Are the IAAF rules on women’s eligibility in middle distance running unethical?

By Sigmund Loland

According to the Differences of Sex Development (DSD) Regulations of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), athletes with heightened testosterone levels are considered non-eligible in women’s middle distance running races. The case is contested by athletes, scientists, and bioethicists. In 2019, World and Olympic Champion South African middle distance runner Caster Semenya challenged the DSD regulations in the Court of Arbitration of Sport (CAS), but her request for arbitration was dismissed.

In a split decision, two out of three CAS judges argued that the DSD regulations are ‘a necessary, reasonable and proportionate means of achieving the IAAF’s aim of preserving the integrity of female athletics in the restricted events’. As was emphasized in the ruling, this implies dilemma of rights: the right of Semenya to compete in sport according to her legal sex and gender identity, and the right of other athletes below the defined testosterone threshold to compete under fair conditions.

Are the DSD Regulations unfair and unethical? In my view: no. I provide conditional support of the CAS decision and of IAAF’s DSD regulations. Based on an analysis of fair equality of opportunity in sport, I distinguish between what I call stable and dynamic inequalities between athletes. Stable inequalities are those that athletes cannot impact or control in any significant way such as inequalities in biological sex, body size, and chronological age. Dynamic inequalities, such as inequalities in strength, speed, and endurance, or in technical and tactical skills, can be impacted and to a certain extent controlled by athletes. If stable inequalities exert significant and systematic impact on performance, they provide a rationale for classification. If high testosterone level is an inborn, strong and systemic driver of performance development, inequalities in such levels can provide a rationale for classification.

Still, my support is conditional due to the following concern: To come below the defined thresholds, DSD athletes with heightened testosterone levels have to medicate. This is ‘negative doping’, so to speak, as it implies drug us to reduce (and not enhance) performance. Medication of perfectly healthy individuals is unethical.

I discuss several strategies to come around this problem. One option could be to establish an own class for DSD athletes. This, however, has been criticized as implying stigmatization of a vulnerable group and challenging the right to privacy. Another option has been suggested of developing algorithms that estimate enhancement effects of heightened testosterone levels and use some kind of handicapping system securing fair equality of opportunity to perform, for instance weighted clothes, or modifications of the track. But this strategy would imply an even stronger violation of individual privacy. Athletes would not only be defined in terms of being above a particular testosterone level, but in terms of exact values and relative differences of such levels.

The radical solution is abandoning binary sex classification schemes as a whole. This would mean changing or perhaps even abandoning many sports as we know them. For example, and due to significant and systematic inequalities in biological predispositions for developing speed, elite middle distance running would become an exclusive male event. An alternative could be to cultivate sports in which classification based on inequalities in bio-motor capabilities, and hence between men and women, are of less significance. Performances could to a larger extent emphasize technical and tactical skills, perhaps together with expressive and aesthetic qualities. Examples can be various kinds of dance, or sports in creative interaction with nature such as surfing, sailing, snowboarding, and climbing, or precision sports such as shooting and archery, or even mixed events with combinations of the above.

It remains to be seen whether the Semenya case indicates the start of a paradigmatic shift in the way we understand what athletic performance and competitive sports are all about.


Paper title: Caster Semenya, athlete classification, and fair equality of opportunity in sport

Author: Sigmund Loland

Affiliations: Norwegian School of Sport Sciences

Competing interests: None


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