Testosterone Or Talent?

 Not for the first or the last time I disagree with IAAF president Sebastian Coe. I read today that he has published rules for female athletes with high natural testosterone levels, From November 1, the IAAF will limit entry for all international events from 400m through the mile to women with testosterone levels below a specified level. Women with elevated testosterone must reduce their level for “six months (eg: by use of hormonal contraceptives)” before being eligible to run.

Sebastian Coe, said the governing body must “ensure a level playing field where success is determined by talent, dedication and hard work rather than other contributing factors. Our evidence and data show that testosterone, either naturally produced or artificially inserted into the body, provides significant performance advantages in female athletes.”

Coming as no surprise at all, Coe was supported by Dr Stephane Bermon, who works in the IAAF medical and science department. She said “There is a performance advantage in female athletes with DSD (Differences of Sexual Development) over the track distances covered by this rule, Research over a decade showed 7.1 in every 1000 elite track and field athletes had elevated testosterone levels – 140 times greater than the female population.”

The new IAAF rule could yet be challenged at CAS.

I hope it is challenged at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) and like the last time CAS ruled on this matter, Coe’s male prejudiced bigotry is exposed and dismissed. These women are not cheats. This is not a group of East German swimmers being marched to a medical room in Potsdam for weekly injections. This is 7 women in every 1000 elite track and field athletes who were born with higher testosterone levels. They were born with an advantage. So what?

Show me any elite athlete who was not born with an advantage. Not necessarily testosterone but advantages of some sort. In my experience most elite athletes are not normal. From birth they are blessed with superior skills and talents. Of course the most successful then work incredibly hard to maximize their skills. But the circumstances of their birth gave them a natural base receptive to that hard work.

Coe says that he wants to “ensure a level playing field where success is determined by talent.” Natural testosterone is a physical talent. Certainly just as much a talent as being tall is to playing basketball or having a superior oxygen transfer system is to marathon running.

Rhi Jeffrey worked amazingly hard to win a gold medal at the Athens Olympic Games. But it would be silly to deny the fact that she always possessed talents of size and power and feel of the water that were superior to an average club swimmer. Should she have been banned because of her physical advantages? No of course not.

I remember when Alison was running in Scotland. There was a woman who was known as an amazingly hard worker. I was told she regularly ran 120 miles in a week. But she could never beat Alison. Just watching the races, Alison was always going to win. The difference was something they were born with, some impossible-to-describe talent. Should Alison have been denied the chance to compete because it was unfair? No of course not.

Apart from Coe himself I doubt there is a person alive who would not acknowledge that Coe also had inherited talents that allowed him to excel. Should he have been banned because of those talents? Should he have been told to take a pill to weaken his performance? No of course not.

NBA player, Yao Ming, was 7feet 6inches tall. That clearly gave him an advantage over his shorter competitors. Should he have been ordered to undergo spinal surgery to satisfy Coe’s call for a level playing field? No of course not.

And finally in the 1960s Sir Peter Snell had a series of physical tests. Maximal oxygen uptake was determined by a run to exhaustion on a horizontal treadmill. Snell’s max V02 of 5.502 L/min. is the highest reported for a runner. Moreover, he was able to maintain an uptake exceeding 5.25 L/min. for the final 3.5 minutes. Clearly Snell had physical advantages. Clearly this was not a level playing field. Clearly a tablet should have been ordered that brought Snell’s maximal oxygen uptake back to the level of everyone else. What a load of nonsense.

Kenyans living at altitude in the Rift Valley appear to receive an advantage from training in their home location. Does Coe plan to order them to migrate? Is David Rudisha’s world 800 meters record going to be disallowed because his home training location provided physical advantages over Coe’s home town of Sheffield? Fortunately for sport the playing field is never level.

The problem with all these sorts of debates about sex is they are always about women. Should Laurel Hubbard be allowed to compete? Dick Quax was hot-to-trot on that issue. I suspect Quax’s reaction had more to do with Laurel’s father’s politics than sport. Is Caster Semenya cheating? You seldom hear the same sexist debates about men’s participation. Bigots like Coe have a 19th Century view that women must comply with their stereotype or be banned as fairground freaks.

When Alison was at the 1978 Commonwealth Games and Toni Jeffs swam in the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games they had to have sex tests. This involved a swab from inside the mouth that was then examined for X and Y chromosomes. They both passed. However the tests highlighted to me the potential humiliation and psychological harm to women. I’d heard stories of women being banned on the basis of a sex test and then later giving birth. For these individuals the failed test must have been as devastating as it was unfair. Wikipedia ends their entry on the subject of these tests by saying:

“Sex verification tests can create sex and identity crises, demeaning reactions, social isolation, depression, and suicide.”

Eventually sport caught up with the civilized world and physical and chromosome tests were discontinued. But the bigots of course were just drawing breath for their next assault on women. And lo-and-behold here it comes – in the form of Sebastian Coe. Now we are going to count the level of testosterone.

I remember a friend of mine – I won’t mention her name – who was invited to compete in an event in South America. She was directed into a room for what she thought was going to be the mouth swab test. Instead she found herself standing in front of this row of three men and one woman. One of the men, who I’m told was smoking a cigar, ordered her to remove her clothing for a physical sex examination. My friend exclaimed, “I will if you will,” and turned and left the room.

As far as I’m concerned Sebastian Coe has shown himself to be a 21st century version of three dirty old South American perverts. Like their test, Coe’s too, will soon find itself relegated to a shameful section of athletic history.

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