It all used to be so simple. Then again, it all used to be pretty screwed up, too. But in today’s charged political climate, where folks can be as sensitive as a hemorrhoidal pole-sitter, the politics of gender and self-identification remain fraught with — what did I just read today, that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle will raise their baby as “gender-fluid”? Gender-fluid? Let’s see how that affects the Olympic schedule in 2044.
And so after a weeks worth of testimony at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Lausanne, Switzerland, the case against the IAAF for requiring reduced testosterone levels in so-called hyperandrogenic athletes – or women runners with “differences of sexual development” (DSD) – now awaits a decision by a three-person panel on or before March 26th.
The case against the proposed IAAF ruling, brought by double Olympic 800-meter champion Caster Semenya of South Africa, is not as simple as restricting performance-enhancing drug use. In fact, in what seems a massive irony, the IAAF is looking to sanction performance–restricting drug use to reduce the testosterone levels of certain female athletes, which begs the question, why not do the same for performance-enhancing drug use, if the point is to guarantee a level playing field? And how level is level? And how fluid is fluid? And have we stepped upon that old slippery slope?
Let’s begin here. The whole purpose of a competition is to discover through the intricate calculus of talent, training, and tactics how one athlete gets to the finish line ahead of all others. It is the ineffable nature of that calculus that makes the sport intriguing. Take away the unknowable, replace it with certainty, and you’ve essentially eliminated the game.
Why don’t women just compete against men? Because we would know the result before the start.
I went grocery shopping with the wife yesterday and she was lamenting how heavy the bags were as she handed them to me from the cart to put in the trunk.
“You’re older than I am and I work out with weights in the gym,” she said “But you only have to use one hand to lift the bags while I have to use two. It’s not fair.”
There it is. I have testosterone coursing through my system at a level she doesn’t, and testosterone is the separating agent that distinguishes a man’s strength and power advantage over a woman’s – after boys and girls compete on an equal basis before the onset of puberty. The IAAF suggests the way to make things right in the middle distance races from 400m to 1500m is to reduce that hormonal advantage certain women have over others. Semenya and her advocates suggest otherwise.
The normal range of testosterone concentration in women is between 0.12 nanomoles per liter (nM/L) and 1.79. Men range from 10.0 to 27 nM/L. The IAAF want a maximum concentration of 5 nM/L for women to compete in the 400m, 800m, and 1,500m. If they choose not to undergo the hormone therapy, then they can either not compete, or compete against men.
In general terms, 45-year-old masters men and open-division women run relatively similar times at all distances from 100 meters to the marathon. At some all-comers track meets, you’ll be asked to write down your expected finishing time when you sign in, and then the races are staged based on those times rather than gender or age. But that hardly seems feasible at a World Championships or Olympic Games.
When I was in grammar school, we had a tackle football team comprised of kids in fifth through eighth grades. But there was one restriction, a 140-pound (64kg) weight limit. Why? Well, as a puny 80-pounder I can tell you it was no contest, or fun, trying to tackle a 140-pounder as he barreled toward me in the open field – and why was I playing defense in the first place? But imagine if they had taken the limits off. I would have had to face 150, 160 pounders. It wasn’t fair to have that great a discrepancy in the size of the players, because not only was it dangerous in a full-contact game, but it skewed the competition.
But while it hasn’t seemed fair in recent years for hyperandrogenic women to compete against women with far less naturally produced testosterone, the stats don’t paint as clear a picture. Except for the exceptional American record holder Ajee Wilson, no other woman has consistently run 800 meters with athletes who, through no fault of their own, have what seems a biological advantage. Yet, the two other most notable hyperandrogenic women, Margaret Wambui of Kenya and Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi, aren’t nearly as dominant as Ms. Semenya.
Niyonsaba won the 800-meter silver medal to Semenya’s gold in Rio 2016, holds two indoor world titles, but her 800-meter PB of 1:55.47 only ranks 15th on the all-time list, just 14/100ths of a second ahead of Ajee Wilson’s No. 20 all-time best. Wambui won the bronze in Rio 2016, but no silvers or golds in international championships, and her 1:56.87 PB ranks 62nd all-time. So it’s really only one person that seems to be the issue here.
Thing is, we want clear divisions in life like on the old Saturday morning TV westerns, black hats and white hats, good guys and bad. Unfortunately, life doesn’t present itself with that level of precision. And I believe that is Semenya and her advocates’ point.
It’s worth further noting that Caster Semenya’s 800-meter PB of 1:54.25 only ranks fourth on the all-time list – though it does look at times like she holding back through the first 500-600 meters in many races. And her current 29-race winning streak in 800-meter finals dating 14 Sep 2015 -> 9 Sep 2018 while impressive, doesn’t prove anything.
U.S. 400-meter hurdler Edwin Moses won 122 straight races (107 finals) over a span of nine years, nine months, nine days beginning in 1977. Carl Lewis won 65 consecutive long jump competitions over a similar span, and Usain Bolt won 45 straight 100-meter races between 2013 and 2017. None of those men were asked to alter their hormonal profile to bring them back into line the other competitors.
There is nothing personal involved here. At the purely eyeball-level, the women’s 800 looks out of balance. So the powers-that-be are trying to make the sport sporting again rather than predictable. But their science has to be unassailable and at present, the science on the effects of high testosterone levels in female athletes isn’t so black and white.
I’m telling you, it’s all a real head-scratcher, which is at least better than it being an other-end scratcher.
And so it goes.