Centre for Biomedicine, Self and Society

On being, unquestionably, a woman: the threshold of femaleness and Caster Semenya at the Court of Arbitration for Sport

Dr Sonja Erikainen discusses how testosterone regulations in athletics put a glass ceiling over women’s performance levels using disputed scientific evidence.

On Thursday last week, South African athlete Caster Semenya issued a formal statement declaring that she is, unquestionably, a woman. Semenya has been competing in women’s athletics for a decade, holds the women’s 800-meter South African national record, and has won multiple women’s Olympic and World Championship titles. She identifies as a woman, is legally recognised as female, was assigned female at birth and raised as a girl. That she was pressed to make a declaration about her womanhood may seem perplexing and, indeed, it is.


The statement was issued in advance of a five-day hearing that is taking place this week at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), concerning new Eligibility Regulations for the Female Classification that the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) has been planning to implement since April 2018. If effected, these regulations would require Semenya to undergo medical intervention to lower her endogenous (i.e. naturally occurring) testosterone levels in order to compete with other women. The regulations seek to prevent female runners who have differences of sex development (DSD) and, as a consequence, endogenous testosterone levels exceeding a fixed threshold (5 nmol/L), from competing in women’s middle-distance races, unless they medically reduce their testosterone below said threshold.


The new regulations are being proposed by the IAAF because of an ongoing dispute regarding the right of so-called “hyperandrogenic” female athletes, who have elevated levels of testosterone when compared to most females, to compete in women’s sports. This dispute has mostly been focused around Caster Semenya, who is a highly successful runner, but has also been the target of much distasteful and disrespectful commentary about her appearance and gender presentation, because she does not conform to conventional Western gender norms. Semenya is not only strong and muscular, but also Black, butch, and lesbian – all antithetical to widely upheld white, Western femininity norms.


The new eligibility regulations aim to replace a previous set of IAAF Regulations Governing the Eligibility of Females with Hyperandrogenism to Compete in Women’s Competitions, which were implemented in 2011 but suspended in 2015 by CAS. These regulations established a testosterone threshold for all women’s athletics competitions rather than just middle-distance races, based on the premise that elevated testosterone levels provide hyperandrogenic female athletes an unfair performance advantage over other women comparable to the kind of advantage that male athletes have over females, which is roughly 10 percent. CAS, however, suspended these regulations, because there was insufficient empirical evidence to support the underlying claim that hyperandrogenic female athletes have a “competitive advantage of the same order as that of a male athlete.”  CAS ruled that the IAAF would need to produce this evidence for the regulations to be reinstated.


The new eligibility regulations that are now being proposed by the IAAF are based on a recent study published by IAAF in-house scientists in response to the CAS demand for evidence. While the IAAF claims that this study provides scientific evidence to support the new regulations, the study has been widely criticised, both on methodological grounds and on the grounds that the evidence it purportedly provides does not, in fact, even meet the conditions that were set by CAS. Even if the study results were taken at face value, what they show, at best, is that some hyperandrogenic female athletes have a performance advantage over other women ranging from 1.78 to 4.53 percent – well short of the approximately 10 percent advantage that male athletes have over females. Furthermore, and interestingly, the highest advantage that the study reported was found, not in middle-distance running but in hammer throw and pole vault, neither of which is included under the scope of the proposed IAAF eligibility regulations. While it may be curious that the IAAF excluded hammer throw and pole vault, it should be highlighted that the events they did include – i.e. middle-distance running – are the events in which Caster Semenya competes.


Why, then, is the IAAF seeking to implement a set of regulations the empirical basis of which is questionable and disputed? While this has to do with Semenya, it has more to do with the gender normative, sex segregated sporting context in which athletics takes place.


The vast majority of sports competitions are divided into two, mutually exclusive female and male categories. The rationale for this is so widely accepted that it may seem commonsensical: males are stronger and faster than females and, therefore, sex segregated competitions are necessary to provide female athletes a level playing field – a fair chance to succeed and win. Indeed, both the proposed and the suspended IAAF regulations are based on the idea that competition between men and women would not be fair, because men enjoy a significant performance advantages over women. This advantage is argued to be due largely to men’s higher testosterone levels, and the IAAF claims that female runners who have high endogenous testosterone have a “male typical” performance advantage (just like men do) over other women that is unfair. The new regulations, the IAAF argues, are being proposed “solely to ensure fair and meaningful competition within the female classification, for the benefit of the broad class of female athletes.”


There are, however, foundational empirical as well as social and ethical problems with this line of reasoning. Firstly, “female” and “male” are not, empirically speaking, mutually exclusive categories, despite the fact that binary sex categories are enforced in sport. Irrespective of which biological attributes we choose to delineate females from males – be it “sex” hormones, or chromosomes, genitals, “feminine” and “masculine” phenotypes, and so on – the bodies that people actually have are diverse. Some females have XY chromosomes, some males have breasts, some people have genitals that cannot easily be identified as neither female nor male, while some females have testosterone levels in the male range. This includes people who have DSDs, are intersex or transgender, and whose gender is non-binary. Moreover, males do not have an athletic performance advantage over females categorically. Some females are stronger and faster than some males, and elite female athletes competing at the top levels of sport are stronger and faster than most males.


The new IAAF regulations not only rest upon scientifically and empirically dubious grounds, but the research upon which they are based also amounts to an attempt to use biomedical and performance data to answer what are, ultimately, social and ethical questions about how and why we define, and classify people into, sex and gender categories. What the IAAF is in effect proposing is to exclude hyperandrogenic women from the “female” sporting class, unless they reduce their testosterone levels and, therefore, the IAAF presumes, their performance levels to be in line with those (“inferior” performances) that can be generally expected of female athletes. In other words, the aim of the IAAF regulations is to draw an upper threshold, not just around female runners’ testosterone levels but implicitly also around their performance levels, and to exclude from the female classification those women, like Caster Semenya, whose bodies and performances challenge the foundational presumption that being “female” means to be weaker, slower, and athletically “inferior” to men. This seems to me to be a socially configured and gendered delineation of what it means to be “female” in sport. It also seems unfair both to athletes like Semenya and to women in general: by aiming to place a glass ceiling over their performance levels, the IAAF seems to contradict the very value of “fairness” for all women that the new eligibility regulations for the female classification claim to uphold in the first place.


Dr Sonja Erikainen is a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Biomedicine, Self and Society and an ESRC Research Fellow at the University of Leeds