The Rio 2016 Olympics are fast approaching and nearly every week a new doping story breaks. Russia, Kenya, re-tests from Beijing and London, who will be banned, who will compete? But as this story undoubtedly unfolds, and in some way or the other plays itself to a conclusion, a bigger story is bubbling under our noses which will undoubtedly be the headline of the Rio Olympics, 2016. Welcome to the complicated story of Intersex athletes.
This is certainly not a new issue. It dates back to pre second world war with athletes like Stella “the fella” Walsh who won a gold medal at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. She was brought up and raised as a girl and despite suspicions, lived her entire life as a woman. After her death in 1980, the Coroner’s report stated that she had “ambiguous genetalia.” There have been many other cases since.
The best known case in recent years is the case of Caster Semenya. The South African burst on to the scene at the 2009 World Championships where she won by over 2 seconds, a huge margin in the 800 metres. Questions about her physique were raised and unfortunately there was nothing discreet about the gender tests that followed her performance as much of this sensitive subject was played out in public eye. The media reported that she had testosterone levels “many times over the legal limit” and “lacked a womb and ovaries and had internal testes.”
Testosterone is what is known as an androgen and is found in much higher levels in men than in women. It is responsible for, amongst other things, a square jaw, deep voice and of course a more muscular physique. Essentially it is responsible for what makes a man a man. And in turn, if elevated, can enhance performance. Testosterone is the one of the major factors why men’s world records are typically almost 11% faster than women’s. Indeed in the event currently in question (800m), the men’s record is 1:40 whereas the women’s record is 1:53. Its natural levels do fluctuate between individuals and strenuous exercise can increase its production. Even in female athletes it is typically less than 3nanomoles per litre of blood, although in 2011 the IAAF policy stated that any female athlete over 10nmol/L would be barred from participation.
Athletes classified as being female in gender, with elevated testosterone levels (not artificially raised through doping) had to either have corrective surgery on genetalia or go on hormone therapy medication to lower their levels of T to below 10. Caster flirted with the sport during this time, still managing to pick up a couple of medals including silver at London 2012, but failed to run nearly as fast as she did as an 18 year old in 2009. That was at least until 2015 when the Court of Arbitration ruled that the IAAF could not impose such sanctions.
In May of this year, athletics fans watched on, as Caster picked up her first victory at the Diamond League by winning the 800m in Doha in what can only be described as “at a cantor.” She barely broke sweat. It was a world class field and many expected it to be a close race. The manner in which Caster positioned herself at the back of the field for the majority of the race and cruised past her competitors in the final straight to win with ease, has again raised questions.
Indeed Caster will not be the only female athlete making headlines of this subject in Rio, as medals may well be dominated in some events by intersex athletes. As we strive for sport to be a fair and even playing field, where do the IAAF go from here? I certainly don’t envy the decisions that lie ahead. If I was a betting man I know who I would be putting my money on in Rio.