, then logically it must follow that athletes with naturally low testosterone levels must have an unfair ‘disadvantage’ and should be allowed to medically supplement until their levels are at the upper end of the ‘acceptable’ range. This is incredibly dangerous route to go…. “doping’, (as in medical manipulation) to either increase or decrease in order to change naturally occurring hormone levels. If accepted then this principle of course could be extended to many other scenarios
- Why is it restricted to the 400m to 1600m distances, when events which relate to greater strength input, such as horizontal jumps, sprints, and throws, are being left out?
The research presented by IAAF has yet to be challenged in court, but there have been social media questions over some of the stats and methodology. The conclusion that sprints, horizontal jumps and throws should be left out have raised eyebrows, and could be one of the most controversial and extended debates of the case. This choice of events is going to require explanation and substantiation before the case is resolved.
Apart from the potential allegations of victimisation, it seems illogical that athletes in these other (power) events were found to have lower testosterone levels. It begs the question whether the data is fair and correct, or whether such athletes have found ways to manipulate levels through training, because from the early years of testing, doping to achieve high testosterone levels amongst sprint athletes and weight-lifters, etc, has been rife, perhaps not so much for the competition period, but for the heavy loading peaks of the training cycle.
- Is it ethical to force a person to undergo medical treatment for a totally naturally occurring level of hormones (or any other biological condition)?
This has been partly addressed above when discussing what are normal levels, but the issue around morality and civil rights, perhaps religious and cultural beliefs as well, could trump all other debates in this matter, but it’s not one for discussion here.
Is There a Way Forward?
There seems a logical solution, but not one that appears to be easily adopted: If, as the IAAF contends, the primary issue of potential elite performance is the level of testosterone, then this should surely be the classification used for athletic performance. Boxing and weight lifting currently use weight as a means of classifying competition, because the athlete’s weight is seen to influence their ability to perform, but if testosterone is the key, then that logically is the way to classify.
In other words, there would be no such thing as gender classification, but rather three, or better five, classifications of testosterone level, say T1 to T5. This would then, if the IAAF position is correct, ‘level the playing fields’ and open the opportunity for medium and low testosterone athletes to excel within their specific testosterone levels. It could even reduce the need for doping, as each athlete could compete with his or her own natural condition.
Of course, competition would then be gender-neutral, as the highest level athletes are likely to be around the 10-15% of males, the next classification predominately male, then a mixed category with high-end females, then predominately females with minimal males, and then finally an all-female low testosterone level. The system would be like the classification of blind or amputee athletes in Paralympics, in as much as it allows the athlete to work hard and compete to excel within their own circumstances and against athletes with similar situations. This would neutralise the current detractors who protest about unfair advantage.
The real challenge would not be in the practical implementation of such a system, but in the sea-change of mindset required to take this step. Besides each athlete’s medical condition needing, to some degree, to be made public, thus creating a privacy debate hurdle, the strategy is also one that the public at large could battle to get to grips with, and hence the sport could struggle to get the required media, and commercial support, to make it happen. It would be a complete change in thinking, but for the first time in over 2000 years athletics would give open recognition to the complex issues of the gender spectrum.
The Poisoned Chalice
In all of this, thought and empathy should be given to all involved in the case, including the President of the IAAF, former world class athlete, Lord Sebastian Coe. The gender issue exploded in August 2009, under a different presidency and debatably different regime-style, but since Seb (as he is known to most athletics fans) took office in Beijing in 2015, things have changed markedly.
In July 2015 he was handed the CAS ruling that called for research to prove the argument on testosterone versus performance, and he has been left to lead the search for the ‘Holy Grail’ of solutions… ‘Mission Impossible’ in many eyes. He faces the complaints of would-be contenders and supporters of various women’s events, claiming that some athletes have an unfair advantage and often speaking as if there are two different races taking place within the same event. He also has to struggle with the whole gender issue, not simply on a biological level, but also moral and ethical, and how this could be received by vastly different cultures. And this while trying to find a solution that creates inclusivity in the sport, and also maintains or grows the interest in what is now the business of athletics.
But there is more! If we think this is just about athletics, we are sorely mistaken. The outcome of the CAS challenge in March 2019 will affect all gender-defined sports on a global level. What the IAAF accepts, demands or is forced to concede to will have a domino effect on sport as we know it. How long will it be before a team or individual failing to win the World Cup in women’s soccer or rugby, or a tennis major, protests that the winning team or player is ‘intersexed,’ or has exceptional testosterone levels and hence an unfair advantage?
There are no guilty parties in this debate. Everyone is in search of a solution, and all circumstances are natural, but it may be the largest decision ever to impact on global sport, and the ball is currently sitting in Seb’s court. With careers, earning potential, sponsorships, recognition and lifestyles at stake, just how long will it take for the outcome of the CAS challenge on the proposed IAAF gender rules to be extrapolated to all other sports? My advice… Don’t blink.
About the Author
Norrie has represented Scotland, Great Britain and South Africa in ultra-distance running and triathlon, and he is an IAAF-accredited coach and course measurer. You can read more from him at www.coachnorrie.co.za.