Super Runner Semenya Faces New Testosterone Limits In Sports Gender Battle

Officials grapple again with fair competition and gender definition.

Running phenomenon Caster Semenya of South Africa and some other top females runners will likely have to reduce their body’s natural testosterone levels under new rules to continue to compete in top international races.

The new rules issued Thursday by the International Association of Athletics Federations set strict limits on testosterone levels for women and “intersex” athletes in women’s races. They represent a continuing struggle over how to create fair competition amid increased sensitivity and understanding about what constitutes gender in the “binary” sports establishment. 

Just as the rules were announced, a leading IAAF scientist said he predicts a third “intersex” category could be established in the next five to 10 years in international competition.

For now, beginning in November, the blood testosterone level must be 5 nanomoles per liter for a continuous period of at least six months for an athlete to compete in a women’s event under the new IAAF track rules. The new levels, down from 10 nmol/L, will apply to all athletes with a “difference of sexual development” designation and will include only female or “intersex” athletes, not athletes designated as male, who would be barred from women’s competition. The levels will apply to athletes competing in international women’s events from 400 meters to the mile.

The IAAF had defended its decision by saying the typical range among elite female athletes is 0.12 to 1.79 nmol/L, according to NPR.

If athletes the IAAF refers to as “hyperandrogenous women” don’t lower their testosterone to the new levels, they will only be allowed to compete with men or intersex athletes under the new rules, in longer events or in lower profile, non-international races. 

The IAAF’s new regulations are an attempt to avoid battles over gender by sticking to the basic math of hormone blood levels, specifically testosterone. High levels of endogenous testosterone can significantly enhance sporting performance

“The revised rules are not about cheating. They are about leveling the playing field to ensure fair and meaningful competition,” IAAF President Sebastian Coe said in a statement Thursday. 

“Like many other sports, we choose to have two classifications for our competition ― men’s events and women’s events. This means we need to be clear about the competition criteria for these two categories. Our evidence and data show that testosterone ... provides significant performance advantages in female athletes.” 

The IAAF statement said that the new regulations are “in no way intended as any kind of judgement on or questioning of the sex or the gender identity of any athlete.”

A court suspended testosterone levels set by IAAF in 2011 until the organization could prove high levels of the hormone provided an unfair edge in competition, which the IAAF says it has now done. The levels were criticized at the time as specifically targeted at Semenya, whose victories appeared to be hurt by the lowered levels. Her wins increased again when the new testosterone levels were suspended in 2015.

But Dr. Stephane Bermon, head of IAFF’s health and science department, told The Guardian that the testosterone issue affects many female athletes, not just Semenya. “It is not just the one or two people you hear about in the media,” Berman said. “In elite female athletics the number of intersex athletes is 140 times more than what you might find in the normal female population.”

Bermon, who foresees an intersex competitive category in the future, insisted that restricting competition based on testosterone is fair — and does not penalize a natural gift.

“The reason why we have separate male and female categories is that otherwise females would never win any medals,” Bermon said. “Testosterone is the most important factor in explaining the difference. We are talking about females competing with levels similar to males.”

Semenya, 27, who won Olympic gold in the women’s 800-meter races at London 2012 and Rio 2016, didn’t immediately respond to the announcement of the new regulations, but last year she called IAAF’s study of athletes and testosterone levels “nonsense.” She also had an angry tweet Thursday:

Semenya was ordered to undergo gender testing in 2009, the year she won the 800-meter at the World Championships in Berlin at the age of 18. The results were never publicly released, and she was cleared to compete again the following year. She complained then she had been subjected to “unwarranted and invasive scrutiny of the most intimate and private details of my being” that “infringed on not only my rights as an athlete but also my fundamental and human rights.”

The new IAAF rules could be challenged again in court.