It’s one of the most contentious conversations happening in sport in 2019. A conversation that goes well beyond the playing fields to spill out to a wider world that often does not know the difference between a shot put and a pole vault. To many the discussion is about what they see as basic human rights.
That conversation? The debate – such that it is a debate and not just two opposing sides screaming talking points at each other – is the role of hyperandrogenism in elite women’s sport.
Hyperandrogenism is a medical condition which causes a person to produce high levels of hormones. Although there are multiple types of the condition, how it relates to athletics steams from a ruling by the IAAF that suggested that hyperandrogenism in women created a testosterone levels in those women that that was much higher than the average level produced in females. Since men naturally produce more testosterone, it is thought by some that that hormone difference is what creates an athletic advantage for men over women and necessitates a separate, female classification.
This issue was largely brought to the forefront by two women – South African middle distance runner Caster Semenya and Indian sprinter Dutee Chand, who challenged a rule that called for testosterone levels in female Hyperandrogenism athletes to be artificially reduced.
Chand’s challenge to the rule was successful, with the CAS giving the IAAF two years to demonstrate the scientific validity of its case.
Whether they have done so in the time since that ruling rather depends on your personal perspective of the issue. There are studies that suggest that testosterone levels are the defining factor that gives athletic advantage. There are also legitimate criticisms of those studies, to say nothing of the broader, societal debate that is taking place over issues of gender identity.
Regardless, the IAAF has moved forward with even stricter regulations that Semeny – the two-time defending Olympic 800m champion – has already said that she will challenge.
This issue isn’t going away and, unfortunately, continues to be viewed in largely black and white terms by most. Two opposing camps separated between those that are claiming to only be interested in sporting fairness and those who claim to only be interested in human rights are essentially writing competing op-eds at each other.
What neither side appears willing to admit is that there isn’t a simple answer to this. Sporting fairness is important and it’s also important to treat these athletes with the dignity that anyone deserves. This isn’t an easy conversation and it may not be possible to come up with a solution that satisfies everyone.
Or, for that matter, is fair, however you interpret that concept.
In the meantime, it should be possible to look for ways that gender distinctions are less important in sport moving forward. Although you will likely never eliminate the differences between the sexes (we have 100 plus years of empirical evidence – World Records – to back up that those born with characteristically male are faster and stronger than those born characteristically female) it doesn’t mean we can’t demand more mixed events in the Olympics. We’re already seeing it with the mixed 4X400 and mixed 4X100m freestyle swimming relay events that will be debuted in Tokyo. That falls on the heels of the very popular mixed curling event that was in Pyeongchang.
Who is to say there aren’t more opportunities for even more of these events moving forward? Maybe even mixed team events could be included in the future – Wouldn’t a mixed gender football competition be fun (and distinguishable from a World Cup)?
These measures wouldn’t eliminate the controversy around Hyperandrogenism and Caster Semenya, but they would be a recognition that as the world evolves in its attitudes towards sport and gender so must the Olympic movement.