The gender binary doesn’t exist in human bodies so policing it in sports has been tricky.

In 1936, the International Olympics Committee (IOC) became concerned that Hitler was dressing men in leotards and sending them to win the high jump, so it decreed that women should parade naked in front of physicians before each event. This arrangement continued until 1966 when marginally less humiliating chromosomal tests were introduced, and any female athlete with a Y chromosome was banned from competing.

That changed again in 1985 when intersex hurdler María Martínez-Patiño argued that having a Y chromosome gave her no sporting advantage over other women because her Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome prevented her body from using the high levels of testosterone it produced. So chromosomal tests were abandoned, and replaced with a system so ill-defined and hazardous it could well have been called ‘common sense.’

María José Martínez-Patiño 1986

María José Martínez-Patiño 1986

But then the 21st century came along and brought with it trans athletes, identity politics, and Caster Semenya. First came the growing success of trans cyclists Kristina Worley and Michelle Dumaresq. The IOC’s panic-response to the trans question was to require athletes who transitioned from male to female to have reassignment surgery to compete. (Having a willy makes you pedal faster?) But they had a rethink in 2009 when Caster Semenya won the World Championship 800m race by 2.5 seconds and barely seemed to break a sweat.

Semenya’s T levels are three times higher than the average among women. I shouldn’t know this. None of us should know this, but we do. When Semenya was subjected to medical tests after her victory, someone in the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) leaked the results to an Australian newspaper and shortly after this the general secretary of the IAAF made a public statement saying “She is a woman, but maybe not 100 percent.” Semenya released a statement in 2010 calling the whole experience “an unwarranted and invasive scrutiny of the most intimate and private details of my being.

When they’d finished creating a media frenzy, the IOC and IAAF finally thought back to 1985. Martínez-Patiño’s argument had rested on the claim that what really separates male and female athletic capacity is testosterone. And here was an athlete miles ahead of the competition, with higher than average testosterone. Maybe it was time to see if there was any science behind that; do T levels really have the power to decide sporting ability?

Joanna Harper, a medical physicist, and long distance runner left competing in men’s race events in 2004 to begin her transition and began competing in women’s races just under a year later. She recounted her experience in an excellent interview with physiologist Ross Tucker:

“In 2005, nine months after starting HRT, I was running 12% slower than I had run with male T levels; women run 10-12% slower than men over a wide range of distances. In 2006 I met another trans woman runner and she had the same experience. I later discovered that, if aging is factored in, this 10-12% loss of speed is standard among trans women endurance athletes. The realization that one can take a male distance runner, make that runner hormonally female, and wind up with a female distance runner of the same relative capability was life-changing for me.”

Joanna Harper, 2015

Joanna Harper, 2015

Over the next seven years, Harper collected almost 200 race times from eight distance runners who were transgender women. Her research, published in the Journal of Sporting Cultures and Identities, found that:

“Collectively, the eight subjects got much slower after their gender transitions and put up nearly identical age-graded scores as men and as women, meaning they were equally — but no more — competitive in their new gender category.”

It was by this and other similar research that the IOC and IAAF decided to base their gender testing on testosterone. To compete in women’s events, athletes had to have usable T levels of no more than 10 nanomoles per liter, which is in the low range for most males and just under three times the average for women. Semenya’s performances, under this policy of reducing testosterone, dropped off in a predictable manner. She failed to qualify for the Commonwealth Games and didn’t make it past the semi-finals in Beijing.

But then, in the latest twist in this tale, the Court of Arbitration for Sports stepped in. The CAS ruled that there was insufficient evidence to support the claim that high T levels confer a significant enough advantage to warrant regulation. So today, as things stand the 10 nanomole rule has been suspended, and the IAAF has two years to present enough evidence to justify its reinstatement.

What, then, does the future hold for Caster Semenya? Well, this year she was able to stop chemically lowering her T levels and three nights ago she won the Olympic 800m gold with a personal best time. But such success may be short-lived. As instructed the IAAF has commissioned research into the area from Harper and others and early indications suggest that this research will, unsurprisingly, support the IAAF’s regulations. Whether the CAS will find it sufficient remains to be seen.

The Debate…

Now, I’m no scientist, but over the years I’ve given gender, ethics and the rules of logic a bit of a go–I’d like to accept Martíno-Patiñez’ claims for the sake of argument and see what happens. So I’m accepting that T level does have a significant impact on athletic performance and that it is the main factor in distinguishing male from average female performance. What then?

Well, it seems like the sporting world has to choose between two positions:

  1. Allow athletes to compete in their true gender category, without regulation
  2. Try to ensure a level playing field in these categories by imposing T level restrictions

Is option (2) even possible? I think the most common argument given in support of option (1) is that in reality, it is both undesirable and impossible to ensure a level playing field in sports. Basketball is dominated by tall people, gymnastics is dominated by short people, and divers are genetically predisposed to be completely gorgeous. In reality, all athletes have a genetic advantage. That’s how they became athletes in the first place. In fact, the whole point of athletics is to celebrate the kinds of genetic predisposition that make extreme performances possible. We want to see what the human body can do when pushed to extremes, not what it can do within arbitrarily defined limits.

What we have to consider is that this argument, if successful, would justify abolishing gender categories in sports altogether. Genders, after all, are arbitrarily defined limits. Way more arbitrary, in fact, than T levels; since they don’t actually have anything to do with athletic performance. Being socialized into wearing a ponytail doesn’t determine how far you can throw a discus. (Yes, gendered socialization can influence life outcomes, but at the top sporting level this can usually be overcome, which can’t be said of genetic factors.)


I don't deserve photoshop

I don’t deserve photoshop

If we abolish gender categories in sport, the results will be predictable. The gap between men’s and women’s world records in most Olympic sports is around 12%. In a non-gender-segregated Olympics, very few women will be able to compete.

Here’s the difference between height and gender: We’re not trying to promote equality for short people. For almost all of history, sport has been something men do, and if we’re going to pursue gender equality, we need to change that. We’re trying to promote equality for women.

Now, Caster Semenya is a woman. Lots of intersex people are women. So what’s the problem? Only women are competing in women’s sport, women’s sport is protected, and everything is fine. But remember why we have women’s sports. It’s not to ensure that women can compete against one another. We’re not concerned with creating a safe space here. The purpose of having this category is to ensure that people whose physical capacity is similar, and who have a specific sporting disadvantage compared with biological males, are able to compete on a level playing field. “Women’s Sports” is not a gender category, it’s an ability category. It’s just like a weight category in boxing.

Speaking to Cycling Weekly the Canadian cyclist Kristen Worley, herself a trans woman, recognized that the real purpose of gender categories in sport is to distinguish between ability levels, but the conclusion she draws from this is not one I can support. Worley points out that T levels only indirectly influence performance. Ability categories are based on factors that directly influence performance (for example weight in boxing or more explicit ability categories in Paralympics). T levels influence things like height and weight, and those are the things that directly determine capacity. So all we need to do is segregate on the basis of those, rather than on the basis of T level. In fact, we already have such categories, so all we need to do is to extend them to cover the relevant impacts of testosterone.

The thing is that the effects of T level are far too wide-ranging for us to pursue this line. T levels impact body composition, cardiorespiratory endurance, metabolism, nutritional requirements, and a whole host of other things. To accommodate for the impact of T level, we’d have to have hundreds of categories in sports. No one likes sports enough to watch that.

When we divide sport along gender lines, questioning athletes’ right to compete in their preferred category amounts to a denial of their gender. No athlete should experience that. But if we divide sports into ability categories, it’s much easier to ensure a level playing field without questioning people’s identity. As soon as we recognize that we’re talking about sporting capacity, and not about gender, things get a lot less intense.

Semenya’s career will probably still suffer if gender categories are redefined as ability categories and the 10 nanomole rule is reinforced. She’ll have to compete with athletes whose T levels are higher than hers and she may be disadvantaged. There’s always a benefit to being at the upper end of an ability grouping and a disadvantage to being at the lower end. Just ask any boxer who’s lighter than most athletes in their weight bracket. The dividing line is set in an arbitrary place, and people just on the wrong side of it will have a harder task. But policing the line rigidly will ensure that those below the line get a chance to compete.

It’s important that sport is segmented in such a way that women get to compete at the highest level. Gender categories won’t ensure that. T level categories just might. So stop asking ‘Should Caster Somenya be allowed to compete as a woman?’ Wherever she competes, and whomever she competes against, she will be competing as a woman. Instead, start asking ‘Should sport be divided by gender?’

And answer: ‘Of course not.’