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Biology, Psychology, Sport, Uncategorized

What counts as unfair in athlete biology?

I am not biologically suited to being a figure skater but figure skating is the sport I most love to do. I may have cursed those individuals who were smaller and could rotate quicker than me, but I did so privately knowing full well it came down to biology.

Photo by J. Brichto CC-BY-3.0

This seems to be similar to the response taken in most male athletic events. Usain Bolt left the field in his dust for years but no one complained that his genetics were unfair to the rest of the field. And yet this is exactly what has happened at times in some female sports where women who have a specific genetic advantage (hyperandrogeny) get singled out, subjected to testing, and potentially declared too male to compete with the other women.

All women have androgens (the “male” hormones) including testosterone; but hyperandrogeny is a condition where an individual who is biologically female has higher than “normal” levels of these hormones compared to an average range identified for females. While there may be signs of this, it is not confirmed without specific tests. These tests used to be performed on elite female athletes by default. Then they were performed if there was questions (in other words, “we think you are too good to be all female”). In the last few years, there has been no testing. Accordingly, there has been a return of individuals with hyperandrogeny to elite sport. Notably Caster Semenya, a South African middle distance runner has returned to dominate the field since the removal of the restrictions on testosterone levels.

The thing is that this entire debate requires that we maintain the gender binary that sport is accustomed to, as we become more aware and accepting of gender variation and fluidity, sport is going to need to change, but how and in what direction?

Perhaps we should be divisioning athletes before they compete, or potentially awarding advantages or penalties based on an athlete’s classification. This is similar to what is already done in the Paralympics. Of course then, which 100 metre gold medalist do the sponsors go with?

There are also ethical conversations regarding the individuals themselves. In the book The Sports Gene, Epstein discusses several cases where the women have ended up leaving sport and dealing with significant fall out, personal and public. In 2015, Sonksen et al penned an article that discussed the impact of these policies on ethics of doctors (revealing personal medical information regarding patients) and the medical choices of elite athletes.

One of the biggest issues is that this concern specifically affects women. When Semenya leads the pack around the track by a significant margin people immediately begin to talk about her hyperandrogeny. But when a male athlete stands out he gets praise and sponsorship.

NOTE: I specifically chose not to include a photo of any of the women who have been subjected to this testing and classification. They deserve to be people for who they are, not for what their hormone levels are.

About Tai Munro

I am passionate about making science, sustainability, and sport accessible through engaging information and activities.

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