Namibian sprinters resurrect ‘paradox’ of intersex rules
The two 18-year-olds fell foul of the regulations on female athletes with differences of sexual development
Tokyo — The presence of Namibian teenagers Beatrice Masilingi and Christine Mboma in the Olympic women’s 200m final weeks after they were banned from the 400m due to excess levels of testosterone has reopened the debate about differences of sexual development (DSD) athletes.
The two 18-year-olds are the latest to fall foul of the rules on female athletes with (DSD) after more than a decade of the sport’s authorities wrestling with the issue.
A DSD or intersex athlete is broadly described as one who has XY sex chromosomes, has a blood testosterone level in the male range and has the ability to use testosterone circulating within their bodies.
World Athletics (WA) tried to find a way to restrict such athletes from taking part in women’s races in a bid to protect what it described as the “level playing field”, bringing about the hyperandrogenism regulations in 2011 which set a testosterone limit for women athletes.
Indian sprinter Dutee Chand challenged the rules at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in 2015, and CAS suspended them, asking WA to produce evidence that increased testosterone levels give athletes an advantage.
In the meantime, with the rules lifted, Caster Semenya and others were able to return to the track, with three DSD athletes sweeping the 800m medals at the Rio Olympics.
WA returned with data, widely criticised by some in the scientific community, to show there is an advantage in events ranging from 400m to the mile. It believed there is an advantage in longer and shorter events, but could not back it up, and reserved the right to add further events once they had more evidence.
CAS accepted this and in 2018 a new version of the rules banned DSD athletes from competing in races within that range, unless they took testosterone-reducing medication for at least six months beforehand.
Semenya had been at the forefront of the battle since she blazed onto the scene by winning the 800m at the 2009 world championships as an 18-year-old, and was immediately consumed by the debate over her gender status.
After she was banned, she initially followed the medication route but saw a marked deterioration in her performances, and instead returned to fighting for the right to race in her natural state.
She lost that battle — all three 800m medallists from Rio are banned from Tokyo — despite widespread support from the SA government, who claimed the rules are discriminatory towards African athletes, and others who argued they are a violation of her human rights.
CAS agreed the DSD rules are discriminatory but crucially ruled that the discrimination is “necessary, reasonable and proportionate to protect the integrity of female athletics”.
WA had always said it was fundamentally impossible to find a solution that would satisfy both sides, and came down in support of the tens of thousands of female athletes around the world at the expense of the limited number of DSD athletes.
“It is a sensitive issue but there are some contexts, sport being one of them, where biology has to trump identity,” WA said.
The issue appeared to have gone quiet after Semenya lost her latest court battle in Switzerland, but it re-emerged in June when Masilingi and Mboma, who had been in sparkling form on the European circuit, were withdrawn from the Tokyo 400m events after tests revealed above-regulation levels of testosterone.
They entered the 200m instead and have twice posted personal best times — Mboma’s 21.97sec an under-20 world record — to reach Tuesday’s final.
“The paradox in action … where we know that testosterone confers advantages in all events, but the policy implies it exists only in some,” wrote South African sports scientist Ross Tucker in his Science of Sport blog.
“Thus an athlete is legal one day, illegal the next, depending on the event,” Tucker added, as he described WA’s original study as “poorly conceived … and very [very, very] weak on the evidence”.
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