Sex-Hormone Guidelines For Athletes Will Never Be Fair


An international sporting body has issued new guidelines concerning hormone levels and who can compete as a woman. The new rules could resolve some of the questions raised in the wake of the Caster Semenya scandal, but they may also create problems of their own.

According to Joanna Marchant of Nature, the guidelines, proposed by the International Olympic Commission on April 5 and accepted by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) on April 12, stipulate that a woman with “testosterone levels in the male range” won’t be able to compete with other women, or with men. However! Women with androgen insensitivity syndrome, who may have internal testes but whose bodies are unable to respond to testosterone, will still be eligible, since experts say the hormone doesn’t give them a competitive advantage. Some scientists welcome both the rule and the exception — says biochemist Malcolm Collins, “It makes the playing field fair.”

But does it? Marchant points out that in many cases, androgen insensitivity is actually incomplete, meaning women do respond to some of the hormone and may have some advantage — an advantage that might be very difficult to measure. So exempting everyone with AIS doesn’t necessarily make everything equitable. And then there’s the question of whether it makes sense to disqualify women over their hormone levels at all. “Some experts,” Marchant writes, “argue that, as other kinds of physiological variation, such as height or oxygen-carrying capacity, are accommodated in sport, perhaps natural variations in hormone levels should be accepted too.” It’s true that the line between “unfair advantage” and “inborn asset” is pretty difficult to draw. And for women with high testosterone but no AIS, the rules will be career-ending — is it really fair that these women have no opportunity to compete at all?

Unfortunately, it’s hard to imagine a way of dealing with sex and gender in sports that doesn’t disadvantage someone. Even making all events coed — an across-the-board solution proposed by some — might greatly reduce the number of female medalists. Athletic officials have a responsibility to develop the most sensitive and equitable policies they can, but they’re dealing with a fundamental problem. Sporting competitions are deeply invested in the idea of fairness, but biology is manifestly unfair. And reconciling the two is never going to be easy.

Women With High Male Hormone Levels Face Sport Ban [Nature]

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