The Whole World Is Watching: Caster Semenya vs IAAF

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Who gets to participate in female sport? The Court of Arbitration for Sport may have to decide

By Amby Burfoot
April 22, 2019

In April 1984, I snuck into Iron-Curtain-shrouded Czechoslovakia to visit track sensation Jarmila Kratochvilova. Runner’s World wanted me to find out how the 32-year-old had set world records the previous summer in both the 400 and 800 meters. Her 800-meter record, 1:53.28, still stands.

Kratochvilova made it look simple, though not easy. One morning in a dim basement gym 50 miles southwest of Prague, she strapped herself into a thick lumbar belt and hefted heavy barbells for 90 minutes. Then she trudged out of the concrete-block structure into a 40-degree drizzle. Dressed in worn polyester sweats, she began running short and long hill repeats up a twisty, muddy path. This continued for about an hour.

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Back home, I wrote that simpler is often better. You don’t need gleaming equipment and an all-weather track. An unquenchable drive is more important. I quoted Kratochvilova’s coach of 17 years, the roly-poly Miroslav Kvac. “It is Jarmila’s attitude that sets her apart,” he explained. “No other woman trains with such a strong will.”

When I first saw Caster Semenya run in 2009, she reminded me of Kratochvilova. Semenya was powerful, she was fast. I read that she grew up in a remote corner of South Africa, far from the world’s distractions. Sure, she looked and sounded different than her fellow racers, but I was good with that. Champions aren’t like the rest of us, I wrote in late 2009. We should marvel at the world’s best runners, “in all their infinite variety.”

Okay, I’ve changed my mind. I’m looking at Kratochvilova and Semenya through a different lens now. Sorry about that. There’s something other than simple, dedicated training that produces untouchable performances. It’s called testosterone.

I can’t shake the view that Kratochvilova was doped with anabolic steroids (testosterone derivatives), perhaps without realizing it herself. The communist regimes didn’t encourage anyone to question authority, and she might have believed her trainers were doling out vitamins and B-12 injections. Regardless, no record lasts 35 years against a tidal rush of better equipment, faster tracks, more money, and a women’s running boom.

Semenya’s case is different. Yet similar. Semenya is a five-time World and Olympic champion, who currently stands in fourth place on the all-time women’s 800 list with a best of 1:54.25, set last June. I’m certain she has never doped. She hasn’t cheated in any way, has never done anything wrong. It just happens that she was born into a body that may produce substantially more testosterone than her rivals. That’s not Semenya’s fault. But neither does it mean, in my opinion, that she should be allowed to outdistance peers who strive as hard as she does but have no chance of winning.

Semenya at the 2017 World Championships

I don’t say this lightly. I believe it’s the most difficult issue that sports has ever faced. It’s the most complicated for sure, and the most emotional as well, dealing with the most private and verboten subject: sex. Everyone’s struggling for the best solution, but there’s no easy answer in sight.

I hope we get it right. Because the future of women’s sport is hanging in the balance.

The New Testosterone Case: Semenya-DSD, 2019

Before the end of this month, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) is due to issue a decision in the simmering case of Caster Semenya vs the IAAF (International Association of Athletic Federations). The decision was originally planned for March 26, but at the last minute CAS declared that it needed more time.

Last year, the IAAF issued a DSD (Differences of Sexual Development) rule that would require some athletes currently competing as women to lower their natural testosterone level if they wished to continue racing as women in a few “restricted events.” Semenya and her federation, Athletics South Africa, protested to CAS. This means that Semenya must fall into one of the DSD groups, or she’d have no reason to challenge the IAAF.

Of course, she has unfairly been the face of controversy for nearly a decade now, in part because she won so many big races, in part because some of her medical information was leaked to the media, and in part because there were no clear testosterone regulations in place until 2011. The IAAF wants Semenya and other women athletes with similar physiologies to reduce their testosterone below 5.0 nmol/L. I’ll tell you much more about this number in a few minutes. For now, you only need to know that there are no healthy women — born with XX chromosomes, ovaries, and producing estrogen at puberty — who have a testosterone level above 5.0 nmol/L. None.

On the other hand, many gender activists believe no one should meddle with the person Semenya has been since birth. She herself has made a strong statement: “I just want to run naturally the way I was born. It is not fair that I am told I must change. I am Mokgadi Caster Semenya. I am a woman, and I am fast.”

CAS’s decision will be closely watched by every other sports group in the world, ranging from the Olympics to international cycling, swimming, and skiing federations to the NCAA, high school sports, and dozens more. It could influence their approach not just to athletes with DSDs but also to transgender women. Since CAS is, roughly speaking, the Supreme Court for many worldwide sports, whatever CAS decides will have global significance.

Our Changing Views of Sex and Gender

I don’t know where or when you grew up, but in my little town, we knew about sex. There were boys, there were girls, and we all recognized the clear difference between them. Not only that, but everyone was satisfied with the sex card they drew at birth. At least, that’s what I thought then.

Life is a great teacher, wouldn’t you agree? In 50 years, I’ve learned a few things about sex and gender, and I’m sure you have, too. We’ve come to understand that there’s no dividing line in the sand. Biology can be “messy,” as people like to say, and I now recognize wide swaths of grayness where once I saw stark edges. More importantly, we understand that civil rights and equal opportunity are what matter most.

We’ve had amazing leaders and visionaries, starting long ago. So thank you Lucy Stone, Susan B. Anthony, Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Rosa Parks, and so many more. Thank you “Elizabeth Burfoot” and “Mrs. Burfoot,” whose signatures I first saw a month ago on New Zealand’s historic right-to-vote petition from 1893. Thank you Title IX, thank you Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Thank you professional road racing for establishing equal male/female prize-money purses in the mid-1980s when women’s participation and competition levels lagged far behind where they are now.

I’ve never met an LGBTQIA issue I haven’t supported, and yet that’s not where I stand on gender identification in sports. Like I said, it’s complicated. I see things as Malcolm Gladwell expressed them several years ago in a New Yorker article: “I’ve been astonished at how many people fail to appreciate the athletic significance of this. Remember, this is a competitive issue, not a human-rights issue.”

The Previous Testosterone Case: Chand-HA, 2015

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Four years ago, CAS issued an “Interim Award” in a similar-seeming testosterone case, most easily labeled the Dutee Chand-HA (hyperandrogenism) case. There are a lot of misunderstandings about what CAS determined at that point, so I’ll try to summarize them here.

It’s important to understand that Chand didn’t “win,” and that the IAAF and testosterone didn’t “lose.” (Chand is a non-world-class woman sprinter from India whose high T score had been flagged by her track federation. This made her ineligible for World Championships and the Olympics, so she decided to contest the IAAF’s then-in-force hyperandrogenism rule, which no longer exists.) The summary:

1–CAS didn’t reach a decision one way or the other. It merely suspended the IAAF’s HA regulation until more evidence could be presented.

2–CAS agreed nonetheless that testosterone measurements might be a reasonable way to distinguish between eligible and non-eligible women athletes. It told the IAAF: Do more research; come back in two years. (Which stretched to three for unimportant reasons.)

3–CAS also had concerns in the Chand case about sex discrimination and various “rights” to participate in sports.

In response to CAS, the IAAF issued its new DSD regulations last April, carefully noting that no one was being accused of doping or cheating in any way, and that no one’s sex or gender was being investigated: “The regulations exist solely to ensure fair and meaningful competition within the female category.”

The IAAF isn’t deaf or blind. It realized that Semenya would likely protest the DSD rule. So the opposing teams huddled last year and agreed to a CAS hearing that would take place in February 2019, with a decision by March 26. That date was important, because it fell six months and one day before the 2019 World Championships open in Doha, capital city of Qatar. If the IAAF had prevailed before CAS in March, certain athletes would have needed to follow a hormone-lowering regimen for six months to be eligible for Worlds.

When CAS announced that it was postponing its decision until the end of April, the IAAF amended the six-month rule. It announced that it would allow affected DSD athletes to compete in Doha this year as long as they began undergoing hormone treatments within one week of the CAS decision.

The DSD Details

Francine Niyonsaba, Caster Semenya and Margaret Wambui (l-r) on 2016 Rio Olympic podium

The new IAAF DSD regulations are highly limited and specific. They are separate from the IAAF’s transgender rules, in effect since 2011. Transgender athletes have a gender identity different from their birth assignment. Individuals with a DSD have some physical and/or chromosomal characteristics that blur the line between male and female. The IAAF’s new DSD regulations include the following details:

1–The IAAF will accept legal documentation, like a passport, as proof of sex. If your passport says female or intersex (or some other equivalent term, as these designations are changing in countries around the world), you’re good to go. Almost.

2–Now, some DSD athletes will also have to pass a testosterone test that sets an upper limit of 5.0 nmol/L for eligibility in female competition. Or they can show that they are androgen-insensitive — that is, that their body doesn’t process testosterone.

3–This rule applies only to a “restricted” set of events — the 400, 400 hurdles, 800, 1500, mile, and any other distances between 400 and the mile. The 400 is arguably the most important restriction as it now includes three races: the individual 400, the female 4 x 400, and the “mixed gender” 4 x 400 (two men, two women) that will debut in Doha and continue at the 2020 Olympics.

3–Individuals with high testosterone may still qualify for the restricted events by following a testosterone-lowering therapy regimen that reduces their T below 5.0 nmol/L for six continuous months prior to an international competition. Surgery is not required.

4–The DSD regulations only apply to international competitions. DSD athletes with high T can still enter women’s races in regional, national, and local competitions. They are not unilaterally barred or disqualified from track and field. However, they cannot set an IAAF world record in one of the restricted events.

5–DSD athletes with high T can compete internationally in men’s events or in any intersex competitions that may exist.

I actually dislike the short list of restricted events. If testosterone increases strength, speed, and hemoglobin, as I believe it does, then why can high-T women enter the 100 meters, discus, shot put, marathon, and so on? But the IAAF apparently felt constrained by the limited scientific studies it has conducted (more below). I’ve also talked with attorneys who think the “narrow tailoring” is smart.

The Amazing World of Biology

Here comes the inevitable biology lesson, in case you weren’t paying attention back in junior high. Sex refers to biological differences between individuals, including chromosomes (XX for women, XY for men), reproductive organs (ovaries, testes), and major hormones (estrogen, testosterone). Gender refers to one’s identity as man or woman.

In roughly 99 percent of human births, these things line up together, and neither the birthing doctor, the parents, nor the individual suffer any confusion about sex or gender. That leaves one percent where things do not line up, which can encompass a bewildering variety of situations.

Some of these situations are today termed Differences of Sexual Development by doctors, while many of the affected individuals prefer the term “intersex.” Here’s an example of what could happen in the case of just one DSD. (The IAAF lists six different DSDs in the new regulations, and then appends a blanket clause that reads “or any other genetic disorder involving disordered gonadal steroidogenesis.” Oh, yeah, there were plenty of lawyers involved.)

A baby is born. This baby has ambiguous external genitals, but the birthing physician has to make a determination. Historically, doctors have most often chosen, “It’s a girl!” The parents raise their newborn as a girl, the local community follows suit, and the girl grows up thinking she’s a girl. At puberty, however, this teenager begins to grow rapidly, gains far more muscle than her girlfriends, and finds her voice deepening.

If medical tests were conducted at this point, they might reveal that the girl has XY chromosomes, testes (probably “undescended,” that is, hidden away somewhere in the lower abdomen), and is producing 20 times more testosterone than her girlfriends. In other words, she seems to have a boy’s physiology. If she were to begin running the 400 meters, she might become an overnight sensation.

This sort of extreme biology is extraordinarily rare. In fact, no one knows the incidence of the case I just described, which is termed 46,XY 5-ARD (alpha reductase deficiency). The occurrence of all DSDs lumped together is between 1 in 15,000 (0.0067 percent) and 1 in 20,000 (0.005 percent). But they do happen.

Much Ado About Testosterone

As you’ve gathered, the Chand-HA case and the Semenya-DSD case both revolve around issues of testosterone. So here’s a primer on testosterone levels in women and men.

There’s a large, definitive medical literature on normal testosterone levels. Women with XX chromosomes generally live in a range from 0.00 to 1.7 nmol/L, while men with XY chromosomes typically fall between 7.7 to 29.4 nmol/L. Don’t worry what an nmol is; just note that there is no testosterone overlap between typical women and men. In fact, the high end of the female range (1.7) sits 75 percent lower than the low end (7.7) of the male range. That’s a big gap.

In addition, if you were to gather together all the world’s XX women, 99.9 percent of them would have a testosterone level under 3.08. There are one or two rare conditions that could push this level to 4.8. But there are no typical XX women with a testosterone level exceeding 5.0, where the IAAF has drawn its line.

From this perspective, the IAAF cutoff at 5.0 nmol/L looks generous. Indeed, some sports endocrinologists have argued for a cutoff at 3.0. Others note that the testosterone range between the top of the female level and the bottom of the male level is a particularly active one where small differences can produce large gains in muscle mass and performance. The dose-response curve for testosterone’s biological activity is sigmoidal, or S-shaped, with less change at the top and bottom and more in the middle.

At the 2011 and 2013 World Championships, the IAAF actually measured the testosterone levels of 1,332 women and 795 men. The women averaged 0.67 nmol/L and the men 15.6 nmol/L. Again, the proposed IAAF cutoff of 5.0 looks generous alongside 0.67.

Boys Will Not Be Girls

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After college, I spent five years teaching sixth graders. At recess, I enjoyed organizing various games. The boys were way better than the girls at softball, because they had been socialized to play ball and to hone their skills. Relay races were another matter. The girls held their own, even if I divided the class into boy vs girl teams.

This is news to no one. We all remember much the same from our pre-teen days. For the first 9 to 11 years, there are few physical differences between boys and girls — not height, not weight, not running speed. The 5K road race world records for nine-year-olds are the same for both boys and girls, 17:53.

Then comes the biologic eruption we call puberty. Fueled by a testosterone surge, boys grow dramatically, gaining muscle and hemoglobin. This makes them stronger, faster, more enduring. Girls also produce a little more testosterone at puberty, but make 95 percent less than boys, and they mix in estrogen. This gives them breasts and rounder hips; neither boosts athletic performance.

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By 14, the boys’ 5K record is 15:07 vs 16:28 for the fastest girl. The race is over. In subsequent years, the gap keeps widening until it reaches 10 to 12 percent.

This is basically the strongest evidence we have for testosterone’s role in performance. It’s universal. Everyone has seen it and lived it. No one doubts it. No one would propose a study to determine if 16-year-old boys are faster than 16-year-old girls. Better to spend the money on a new track that both can use.

Beyond Puberty

But puberty doesn’t provide the only evidence we have. We can also look at what happens when you subtract testosterone from the equation rather than adding it. Beginning around 2008, transgender runner Joanna Harper, a medical physicist, began contacting other runners who had gone through a male-to-female transition. She wanted to study how their race times changed after testosterone-reducing therapy and/or surgery.

It took a while, but she eventually recruited eight subjects, herself included. Harper’s results showed that, “Collectively, the eight runners had much slower race times in the female gender than as males,” In fact, they ran about 10 percent slower with low T. Meanwhile, their age/sex-graded scores remained about the same. This indicated, Harper felt, that testosterone therapy successfully leveled the playing field.

Caster Semenya’s own career followed a similar trajectory for five years following her breakthrough season of 2009. During this five-year period, she presumably lowered her testosterone per IAAF directive. After the Chand decision in 2015, she no longer had to continue this regimen, and she got superfast again.

The Drop, And Rise, And Drop of Caster Semenya’s 800m SB by Year

20082009201020112012201320142015201620172018
2:04.231:55.451:58.161:56.351:57.231:58.922:02.661:59.591:55:281:55.161:54.25

Finally, we should consider the depressing reality of East German and Eastern European doping programs, which may be ongoing in Russia. These government-assisted efforts robbed dozens of clean, honest women athletes. They lost the Olympic and other triumphs they deserved. Tellingly, a high percent of the Eastern success came on the women’s side of the ledger. Few Eastern men succeeded to the same degree. This seems to indicate that women are more responsive to testosterone than men.

The Dicey Science of Testosterone and Performance

Caster Semenya in Daegu at Worlds in 2011

In its arguments to CAS, the IAAF will no doubt have relied on much of the basic information about testosterone (it builds muscle and blood, and so on). These are dramatic physical developments, but not as compelling as actual track and field results in the stadium.

The IAAF will also have presented specific testosterone-and-performance results collected at the 2011 and 2013 World Track & Field Championships. This data comes from a hotly-debated IAAF study by Stéphane Bermon and Pierre-Yves Garnier. They looked at 1,332 elite women athletes, concluding that high-T women ran 2.1 percent to 2.9 percent faster than lower-T women in the 400, 400 hurdles, and 800. The IAAF used this data to create its five “restricted events.”

Independent researchers, including Roger Pielke and Ross Tucker, poked a lot of holes in the study and requested a retraction. The original authors and the publisher, the British Journal of Sports Medicine, refused. They acknowledged some errors, but said a re-analysis with the correct numbers produced even stronger results. Tucker, a South African exercise physiologist and influential blogger at SportsScientists.com, has covered the 10-year Semenya story more closely than anyone.

No runner or track expert would ever dismiss the impact of a two-percent difference. For example, Eliud Kipchoge is approximately two percent faster than his peers. Result: He hasn’t lost a marathon in five years. Same for Semenya. She’s about two percent faster than her competitors, and hasn’t lost an 800-meter race since September 2015 — the summer of the Chand decision.

In Lausanne, the IAAF team presumably submitted additional data linking testosterone and real track times. Medical confidentiality prevents wider release (to you and me). But, “the results are incredible, absolutely unbelievable,” IAAF lawyer Jonathan Taylor told the Sports Integrity Initiative.

Bermon and Garnier have also published “incidence” data showing there have been 140 times more DSD athletes in the World Champs than the population-wide occurrence of DSD.

Another group published a report on “Fluidity of Gender” with an estimate of DSD medals in the women’s “restricted events” at the World Championships and Olympics during the last 25 years. They arrived at the astonishing figure of 1700:1. In other words, athletes with DSDs won 1700 times more medals than you’d expect by chance.

A Level Playing Field

Critics of a testosterone rule point out that there’s little physical fairness in sports — we’re all born different — so testosterone shouldn’t be emphasized when other differences aren’t. What about height, weight, and just about everything, from hand-eye coordination to wealth, which provides access to the best facilities, coaches, and (apparently) colleges?

But we have also reached a consensus on certain related points. In basketball, height may be an advantage but we have decided to put no limits on height. In football and heavyweight boxing, weight may be an advantage but we have agreed to place no limits on weight. In baseball, lefty batters may gain an advantage, but we have chosen to put no restrictions on left-handed players. We long ago agreed to welcome physical and genetic outliers.

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However, these same sports and almost all sports have separate competitive divisions for men and women. Why? Because it would be unfair to force women to compete against men. They would have no chance against the huge testosterone advantage that men enjoy in elite sports. The best female runner in the New York City Marathon can beat 99 percent of all male runners in the race, sure. But she finishes two miles behind the fastest men.

As gender and sex issues grow ever more complicated, we still need a way to guarantee separate and fair competition for women. A testosterone measure is our best option.

In a recent Duke Law School publication titled “Law & Contemporary Problems,” Doriane Lambelet Coleman considered the sorting options, basically biological sex or gender identification. “Preserving the category for females [her term for biological women] is the highest value choice,” wrote the Duke law professor, who actually ran in Kratochvilova’s world-record race in 1983 and won an NCAA indoor 800 title before switching from track to law. “It ensure[s] females’ equal opportunity to compete and … promote[s] female empowerment.”

She also quotes RBG’s words from the famous Supreme Court case involving the Virginia Military Institute: “Sex classifications may be used to compensate women … [and] to advance full development of the talent and capacities of our Nation’s people.”

A Few Other Things

Racism: It has been widely argued that the IAAF testosterone proposal is racist. This claim fails the most basic analysis. If Semenya stops competing, she will be largely supplanted by other African-heritage athletes. Black runners dominate most IAAF track races, from the sprints to the long distances. Also, DSDs occur in many different populations around the world, not just in Africa.

Elites only: The IAAF DSD regulation affects only the most elite of the elite: Olympic contenders. Everyone else is still welcome to enter and enjoy recreational events like the tens of thousands of open road races held globally. Running is meant to be accessible and healthy for all, and that will continue.

Transgender women: Caster Semenya isn’t transgender, and the current CAS case isn’t about trans athletes. But that story has become a regular headline item, and you know it’s barreling down the tracks like a runaway freight train. A big reason why: There are an estimated 100 times more transgender women athletes than there are genetic XY athletes with DSDs. (Note: Major road races are beginning to write transgender rules into their competition policies. This could affect top finishers in both open and age-group racing.)

Francine Niyonsaba: Just last week, Niyonsaba acknowledged in a news story that she has high testosterone and would be affected by the IAAF regulation. This means she is a DSD athlete, as has been rumored (but not known) for some time. Niyonsaba, an 800-meter runner, attacked the IAAF rule as “discriminatory.” But her statement could also be seen as strengthening the IAAF position. It shows that the IAAF is not expressly targeting Semenya, and also indicates that the DSD problem may be more widespread than most realize. After all, Niyonsaba has won an Olympic silver medal, a World Champs silver medal, and two World Indoor Champs gold medals since 2016.

The philosophical view: There doesn’t appear to be a win-win outcome on the question of high-T DSD women in running. If the IAAF wins, some DSD athletes may have to decide if they are willing to take hormones. If the IAAF loses, athletes with DSDs and high T will continue to beat average-T women. Some have likened this situation to the book-movie “Sophie’s Choice,” some to the trolley problem, and some to John Stewart Mill’s harm principle. No one is dying here, and I believe the right choice tips to the 99.9 percent of women athletes without a DSD and high T rather than to the one-tenth of one percent.

What Other Women Runners Say

I contacted a handful of current middle-distance women, but none were willing to comment about the IAAF-Semenya case. I don’t blame them. It’s a no-win proposition to spout off about someone who always beats you; you risk sounding like a sad-sack whiner. Another largely unspoken issue: many top women are Nike-sponsored, as is Semenya.

Several years ago, Molly Huddle told me: “Gender may be fluid in many areas of life, but in sports, the more testosterone you have, the closer you can come to men’s performances.” Shannon Rowbury spoke to the Orange County Register, saying: “I think it challenges and threatens the integrity of women’s sports to have intersex athletes competing against genetic women.” Paula Radcliffe has noted: “When we talk about it in terms of fully expecting no other result than Caster Semenya to win that 800 meter race, then it’s no longer sport.” You might as well just go straight to the awards ceremony.

When she made similar comments last Thursday, Radcliffe was attacked by vicious, aggressive internet trolls. “It was hateful, some of the stuff,” Radcliffe said. “Things that I wouldn’t say to another human being.” This explains, at least in part, why so few have been willing to speak in support of the IAAF proposal.

Former U.S. 800-meter star Phoebe Wright offered me a telling description of what it’s like to race Semenya. In the last 150 meters, Wright said: “I felt I was a Toyota Camry mashing on the gas as a Ferrari zoomed past.” Wright retired from track three years ago with a best of 1:58:22 and is now completing a degree program in pharmacy. She added: “It’s weird. In regular life, I’d go to bat for Caster to have every single right. But on the track, we need to have a clear, objective definition of ‘woman.’”

Chand 2015 vs Semenya 2019: What’s the Difference?

On the surface, the two cases look similar. Both focus on a woman runner, and both involve high testosterone. But there are key differences.

In 2015 CAS found the IAAF’s hyperandrogenism regulation was discriminatory on face value, being a rule that applied to women only, but not to men. Chand’s defenders also claimed it violated the Olympic Charter by disqualifying her from all track meets everywhere.

In the Semenya case, there is no outright ban. A DSD athlete has many options. In mid-March  Semenya tested one, the 5000 meters, which is not a “restricted event.” She ran a 16:11.59. The 2020 Olympic qualifying time for women is 15:10.

More importantly, the IAAF likely tried a new tact in the DSD case in Lausanne. It may have argued that Semenya has physiological characteristics that are more male than female. This would remove the “women-only” discrimination that existed in Chand. Few object to separate races for men and women. There certainly hasn’t been a legal challenge to this historical approach. In fact, we mostly support a separation of the sexes, since it’s the only way women have a chance to excel. What if the IAAF argued that Semenya is not a woman racing other women, but a biological male beating women?

This new possibility first edged into the news headlines on February 14 when the Times of London reported that IAAF attorneys were preparing to label Semenya a “biological male.”

The IAAF responded instantly: Nope, not true. We accept Semenya’s legal ID (female), so we’re not saying she has to compete in the men’s division. However, the IAAF continued: “If a DSD athlete has testes and male levels of testosterone, it is necessary to require DSD athletes to reduce their testosterone down to female levels before they compete at an international level.”

On March 30, Athletics South Africa (representing Semenya) issued a press release protesting the IAAF’s approach in Lausanne. It said the IAAF had contended that Semenya is “biologically male.” There’s that term again. What’s going on?

What we have here is a splitting of linguistic hairs over sex-gender language. We live in a world where this happens every day, from bathrooms to locker rooms to the sports fields, and it’s not going to change soon. In fact, it’s likely to intensify as more individuals feel free, as they should, to express their true selves.

Nonetheless, a very big question looms: How do you define a female? How do you define a male? I don’t envy CAS its job.

If I Had A Vote

If I had a vote, here’s what I would do. I’d ask myself the three questions below, and give the answers provided. You’re invited to give your own answers.

1–Do you believe in separate men’s and women’s competition in sports? Yes. It’s what gives women an opportunity to succeed in sports, and they deserve that opportunity. Also, history and tradition should count for something.

2–Would you decide by asking the athlete for his/her gender, or by finding a more objective test? I’d look for a more objective test. As Joanna Harper likes to say, “If you get to choose, then I choose to be 80 years old. I’d kick butt in that division.” (She’s 62 and finished ninth in her division at the National Cross Country Championships in Tallahassee on February 2). The World Champs and Olympics aren’t the place to use personal preference to determine one’s entry status.

3–Would you use a testosterone test, or have you got a better idea? I don’t have a better idea, and I find the testosterone argument quite convincing. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best we’ve got.

In this regard, I agree with Ross Tucker, the South African physiologist who has criticized the IAAF’s research. “I want to stress that I actually side WITH the IAAF in trying to regulate the divide between men’s and women’s sport,” Tucker wrote last year on Twitter. “And I believe testosterone IS a good candidate.”

That’s where I stand too. I don’t know how this question will be resolved. But I know two things for sure: The whole world is watching; and the CAS decision could shape the future arc of women’s sports.


Amby Burfoot won the Boston Marathon in 1968, and has been writing about track and road races since 1978.


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