Hormonal regulation latest effort in promoting fairness in sport


South Africa's Caster Semenya (front) runs to win the Women's 800m Final during the athletics ...
South Africa's Caster Semenya (front) runs to win the Women's 800m Final during the athletics event at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on August 20, 2016. PEDRO UGARTE / AFP

In Summary

  • The athletics world continues to make headlines with recent rules affecting female runners that are designed to decrease naturally high testosterone levels among some of them following a protracted court battle
  • The Court of Arbitration for Sport's (CAS) panel of three judges gave a complex verdict involving South Africa’s Caster Semenya, a two-time Olympic champion in the 800 meters, who will now be forced to medicate to suppress her testosterone levels if she wants to defend her world title in September in Doha, Qatar

The athletics world continues to make headlines with recent rules affecting female runners that are designed to decrease naturally high testosterone levels among some of them following a protracted court battle.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport’s (CAS) panel of three judges gave a complex verdict involving South Africa’s Caster Semenya, a two-time Olympic champion in the 800 meters, who will now be forced to medicate to suppress her testosterone levels if she wants to defend her world title in September in Doha, Qatar.

This ruling also affects Kenya’s Olympic 800m bronze medal winner Margaret Nyairera Wambui, who has faced questions over her testosterone levels among other female athletes viewed as having high testosterone levels than their counterparts.

Both athletes had no kind words to the world athletics governing body, IAAF, with each feeling that the ruling was discriminatory.

They also felt that it targets them because of their outstanding performances over a factor that is outrightly physiological.

The CAS ruling followed by the IAAF announcement has received both praise and condemnation in equal measure, with those who compete against the affected athletes feeling that the ground has now been levelled.

However, amid the emotions, anger, excitement and furor lies the question; is hormonal regulation the most effective way to promote fairness?

Ironically, Michael Fred Phelps, a retired American swimmer who holds the record for the most Olympics medals won by any athlete at 28, including 23 gold medals and 13 individual golds was celebrated for producing just half the lactic acid of a typical athlete.

Lactic acid causes fatigue and it can be argued that Phelps had an advantage over his fellow swimmers then at a biological level, and this is what led him to excel in his sport.

Back then, nobody ever suggested that the athlete should undergo any surgery because of his disproportionately vast wingspan or double-jointed ankles. He was also not forced to take any medication because of his low lactic acid levels.

In delivering their ruling the Court of Arbitration for Sport seemed to assume that there only exists two gender; male and female. It is for this reason that they ruled that a female athlete with anything above 5.0 nanomoles of testosterone per liter has a competitive edge over fellow athletes and has therefore to use suppressants.

This triggers another conversation which touches on the emotive issue of transgenders and how they have been handled across the world. In addition, the Semenya issue when contrasted with that of Phelps, also evokes some sense of racial discrimination.

For movie enthusiasts, it is not uncommon to come across those with gripping storylines involving mutants who are forced to suppress their biological oddity using drugs to fit in. In the instances where they don’t, they portray supernatural abilities which are classified as a ‘threat to humanity.’

While Semenya has not publicly acknowledged her status as a transgender despite being forced to go through a sex-verification process in 2009, the big question is whether the precedent set by CAS tries to justify the use of biological measurement to validate prejudice.

Human rights activists have suggested the creation of a special category of sports for those athletes with such abilities to alleviate the feeling and perception that the likes of our very own Nyairera are being segregated upon.

On the other hand, religious groups are viewing the ruling as an attempt to try and alter God’s own doing through science. Some medical researchers have also described the ruling as ‘unscientific.’

Sport in its very competitive nature has in the last decade seen tremendous rules and regulations put in place to try and embed a sense of fairness. All these regulations and frameworks have received popular support and goodwill especially given that vices such as doping have proved to be undeniably unethical.

However, it is this recent attempt to try and regulate the human body that has opened a can of worms on how far sports modulation can and should go.

-Report by Simon Mwangi, a Communications Specialist

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