Wednesday, October 4, 2023

When testosterone levels hinder women’s participation in Sport

At the recent Tokyo Olympics, three podium finishers in the 800m at the previous Rio 2016 Olympics were conspicuous by their absence.

These were the defending champion Caster Semenya of South Africa, runner up Francine Niyonsaba from Burundi and bronze medallist Margaret Wambui from Kenya.

Still at the Tokyo Olympics, the Namibian pair of Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi had to compete in the short sprints after World Athletics removed them from competing in their preferred women 400m discipline.

Aside from being all African, the five athletes were victims of the 2018 World Athletics rule governing ‘the eligibility of women with certain ‘Differences of Sex Development (DSD) to participate in the female classification in eight events at international athletics competitions.’

According to these regulations, ‘if these females and all like them particularly the Africans would be willing to take medication to lower their testosterone levels, then they could be allowed to compete in Olympics and other World Athletics sanctioned events.

As one would expect, the regulations have caused angst among African federations and human rights campaigners. Human rights violations and modern-day colonialism aside, the controversy around athletes with DSD is now taking some racism connotations.

This became apparent during a recent webinar on ‘Testosterone and Women’s Sport: An understanding and way forward for Africa’ which was organised by NamScore Sport Consultancy of Namibia under the patronage of Centre for Sport Leadership at Maties Sport (Stellenbosch University, South Africa).

Professor Katrina Karkazis said science is a diversion of what is really happening in sport. Racial history of sex binary, is the idea that there are only two, distinct, opposite sexes – this being the 19th century colonial construction tied to the history of racialisation.

Caster Semenya
Caster Semenya

Karkazis noted that evolution was the big new idea in the 19th century science and at the time it was understood as linear like a ladder in which species and races gradually ascend the ladder in the progress of evolution.

“In short, this is an idea that came from white supremacy ideology,” said Karkazis. She added that, sex dualism being ‘two sides of the same coin’ became seen as a dichotomy or two distinct and opposite things.

Reading from an 1885 statement by German sexologist Kraft- Ebbing who stated that, “the higher the development of the race, the stronger the contrast between man and women,” Karkazis said ‘with what is happening to African female Athletes, history has proven that the present-day evolution is still on racial thinking.’

The same sentiment was shared by William Thomas who in 1897 echoed that “the less civilised the race the less is the physical differences of the sexes.”

Nonetheless, there have been many ways to categorise and define sex over the years. However, for some human beings, physical form and shape did not give a clear picture of their sex.

According to Karkazis, six markers of sex which were none binary came into being, these being, chromosomes, gonads, hormones, secondary sex characteristics, external genitalia and internal genitalia.

Due to the growing number of women of colour participation in sport, Karkazis noted that sex testing emerged. “The problem with sex testing however was with the assumption that any singular marker of sex is adequate to classify people into a two-sex system. Women athletes have always been under suspicion, and women with intersex traits have often been scapegoats for broad anxiety about the gender contradiction inherent in the very concept of an elite women athlete,” she explained.

She also said the painful part is that women athletes are the only ones being investigated. “And so, we must protect the women’s category from anybody who believes they do not belong in it,” she says.

When it comes to testosterone regulations, Karkazis highlighted that, all mandatory regulations for women were abandoned in 1991 to 2000 by the larger sport’s governing body. However, the time Semenya emerged in Berlin, a new conversation was formed with the big question being, ‘should there be a new marker?’

“During one of the meetings, it was said that the Europeans should stop targeting Africans and through that comment, testosterone regulations were formed,” she said.

Karkazis said women from Africa are not only the target, even Asian women too. In addition, she said there are three claims the policy makers have made that they use to justify and narrow their focus.

The first claim is that huge ethnic and area variation in prevalence of intersex with the suggestion that there is high prevalence in the global south. The second claim is that, sorting intersex variations according to whether they provide “athletic advantage”. According to Karkazis, this gives the impression that the people with the most advantage are clustered in the global south.

The third claim states that there is no ‘local expertise’ to diagnose and treat intersex.


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