DAA Daily

Caster Semenya: pure talent or unfair advantage?

Image (Source: Wired)

By Soyeon Park

Feature Editor

The Pawprint

Since when did sports stop prioritizing human rights?

Caster Semenya, a 28-year-old women’s middle-distance runner and a double Olympic champion, has hyperandrogenism – meaning she has a high level of testosterone.

According to the International Association of Athletics Federations(IAAF)’s new regulation that came into effect since May 8, she would have to take a hormone-regulating drug and pull down her testosterone level down to 5 nmol/L in order to compete in international events between 400 meters and one mile.

She lost her appeal to the Court of Arbitration of Sport (CAS) on May 1, but her legal team and the South African Ministry of Sports are planning to appeal to the Swiss Federal Tribunal.

The IAAF’s ruling and its upholding of the CAS has several ethical and social flaws. First of all, the target affected by the ruling is ambiguous and discriminatory.

The 2009 medical testing of Semenya concluded that her condition is “46 XY DSD(Differences of Sex Development)”, meaning that she has an XY chromosome which produces testosterone. Elevated testosterone levels can also occur in females with XX chromosomes if they have a condition called congenital adrenal hyperplasia, which affects the adrenal glands sitting on top of kidneys that produce hormones.

However, the IAAF ruling only covers female athletes with XY chromosomes; if the goal of the regulation is to diminish disparities coming from testosterone levels, they should also limit hyperandrogenic athletes with XX chromosomes. The implication of the ruling is that they only consider those with XX chromosomes females.

In the case of 46 XY DSD, the Y chromosome is responsible for the unusually high level of testosterone. However, the receptor for the hormone is abnormal, resulting in the development of the vagina but the lack of uterus and ovaries.

Testosterone merely circulating in the blood instead of getting processed in the receptor may have nearly no biological effect, and the extent to which the hormone impacts the athletic performance is unknown. While the difference in performance that testosterones make in male and female athletes is estimated to be about 12%, Semenya’s record is only 2% ahead of her competitors.

How much each factor, whether it be the hormone or Semenya’s athletic ability, contributes to such a small discrepancy cannot be determined precisely. The IAAF decision is impetuous and insubstantial, as our understanding of science is still incomplete.

Our insufficient knowledge towards our body then leads to questioning the effectiveness of the hormone-regulating drug that Semenya would have to take from now on. It is nearly impossible for scientists to meticulously control blood testosterone levels through medication and pull it down to 5 nmol/L, the standard set by the IAAF.

The number was chosen simply for convenience, and it only applies to XX females with normal hormone receptors. The exact number of hormone level that will negate Semenya’s advantage over other female athletes is unknown; in other words, testosterone level limit of 5 nmol/L may be useless, let alone harmful, for her.

The Court of Arbitration of Sport’s statement regarding the IAAF ruling reflected such concerns, including “the unintentional non-compliance of the strict testosterone levels, the absence of concrete evidence on the advantage higher testosterone gives athletes at distances over 1500 meters and the practical impossibility of compliance.”

In terms of health issues, the statement added: “The side effects of hormonal treatment, experienced by individual athletes could, with further evidence, demonstrate the practical impossibility of compliance which could, in turn, lead to a different conclusion as to the proportionality of the DSD Regulations.” Semenya herself would have to cope with any potential negative side-effects of the drug, being entitled with all possible reduction of physical and mental abilities.

Barring Semenya’s activities is moreover unfair when regarding the athletic history. The society praised Michael Phelps’ ability to produce less lactic acid and Eero Mäntyranta’s genetic mutation that produced up to 50% more red blood cells, yet handicapped Semenya. Why shouldn’t her physical asset be considered as pure talent? The IAAF regulation clearly discriminates against individuals with intersex conditions, putting them in a socially inferior position and encouraging transgender marginalization.

The United Nations Human Rights Council commented on March that the regulations “contravene international human rights…including the right to equality and non-discrimination…and full respect for the dignity, bodily integrity and bodily autonomy of the person.”

Although fair and equal competition is one of the most vital elements of sports, it shouldn’t be prioritized over human rights.


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