Ethics of Regulating Competition for Women with Hyperandrogenism



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Ethics of Regulating Competition for Women with Hyperandrogenism

Dr Silvia Camporesi

Department of Social Science, Health & Medicine

King’s College London

D6, 2nd floor, East Wing



WC2R 2LS London

Phone: +44(0)20 78487918

Email: silvia.1.camporesi@kcl.ac.uk

Twitter Feed: @silviacamporesi
Disclosure Statement:

I have no competing statements to disclose.


Key-Words:

Hyperandrogenism, Fairness, IAAF, Medicalisation, Caster Semenya, Dutee Chand


Abstract:

The landmark decision by Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) concerning Indian Sprinter Dutee Chand’s appeal on July 27th, 2015 clears the track for athletes with hyperandrogenism to compete. The International Association for Athletics Federations (IAAF) has been granted two years to submit further evidence showing a correlation between higher levels of testosterone and a competitive advantage. In this essay I will first briefly present Caster Semenya’s case, which triggered the drafting by IAAF of the regulations on eligibility of female athletes to compete in the female category in 2011. I will then critically analyse the IAAF regulations both from a scientific and from an ethical point of view. Finally I will comment on the CAS decision to suspend the regulations pending further evidence is provided by IAAF, and on what this means for the future of sports.




Key points of the article:

  1. IAAF Hyperandrogenism Regulations are flawed on a scientific level as it has not been proved that testosterone confers an advantage in competition

  2. IAAF Hyperandrogenism Regulation raise issues of consistencies on two levels: other molecular and genetic variations that confer an advantage in competition are not consider unfair; and there is no upper limit for testosterone in the male category

  3. IAAF Hyperandrogenism Regulations raise ethical issues at the level of implementation as the trigger for testing is visual perception and hence they pressure female athletes into conforming to stereotypical feminine standards

  4. IAAF Hyperandrogenism Regulations raise medical concerns as they unnecessarily medicalise a condition (Hyperandrogenism) in female athletes with long term side effects

  5. We need to be critical of the grounds on which the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) has suspended the IAAF Hyperandrogenism Regulations on July 27th, 2015, as CAS is buying into the IAAF flawed assumption that if there were sufficient body of evidence to demonstrate a correlation between testosterone and competitive advantage, this would be unfair and would constitute grounds to reinstate the Hyperandrogenism Regulations



BODY OF TEXT

Word-count: 3,303


1. Introduction

In this essay I will first briefly present Caster Semenya’s case, which triggered the drafting of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF, the international governing body regulating athletics competition worldwide) regulations on eligibility of female athletes with hyperandrogenism to compete in the female category. I then critically analyse the IAAF regulations both from a scientific and from an ethical point of view.

Finally I comment on the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS, international body which settles sports disputes worldwide) landmark decision (July 2015) to suspend the regulations pending further evidence, and on what this means for the future of sports.



  1. Caster Semenya’s case

We cannot discuss the IAAF guidelines for regulating competition of women with hyperandrogenism without recalling Caster Semenya’s case, which prompted the guidelines.

Caster Semenya competed at Berlin IAAF Track Championship in 2009, where she won the 800 meters with 1:56.72, two and a half seconds ahead of the runner up. Only a few hours after the race the IAAF started an investigation on her gender. IAAF reported that the ‘incredible improvement in the athlete’s performance’ triggered the investigation and compared her improvement ‘the sort of dramatic breakthroughs that usually arouse suspicion of drug abuse [1]

Complaints from Semenya’s competitors not only to the large margin of her win, but also to her ‘butch appearance’ were a trigger for investigation.[1] (see on the point of appearance as trigger for investigation section 7 below) The IAAF banned Semenya from competitions during the investigations. Semenya was eventually reinstated to compete after an 11-month investigation but the results of her tests were never made public.

It is important to note that in 2009 there were no guidelines regulating gender testing, as the IAAF had abandoned all in 1991 and the IOC in 1999.[2] As reported by4, [3] the IAAF argued that gender testing was no longer necessary because “modern sportswear was now so revealing that it seemed unfeasible that a man could masquerade as a woman”,[4, p. 7] which had been the main concern underlying the gender testing regulations. After concerns for false positive results at the Atlanta OlympicsGames in 1996, in 1999 the International Olympic Committee (IOC) removed too the requirements for gender testing.

Semenya’s case triggered the IAAF, in coordination with the IOC, to revisit the guidelines for when a woman should be allowed to compete as a woman. The new ““IAAF Regulations Governing Eligibility of Females with Hyperandrogenism to Compete in Women’s Competition” came into force in May 2011, shortly followed by similar IOC policies. [4] Although neither IAAF nor IOC mention explicitly a relation between Caster Semenya and the regulations, this is quite apparent and an extensive body of critical literature has been written on the subject.[5]



  1. The IAAF Regulations

Hyperandrogenism is the result of a set of naturally occurring conditions, such as polycicstic ovaric syndrome, where genetically female individuals produce higher levels of androgens. This condition may confer a number of phenotypic traits typically associated with masculinity like hirsutism and an increased muscle bulk. [6]. It is important to note that hyperandrogenism does not pose an immediate threat to the health of the person affected.

The IAAF and IOC policies require athletes female athletes who do not fall within the limits of 100 ng/dL2 of testosterone to undergo androgen-suppressive therapy for up to 2 years in order to reduce the level of testosterone in order to compete as females.

The ‘unfair advantage’ thesis is the pervasive assumption underlying the construction of female categories in elite sports. Paragraph 6.5 of the IAAF policies on eligibility of women with hyperandrogenism to compete in women’s competition states this quite clearly:
“The Expert Medical Panel shall recommend that the athlete is eligible to compete in women’s competition if:

(i) she has androgen levels below the normal male range; or

(ii) she has androgen levels within the normal male range but has an androgen resistance such that she derives no competitive advantage from having androgen levels in the normal male range”. [3]
The burden of proof to demonstrate that female athletes with hyperandrogenism do not derive a competitive advantage from the excess testosterone is on the athlete, as highlighted in section 8 below. The assumption of the IAAF regulations is that hyperandrogenism provides an unfair advantage and disrupts the level playing field, and that the pharmacological treatment required to reduce the testosterone level is a means to ensure the level playing field in competition.
The regulations have been widely criticised. I among others have co-authored papers arguing that the IAAF Regulations are unfair on many different levels and should be withdrawn. [1,7-12] In what follows I will outline the main lines of critique relative to the unfairness of the IAAF Regulations in terms of absence of conclusive evidence, of internal and external inconsistencies, of visual perception as a trigger for testing, and of unnecessary medicalisation.
4. Testosterone confers a competitive advantage: case not proven.

As we read in the regulation: “The difference in athletic performance between males and females is known to be predominantly due to higher levels of androgenic hormones in males resulting in increased strength and muscle development”.[3, p.1] The authors of the IAAF Regulations also write that:


“In events where androgenization provides a powerful advantage, women want to compete against alike, not against women with a degree of hyperandrogenism that gives them a male physiology.” [13, p. 65]
But is the case proven?

As reviewed by Karkazis and Jordan-Young (2013),[14] there are many unknowns regarding how testosterone works with regard to athleticism, but what is clear is that testosterone cannot be used to predict who is going to perform better, nor it can be used to infer that people who perform better have more testosterone. Moreover, although the reference range for testosterone for adult males is comprised between 300 and 1200 ng/dL and for adult females it does not exceed, on average, 100 ng/dL, it has been observed that testosterone concentrations vary according to several factors like: exposure to exogenous hormones such as estrogen and thyroxine, the time of the day, and the age of the individual. [15] and co-authors have also provided evidenced against the supposed correlation between high levels of endogenous testosterone and an advantage in competition from athletes with non-functioning testosterone.[16]


That the correlation between levels of testosterone and competitive advantage has not been proven is the argument that has led on July 27th, 2015 to the suspension of the regulations by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, as detailed in section 9 of this paper.

But even if this correlation could be unequivocally proven, I argue that this would not constitute and unfair advantage and reasons to reinstate the regulations, as I show below:


5. Inconsistencies in the regulations

Singling out, and setting a limit on, hyperandrogenism from other biological variations that may confer a genetic advantage is an inconsistent policy: there are plenty of other genetic variations that are not regulated by the IAAF and, even though advantageous for athletic performance, they are not considered unfair for competition.

More than two hundred genetic variations that have been identified that provide an advantage in elite sport., which affect a variety of functions including blood flow to muscles, muscle structure, oxygen transport, lactate turnover, and energy production. Endurance athletes in particular have been shown to have mitochondrial variations that increase aerobic capacity and endurance. [17] An increasing number of performance enhancing polymorphisms (PEPS) are identified by sports geneticists. [18] Just to offer a couple of examples, elite sprinters have a higher frequency of a polymorphism at the level of the gene coding for actinin-3 protein (ACTN3), a component of the contractile apparatus in fast skeletal muscle fibers which plays a pivotal role in generating contractile force in sprints. [17] Mutations at the level of the myostatin gene that confer an increased muscle bulk have been identified [19].

A volume commissioned by the IOC Medical Commission and titled “Genetic and Molecular Aspects of Sport Performance” was recently published, [20] Athletes with naturally occurring, endogenous genetic or biological variations are celebrated as a source of inborn excellence, and children born with such mutations are encouraged to pursue a career in sport. It seems a bit ironic that at the same time that the IOC commissions research on the genetic variations of sport performance, it does not see the inconsistencies inherent in the very IAAF and IOC policies on hyperandrogenism.

Indeed, elite athletes derive advantages from a range of endogenous biological variations, and hyperandrogenism is only one of these variations. As pointed out by Claire Sullivan: “The fact is the playing field [in elite sports] has never been level. There will always be genetic variations that provide a competitive edge for some athletes over others. We readily accept the genetic, athletic gifts that elite athletes possess without trying to find ways to “level the playing field”.[21]

In addition, the IAAF and IOC policies raise concerns in terms of ‘internal’ consistency. Indeed, if we buy into the IAAF assumption that higher levels of testosterones confer an unfair advantage in competition and that it is necessary to set an upper limit to redress the level playing field, then one wonders why there is not an upper limit for the male category too. On the contrary, as pointed out by Sonksen and co-authors [16, p 1]: “For many years now, natural advantage among male athletes has not been policed and reduced in sports, but on the contrary has been admired and celebrated”. The IAAF/IOC regulations do not only raise issues of consistency, but are unfair also at the level of implementation, as described in the next two paragraphs.



6. Visual Perception as a Trigger for Testing and the Burden to Perform Femininity

Visual perception’ functions as the visual trigger for testing. The Tanner-Whitehouse Scoring sheet used by the IAAF as one of nine “clinical signs” used to identify possible hyperandrogenism in female athletes. [22]

While the IAAF no longer uses the term “femininity” in its regulations, they nonetheless display a marked focus on what are broadly considered to be “feminine” physical characteristics, such as (lack of) body hair and the size and shape of breasts. [22] Hence, female athletes who do not conform to "normal" social standards of femininity will be the targets for testing. Hence, there is an increasing pressure on women athletes to "perform heteronormative standards femininity" to avoid having their gender call into question. [8] In addition, as argued by Teetzel:
“Subjecting women athletes who look more muscular, androgynous, or masculine than their competitors to sex verification procedures, and requiring them to plead their cases to a panel of experts to continue competing in the women’s category, […] is also reminiscent of witch hunts, and has the potential to be applied in racist and classist ways”. [23, p 20].
It is worth noting that so far all the women who have been targeted by the IAAF guidelines are women from developing countries, as reported by Macur (2012).[24] The standard stereotype of femininity to which athletes are pressured to conform is white, and “flawless”. Hence we can see in these policies the intersection of different narratives of gender, race, and medical imperialism.[5] This supports the claim that female athletes who do not conform to heteronormative standards of femininity will be the targets of the testing, as it was the case for Caster Semenya.
7. Unnecessary Medicalisation

As mentioned above, hyperandrogenism does not pose an immediate threat to the health of the person affected. As a matter of fact, medical evidence shows that high level of androgens only increase the risk of hirsutism, acne, possibly alopecia and have other virilizing cutaneous manifestations, [6] but none of these augmented risks is incompatible with physical activity or participation in elite sport. There are many women who are not athletes affected by hyperandrogenism (between 10 to 15 percent of women are affected by polycystic ovaric syndrome [6]), but they do not have to take androgen suppressive therapy or undergo surgeries, including feminizing plastic surgeries that are recommended by the regulations and that have nothing to do with levels of testosterone.

From 2011 to 2015 several cases have been prompted by the regulations.

As reported by Fenichel and co-authors in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism in 2013,[26] four unnamed females athletes were found to have levels of testosterone higher than 10 nm/Lit. The article does not report where the athletes are from but state that they came “from rural or mountainous regions of developing countries.”[26, p E1057] The athletes were referred to the Reproductive Endocrinology Department at the Nice and Montpellier University Hospitals in France, which collaborates with sports governing bodies.

The four athletes were all subjected to unnecessary medicalization procedures that had nothing to do with reducing testosterone levels in sport, i.e. a “partial clitoridectomy with a bilateral gonadectomy, followed by a deferred feminizing vaginoplasty and estrogen replacement therapy”. [26] The article also reports that sports authorities then allowed them to continue competing in the female category one year after gonadectomy. [26]

As noted by Sonksen and co-authors (2014), the additional feminizing procedures described in [26] are “particularly alarming” [16, p 2] and the notion that the policies emanate out of a “concern for the health of the athletes” [13] needs to be contested. The choice of treatment for the four athletes is inconsistent for clinical practice, whereby outside the field of play, women with hyperandrogenism are not required to cliteridectomies or androgen-suppressive therapies which raise health sequelae in the near and long term. [16, p 2] Hence, surgical and medical procedures are unnecessary from a clinical practice point of view, but are only necessary as a condition to re-enter the field of play. In this respect, the rationale for imposing treatments lie certaintly outside considerations of beneficence cheered in medical ethics.[13]

The most recent and famous case, which has led to the appeal to the CAS, that of Dutee Chand, will be discussed in section 9.



  1. Burden of Proof and of Cost on Athletes

The burden of proof to demonstrate androgen resistance (and hence, not to derive an “advantage” from higher levels of testosterone) falls on the athletes:
The burden of proof shall be on the athlete to establish, where applicable, that she has an androgen resistance such that she derives no competitive advantage from androgen levels in the normal male range and the standard of proof in such a case shall be by a balance of probabilities. (paragraph 6.6 of the rules, [3]):
Not only is the burden of proof on the athletes, but so is the ‘burden of cost’ for the treatment. Indeed, while the policies provide explicit recommendation of treatment, they also explicitly state that they will not cover the costs for medical intervention:
The athlete shall be responsible for complying with her prescribed medical treatment during the period of Return to Competition Monitoring and shall provide the IAAF Medical Department with satisfactory evidence of such compliance, as it may request. (paragraph 7.4 of the IAAF 2011 regulations, [3])
.Such costs rest on the shoulders of the athletes or their families. As noted by Slater, [26] many of these athletes come from humble social backgrounds and through their participation in world track events are not only providing for themselves but also for their families. When the policies target them, not only are the athletes deprived of the opportunity to compete, but also of the means to make a living for them and for their families. It does not seem an exaggeration to say that the ‘burden’ for the athlete – which we have seen is physical, psychological and economical in nature – would disproportionately affect individuals from developing countries who already find themselves embedded into complex patterns of systematic disadvantage.

9. Dutee Chand’s appeal to CAS and the suspension of regulations

Dutee Chand, a promising 19-year-old Indian sprinter (in 2012 became a national champion in the under-18 category in the 100 meters event), was disqualified just days before the beginning of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in July 2014 after a medical test determined that levels of testosterone was above the 10 nmol/Lit limit set by IAAF. [27] According to the IAAF regulations, if Chand were able to reduce her androgen levels she will be allowed to resume competition. Chand refused to do so and has appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), with the financial support from the sports ministry of India.[28] The appeal of Dutee Chand took place at CAS’ headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, March 26-28, 2015. [28]

On July 27, 2015, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) announced that the regulations on hyperandrogenism have been suspended for the next two years in order to give the IAAF the opportunity to provide the CAS with scientific evidence about the quantitative relationship between enhanced testosterone levels and improved athletic performance in hyperandrogenic athletes. If IAAF is unable to produce such evidence, the regulations will be considered void. [29]

The suspension clears the track for Dutee Chand, who will now resume competition. The decision obviously clears the ground not only for her but also for other female athletes with hyperandrogenism. But a closer look at the CAS Interim Award gives us reasons to worry.

Indeed, the CAS panel has concluded that there is “presently insufficient evidence about the degree of advantage that androgen-sensitive hyperandrogenic females enjoy over non-hyperandrogenic females” (paragraph 522, Interim Award CAS, [30]) and have asked IAAF to demonstrate a “correlation” between levels of testosterone in female athletes and competitive advantage. So CAS has requested to prove that there is indeed an advantage derived by higher levels of testosterone. While the suspension of the regulations is clearly reason to rejoice in the short term for Dutee Chand, it is concerning that the proviso for the suspension of the regulations falls within the scientific track of the IAAF. The CAS panel explicitly states that the IAAF assumption (that increased testosterone confers an advantage) “may well be proved valid” (paragraph 543, Interim Award [30]) but sufficient evidence has not yet been provided to show evidence of correlation, and currently the “onus of proof remains” on the IAAF (paragraph 534, Interim Award [30]). In other words, the CAS is buying into the assumption that if it were proven that testosterone provided an athletic advantage, then the regulations should be reinstated.

To the contrary, as I have described in section 5 in this essay and have argued for more extensively in my contribution for the Gender, Sport Ethics volume, [31] even if testosterone did confer an athletic advantage, which could be proven by the IAAF upon submission of further evidence, this advantage would not be unfair and would not constitute grounds for the reinstatement of the regulations.



10. Conclusions

In this paper I have shown that the IAAF Regulations are problematic on many levels, both from a scientific and from an ethical point of view.

The medicalised discourse of IAAF and IOC require rusn counter to the very same principle of ‘fair play’ that the policies purport to protect. As noted by Sonksen, “one of the ‘fundamental principles’ of fairness in sport is nondiscrimination, namely that opportunities to participate and compete be open to all, regardless of economic, social, religious, racial/ethnic, and linguistic background or sexual orientation, as evidenced in Principle 6 of the Olympic Charter”. [16, p 2]

While the CAS decisions clears the track for competition for Dutee Chand and for other female athletes with hyperandrogenism, we should not consider this a happy ending yet because of the grounds on which the suspension of the regulations has been granted. Indeed, IAAF has noted that will work towards producing the evidence needed to reinstate the regulations.[32]



We should be critical of the proviso the suspension has been granted on by CAS, and prepare to fight for women’s right to compete based on of fairness and without unnecessary medicalisation.

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