Do the IAAF’s new regulations for female athletes present a bias of sorts?

The World Governing Body for Athletics has now come up with specific guidelines regarding the much talked about rules for eligibility of female classification for its events. If one remembers correctly, the Indian relevance to the same came after the much publicized case involving 100m and 200m sprinter Dutee Chand who came under scrutiny for her condition of hyperandrogenism. As per the new rules, however, there has been a shift in the athletes who would or would not be affected by the revised eligibility criteria.

It must be kept in mind that during the case involving Chand and IAAF/AFI, the Court of Arbitration for Sport had asked the IAAF to conclusively prove that increased levels of testosterone in women did, in fact, allow them an advantage over their competitors. The revision of guidelines was henceforth left up to the discretion of the administrative body.

The IAAF has maintained its stand that the one agenda behind these rules is not discrimination but to ensure an equality in competition among all contenders and also, a humane reason which might help in pointing out abnormalities in female athletes which may urgently require treatment and attention.

“In no way are they intended as any kind of judgement on or questioning of the  sex or the gender identity of any athlete. To the contrary, the IAAF regards it as essential to respect and preserve the dignity and privacy of athletes with Disorders of Sex Development.”

But how vanilla is this directive exactly? Despite all claims of this not being a witch hunt, how much of that intention of non discrimination actually translates to the directive on paper. A couple of explanatory notes.

What are the restricted events?

According to the study that IAAF is basing these revisions on, the advantage of higher testosterone may affect the athlete only in certain cases. The greatest effect has been seen in middle distance track events. The Regulations therefore apply only to track events over distances between 400m to one mile at International Competitions.

This means that India’s premier sprinter Dutee Chand will largely remain unaffected and will continue her participation in her pet events of 100m and 200m.

Who are the athletes likely to be affected?

A female athlete with levels of circulating testosterone greater than 5 nmol/L wishing to participate in international competitions in restricted events.

Also read: The Hyperandrogen conundrum ‘ Where does the verdict on IAAF stand at this moment?

Why this particular testosterone limit?

According to earlier regulations, the limit was stated at 10 nmol/L but it has been reduced to 5 units based on a more thorough study. The normal female range of circulating testosterone
in serum is 0.12 to 1.79 nmol/L, and the normal male range is 7.7 to 29.4 nmol/L. However, a woman athlete suffering from adrenal or ovarian tumors, doped athletes and athletes with DSD would be the ones registering higher levels of testosterone.

What can the relevant athletes do to ensure their participation is unaffected?

An athlete with higher levels of testosterone must ensure that those are lowered and kept under control for as long as she wishes to participate in the restricted events. One method of achieving this can be by the use of hormonal contraceptives) before competing in such events. However, the directives make it very clear that no surgical or anatomical changes are necessary and they weren’t necessary even under the previous guidelines.

What is the alternative to reducing testosterone levels?

According to the directive

“Without suppressing her elevated levels of circulating testosterone, she would still be entitled to compete:
(1) in the female classification:
a. at any competition that is not an International Competition: in any event, without
restriction; and
b. at International Competitions: in any discipline other than track events between
400m and a mile; or
(2) in the male classification: at any competition at any level, in any discipline, without restriction; or
(3) in any ‘intersex’ (or similar) classification that the event organiser may offer: at any competition at any level, in any discipline, without restriction.

Here’s what the problem is

To prevent this move from being classified as a witch hunt against certain athletes and countries or regions, the IAAF has separately addressed those concerns. However, still, the glaring issue of not including other disciplines in field events where doping is very prevalent still remains a major question. What about events like Pole Vault and Hammer Throw?

According to expert Katarina Karkazis, “In this calculated selection (of events), the contours of IAAF politics are revealed. This is a regulation to exclude women from middle distance running events, the events in which women from the global south have excelled for decades.”

The study that these new regulations are supposedly based on are definitely not in tandem with the corrective measures that the IAAF has taken. According to the British Journal of Sports Medicine, the findings which have formed the basis of the entire document, the disciplines most affected are 400 m, 400 m hurdles, 800 m, hammer throw, and pole vault. In fact, hammer throw revealed the greatest differences in performances when athletes of low and high levels were approached and tested. The link of the study and its conclusions can be found here.

The inconsistencies immediately visible here are the ones involving hammer throw and 1500m; specifically why the former was excluded despite its penchant to being affected and why the latter was included despite being nowhere mentioned in the study in question.

Track events in major international competitions have specifically been dominated by the area that Karkasiz refers to as the “global south”. The most glaring example of this had been the case of Caster Semenya, Olympic 800m champion.

Semenya, who has been dragged into the mud multiple times because of this issue, is on tenterhooks as she expects to be affected. Despite being subjected to gender tests more than once, the results of these have never been made public to the scrutiny of the general public. In fact, here is what Semenya tweeted on the day IAAF announced their new regulations:

In 1968, the International Olympic Committee begin comprehensive “gender testing” and for the most part the IAAF’s new directive seems to be an extension on that. One is taken back to 2009 when Semenya was first directed to appear for a “gender test” after winning the 800m in the World Championships in Berlin.

Dutee Chand was the next major name in the controversial gender testing scheme but she too successfully overturned her ban and after that, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) suspended the IAAF’s “hyperandrogenism” rules for two years.

A look back at IAAF Doctor Stephane Bermon from 2012 actually underlined the bias. According to him,

“We have a lack of local suitable testing facilities…and you can easily understand that when such cases arise in Africa, South America, Asia, it’s very complicated to get local expertise there. And as they have a very clear advantage, they were pushed to compete at the highest level.” (Source: here)
He further went on to categorically state “This is a way of cheating“.
The IAAF’s tiffs with gender tests have come a long way since then but does this bias remain? Is this an attack on the privacy of these women? The women who have made a career out of being the best on the track, being respected for their performances?
Needless to say, for a woman playing sport, the journey is long and hard. Biases are many in number and this new directive may be the latest in a long list that will definitely include more challenges down the line.