In the first 2-mile race of her professional career, Burundi’s Francine Niyonsaba beat Ethiopia’s 5000m world record holder Letesenbet Gidey by six seconds in Friday’s women’s 2-mile at the Prefontaine Classic in a Hayward Field record of 9:00.75, less than two seconds off Meseret Defar’s world record.

Question: should this result reopen the conversation regarding high-testosterone in women’s athletics, or does it simply represent a full-ranged athlete in top form? After all, Niyonsaba placed 5th in the Tokyo Olympic 10,000m final in 30:41.93.

Niyonsaba wins Pre 2-Mile

Acknowledging her hyperandrogegism in 2019, Ms. Niyonsaba, the 2016 Rio Olympics 800m silver medalist, was among a handful of athletes (most famously South Africa’s Caster Semenya) forced to abandon their primary racing distances (400m up to the mile) in light of new World Athletics rules governing athletes with naturally high testosterone levels competing in those races.

The World Athletics Council approved new eligibility rules at the 2019 World Championships in Doha, Qatar. The new rules require female athletes with naturally high testosterone levels, as well as transgender female athletes, to lower their testosterone concentration levels to a new limit of less than 5 nanomoles per liter of blood to “bring them back into a competitive balance”.  

That new <5 nmol/L limit would then have to be maintained continuously for a period of at least 12 months prior to an athlete being declared eligible for competition in the 400m to 1-mile. The previous limit of <10 nmol/L was established in 2018. But those lower-T levels would not be necessary for races contested below 400m or above the mile.

I was never good at math, so this new equation meant to represent “competitive balance” had me a bit flummoxed. 

When you Google “normal testosterone measurements for females”, you discover values scaling between 0.3 to 2.4 nmol/L. (Normal men range from 7.7 – 29.4 nmol/L).

My math-challenged brain then wondered why an allowance nearly twice the high end of the normal limit (5.0 vs. 2.4) could be considered as “competitive balance” as it seemed decidedly imbalanced.

Why isn’t the appropriate new level for High-T and transgender females within the “normal range” topping out at 2.4 nmol/L, or rounded off at 2.50? The answer World Athletics gave is that <5 nmol/L is the number because that is the highest possible level that a healthy woman with ovaries would have. 

Alright, but should the highest possible value become the new standard if the goal is to achieve “competitive balance”, especially if that number involves a tiny but important segment of the racing population?  

While that new standard may well produce an equilibrium, it’s hardly an even balance. In fact, you could argue that with no policy at all, the sport had achieved equilibrium. A decidedly imbalanced one, mind you, but an equilibrium nonetheless. 

Why should athletes within the normal range of 0.5 – 2.4 nmol/L be expected to compete fairly with athletes with essentially double their testosterone levels (5.0)? So they lose by, what, a lesser but still substantial margin? 

Also, if regulators expect transgender or high-T females to reduce to a certain level, why not allow the non high-T or transgender athletes to go up to the same <5.0 nmol/L limit that their high-T/transgender competitors have to come down to, all in the interest of fairness?

If World Athletics now requires drug use to lower certain athletes’ lab levels – call it performance-restricting drug use – then drug taking per se doesn’t seem to be the primary issue at hand anymore. Rather, it is the level of testosterone concentration in the athletes that officials are most concerned about. 

So why not test everyone, and put them all in a similar range? If <5 nmol/L is the number, then that’s the number for everybody. Those too high have to come down, but those below are allowed to come up. 

We always talk about the winners and try to control their advantages. Why don’t we talk about the non-winners and make compensations from that end of the spectrum, too? 

As always, just asking.


10 thoughts on “TESTOSTERONE AGAIN

  1. So…Michael Phelps is 6’4”. Normal arm span for a guy is plus or minus 2 inches compared to height. His arm span is 6’7”. Shouldn’t he be banned because his arm span is competitively unfair?

    Or what about the dozens of world class male long distance runners whose VO2 capacity is way above normal? Ban them?

    Point is: this “competitive normalcy” goes beyond women and testosterone levels, and yet we never discuss these other genetic oddities.


  2. A handicap like bowling? More T or more fast twitch muscles, you have to start further back. Also if your legs are longer.

    2.43 is the average, what is the standard deviation of the distribution (sigma) and how many sigmas above merits penalty (1,2,……)

      1. Yes. And wherever these lines are drawn there will be those sneaking right up to or beyond. I had a friend, 6’1″ who slumped during measuring to get in a 6′ or under rec bb league. He had a great time being Wilt Chamberlin. I told him about Ben Johnson but he didn’t get it……..

  3. If you are going to object to an athlete having to compete against someone with double the testosterone level, then what about the 0.5 athlete competing against the 2.4 athlete ? That is not double, but almost 5x. So it’s more unfair than a 2x ratio. IMO, the bottom line is that any limits should just eliminate the real outliers who gain a major advantage over everyone else. Trying to fine tune it to a narrow range is just going to be a nightmare for many normal athletes with somewhat outside the average levels.

  4. You raise an interesting point but this is only 1 piece of ‘leveling’ the competition. Why not put weights on the faster athletes to help others not so genetically possessed, like the racing commission did to Seabiscuit? These women did not intentionally cheat the system but they are just using their God given talents to compete. I understand this issue but where is it going to end? Usain Bolt was genetically gifted and became the top man in his events. Those gifts gave him an advantage over others he raced so should we limit the competition to only sprinters 6’2 or below since his height and stride turnover and length were a direct advantage. This can be debated until the end of time and I understand this issue but in the big picture, where is it going to end???
    One more thing. I think it incredibly poor action for the South Africa officials and those of the world to parade these differences and destroy whatever privacy they had. They should be punished. Was Condition 7 adhered to in Semenya’s case? Did the other women have access to a privacy law?

    1. Good points, all around. Should there be any sporting categories in the first place? Or, like the Paralympics innumerable categories to differentiate ‘levels of ability’? It is a slippery slope argument with, as you say, no end in sight. Thanks for contributing to the conversation.

    2. >>>These women did not intentionally cheat the system but they are just using their God given talents to compete.

      This for me makes it much different than steroids or blood packing.

      1. Oh, I agree completely. This is not their fault. They’ve done nothing but compete honorably. They just have an imbalanced built-in advantage.

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