A fantastic website, Io9, has an article out called “Testing Female Athletes to Make sure they are Feminine enough isn’t cool, says Scientists.” The article is about South African sprinter Caster Semenya, who got people pissed off a few years ago when she won mad medal in Woman’s running competitions. It turns out that she produced more testosterone because she didn’t have ovaries. She had testes. Naturally. She was born this way. She didn’t go to a clinic or anything. She was born like that. The extra testosterone she produced allowed her more muscle mass, thus having an advantage over the other women runners.
As a result of the incident, the IAAF created a new policy which states that female athletes with unusually high testosterone levels, a condition known as hyperandrogenism, will be banned from competition unless they undergo surgery or take drugs to lower their levels. The IAAF justified their policy by claiming, “The new regulations rest on the assumption that androgenic hormones (such as testosterone and dihydrotestosterone) are the primary components of biologic athletic advantage.” The IAAF plans on implementing this policy as early as the upcoming London Olympics.
But now, a panel from the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics, a group that consists of bioethicists, scientists, and sports experts, has stepped up to say that the policy is flawed on many levels and should be abandoned immediately. The critique was published today in The American Journal of Bioethics.
The Stanford panel also argues that athletic performance cannot be simply boiled down to testosterone levels, citing that performance is much more complicated than that. Moreover, they argue that other athletes have different genetic endowments, including several runners and cyclists who have rare mitochondrial variations that give them extraordinary aerobic capacity, or basketball players who have acromegaly, a hormonal condition that results in exceptionally large hands and feet. These athletes aren’t banned from competition, they argue, and neither should women with elevated levels of testosterone.
Lastly, aside from the prejudicial and potentially sexist nature of the IAAF’s policy, the Stanford panel warns that the coerced surgery for these athletes is both extreme and potentially dangerous. “If the athlete does not pass, she is banned from competition until she lowers her testosterone levels,” they write, noting that the treatment options would include pharmaceutical intervention or a gonadectomy – both of which carry serious potential side effects.