Is It Unfair To Be Born Faster Than Everyone Else?

NBC news reports:
The IAAF wants Semenya, Niyonsaba and other female athletes with high levels of natural testosterone to lower them — either through medication or surgery — to be eligible to compete in events from 400m to the mile at top track meets like the Olympics. The IAAF argues that female runners with abnormally high testosterone levels have an unfair advantage.
When is an advantage unfair?

Steroids are made from synthetic testosterone, which is why they call them ster-oids. The issue in this case seems to be that athletes who are born with naturally elevated testosterone levels are capable of building larger, stronger, more powerful muscles than other athletes.

It's true that steroids give athletes an unfair advantage. Steroids create the kind of athletic advantage that cannot be overcome by training alone. They're also hazardous substances that cause major health problems for users over time. The reason steroids are banned substances is because, if they weren't, all athletes would be required to permanently jeopardize their health just in order to be able to compete, let alone win. Officials don't want to foster a sports atmosphere in which medical intervention is the major determinant of elite competitiveness. That all makes sense.

But, in this case, we're not talking about any of that. We're talking about women who have naturally elevated testosterone levels. They didn't ask for elevated testosterone levels. They didn't aggravate their levels. They were simply born on the upper tail of the bell curve and found a way to make use of their natural hormonal profile: Train hard, and win races.

At the elite level, every advantage counts. It is probably true that an athlete with abnormally low testosterone levels will always lose to an athlete with abnormally high levels. In a cosmic sense, that might not be fair. It certainly comes down to pure, dumb luck. But in the sense of starting from a blank slate and rising to the upper echelons of competitive sports through hard work, isn't it impossible to call this "unfair?"

There are a few problems here. First, "normal" testosterone levels are not a static thing. We don't have testosterone records that go back 500 years, but I'm willing to bet that, just as humans have grown taller over time, so human testosterone levels have changed. So who's to say that the line drawn today is worthy of setting a competition policy on?

Second, elevated testosterone is something experienced by multiple athletes in the same competition. There is no evidence that these races have come down to "whoever has the highest testosterone levels on race day wins." Instead, there has simply been a trend showing that those who test high also tend to perform well. The correlation is clear enough, and perhaps also the causation, but there's still a lot more to it than hormones.

Third, if the IAAF can make a determination about how much is too much testosterone among women, does that mean they also plan on doing so for men? Or is "too much testosterone" only something that matters among women? If this rule applies to both sexes then the IAAF will have a lot to account for when they start demanding medical intervention for qualification. And if the rule only applies to one sex and not the other, despite the fact that both sexes make testosterone, it's impossible to see this as anything other than sex discrimination, even beyond the medical discrimination issue already being discussed.

And finally, what does it mean to become a great athlete if the very biological differences that give us an advantage over our competitors are outlawed from competition? Will the IAAF eventually decide that only people of average height be able to compete? Only those with average-sized hearts or average hemoglobin levels? Should people of above-average intelligence be banned under the argument that they can train smarter than all other athletes?

If the body an athlete was born with - naturally - disqualifies them from competition, then what if anything is fair?


  1. I think this is far from as clear as you are suggesting and many of the subtleties have been addressed by others (e.g., https://www.newyorker.com/sports/sporting-scene/dutee-chand-gender-testing-imperfect-line, https://www.outsideonline.com/2198906/caster-semenya-debate, etc.).

    What should qualifiy a person to compete in the "woman" category. Anatomy, chromosomes, self-identification, hormones? There is no answer with which many people are satisfied. Using testosterone level may very well be the least bad option. Unless you're proposing something else?

    1. I think it's fairly simple. The determination should be made based on things that cannot be voluntarily changed. Self-identification can be voluntarily changed, as can anatomy, to a certain extent. Chromosomes can't be, so of the things you listed, this seems like the clearest option. Testosterone levels can be chemically altered, but that's already against the rules, so there is no need to change that rule. Someone born with a lot of testosterone has done nothing to break an existing rule or violate the spirit of any other rule. I see no reason why they should be disqualified for being gifted.

    2. That makes sense, but it seems as though the IAAF has chosen testosterone level as a less bad alternative to genetic testing. Much of the commentary about Semenya ignores her likely possession of some XY chromosomes which is likely the cause of her elevated testosterone levels. It sounds like you would be fine with chromosomal testing as the criterion for admission to women's events since those can't be changed. Presumably using testosterone levels as a less invasive proxy was more palatable to the IAAF. It also provides an avenue for intersex athletes to participate in women's events.

    3. Looks like my follow-up comment was eaten, so let me re-state:

      The purpose of the testosterone test is to catch people who use steroids. It was never intended to be a proxy for chromosomal testing. I won't guess what the IAAF is thinking about testosterone tests now, but I would be surprised if they had changed the purpose of the test away from steroid-detection and toward chromosomal-testing-by-proxy.

      I also don't want to guess what chromosomes Semenya has. If the issue is that she is an XY instead of an XX, then everyone is being dishonest here by having a proxy argument about testosterone levels. I don't think intersex athletes ought to be able to participate in women's events. I think it's more appropriate for them to have their own classification, since they might collectively represent a performance level that is somewhere between XX athletes and XY athletes. If so, that ought to be the debate. Debating appropriate levels of testosterone misses the point and gets us off in the wrong direction.

    4. The IAAF's regulation appears to be more nuanced than I had assumed. Testosterone level is only relevant if the level is due to the athlete having one of seven Differences of Sex Development (DSDs). Though they are pretty technical, to me these all look like conditions which are similar in spirit to possessing XY chromosomes.

      I though this was a good discussion and also contains the IAAF Eligibility Regulations for the Female Classification (Athletes with Differences of Sex Development):

    5. Court of Arbitration for Sport 5/1/19 Press Release:
      The DSD covered by the Regulations are limited to athletes with “46 XY DSD” – i.e. conditions where the affected individual has XY chromosomes. Accordingly, individuals with XX chromosomes are not subject to any restrictions or eligibility conditions under the DSD Regulations.


    6. Thanks for the links, Mitch. I'll start off by saying, most of that information is new to me, and it looks like I was wrong about the purpose of testosterone testing.

      I'm also underwhelmed by the supposed performance advantage the studies claimed to have found. The article you linked to mentioned a couple of glaring logical contradictions, but the thing that stood out to me was the fact that a difference was only found in five events. The idea that extra testosterone confers an advantage in the 400m but not the 200m, and an advantage in hammer throw but not shot put or javelin, calls into question the veracity of the results, in my opinion.

      So, in the end, I'm back where I began, but now for very different and much better-informed reasons. Thanks for sharing that information with me.

    7. I agree that it doesn't make sense for the regulation not to apply to the shorter sprints and all field events. But I'm not sure what you mean about being back where you began.

      As one might imagine it is likely difficult to do studies of endogenous vs. doped testosterone levels in athletes with various genetic configurations or the change in performance of transgender elite runners. But other evidence suggests and it seems pretty likely that athletes with 46 XY DSD have an advantage over athletes without it.

      Since the advantage is associated with XY vs. XX and there is a specific category for XX athletes, XY-advantaged athletes should be prohibited from competing in the women category.

    8. The study found an advantage of 2%-4% in only five events. This means two critical things: (1) there was no advantage detected in the majority of track and field events; (2) The magnitude of the advantage detected is about the same you'd get from a nice pair of shoes. The combined conclusion I draw from that is that the supposed advantage is either immaterial or non-existent. Perhaps collecting more data and re-analyzing it would change my mind, but a 3% "advantage" that is not detected in all events is not much of an advantage at all.

    9. The IAAF regulation isn't based solely on the results of that one study.

      In any case, the rule only applies to athletes with XY chromosomes and it appears to apply to Semenya. Since you agree that intersex athletes shouldn't participate in women's events, does that mean you think that Semenya should not be allowed to race in women's events?

    10. Mitch, I'm confused. Are you saying that Semenya is intersex based solely on XY, or does she herself claim to be intersex?

      As I said in my previous comment, based on the data and discussion provided in your links, I don't think there's enough evidence to say that Semenya has an unfair advantage over her competitors. For a variety of reasons, it may be of interest to the sport to create an intersex division for intersex competitors. But if you're asking me whether I think a 3% advantage that is sometimes not detectable warrants banning Semenya from women's competition, I have to say no.

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  4. I don't know what she claims. This is what it looks like to me. The IAAF has a rule which prohibits her from competing in women's events. The rule only applies to certain athletes who also have a high testosterone level. The applicable athletes are intersex (i.e., they fit the Wikipedia definition of intersex). From this I conclude that the reason she is not allowed to compete in women's events is because she is intersex and has a high testosterone level.

    If she only had a high testosterone level without being intersex, this would not be an issue.

  5. Caster Semenya Joins South African Soccer Club: