Regarding Hormone Restrictions In Women’s Sports.

Here we go again.

Since the infamous Soviet Press sisters dominated their events in Sixties Era Olympic games, both looking like Hulk Hogan in a dress, and the female East German swimmers won medal after medal while sporting shoulders that would make an NFL draftee feel proud, the issue of hormone levels in female competitors has been contentious.  The confounding complications of intersex and transitioning competitors has only made the mud muddier. What’s the right thing to do?

Last week, track and field’s world governing body passed new rules limiting  women’s events to athletes with  testosterone levels that are “capable of being produced solely by ovaries.” These rules apply across the board to athletes regardless of what gender they were presumed to be at birth. These new rules could force female athletes with naturally elevated testosterone levels to have to lower their hormones with medication or have to compete against men in certain Olympic events.

Initially the limitations will be enforced in middle distance races of 400 meters to one mile, events requiring the kind of speed, power and endurance that testosterone assists.  I assume that if this compromise, for a compromise it is, gains acceptance, then the substitution of hormone levels for biological sex will travel to other realms of sport, as it should.

Duke law professor Doriane Lambelet Coleman makes a strong argument for the new rules in a column today in the New York Times. She writes in part,

“In competitive sport, winning and room at the top are what ultimately matter, so relative numbers are irrelevant. It doesn’t matter that there are 100 females and three males in a girls’ race if the three males win spots in the final or on the podium because they are males. The unusually high incidence of intersex athletes in the women’s middle distances and their reported 100 percent win share in the women’s 800 meters at the Olympic Games in Rio show their disproportionate power. Indeed, it is because they clustered in the middle distances that these events are the initial focus of the rules. Their supremacy was proof of principle. Testosterone readings outside of the female range were also found in the throws, but these were attributed to doping, not intersex conditions.

The I.A.A.F. is requiring that affected athletes lower their testosterone levels to within the female range if they want to continue competing in the middle distances in the women’s category. By definition, the required hormone therapy causes medically unnecessary physiological change, and no one should be forced to take drugs they don’t want or need.”

Taking the opposite position, Alice Dreger, the author of “Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists and One Scholar’s Search for Justice,” argues that the new rules are discriminatory and cruel:

Caster Semenya, the South African middle-distance runner, is the world champion in the women’s 800 meters. But because of new regulations unveiled on Thursday by the International Association of Athletics Federations, she’ll never be able to win that race on the global stage again as a woman — unless she submits to medical procedures to alter her body…

To their credit, the I.O.C. and I.A.A.F. ..have also tried to make life less miserable for athletes who might be ruled ineligible to play as women. They have tried to make testing more equitable and confidential and to ensure informed consent before athletes submit to hormone-altering interventions.

They’ve also tried hard to tell everybody they’re not really judging anyone’s sex or gender when they test hormone levels. The I.A.A.F. says the new regulations are “in no way intended as any kind of judgment on, or questioning of, the sex or the gender identity of any athlete.”

But come on. How does telling a woman she can’t play as a woman, but “assuring” her that she might be able to qualify to run in the men’s race, not judging her gender identity or sex?

There’s no question that some athletes raised as girls and playing as women do not have female-typical bodies. Some were born with differences of sex development (intersex conditions) that mean their bodies have a blend of male-typical and female-typical traits.

A 2014 study by I.A.A.F.-affiliated scientists estimates that 7 in 1,000 elite women athletes have a Y chromosome with hyperandrogenism, a rate “140 times higher than expected in the general population.” And that 7 in 1,000 figure would be even higher if it counted all the differences of sex development that can cause hyperandrogenism.

But the truth is that no elite athlete’s body can be called fully “typical” in a statistical sense, and every other type of inborn advantage is allowed in sports. You can be born with natural advantages in terms of muscle development, oxygen processing, vision — all of those are allowed, without question. We’d never entertain the idea that Michael Phelps should be barred from swimming competitions because his extraordinary “wingspan” gives him an advantage….

All true. But compromises are like that: if this effort fails, and we continue to see transitioning women win wrestling titles while growing beards, and intersex competitors dominate races, then women’s sports competitions become a joke. On the other hand, I find it hard to find fault with Dreger’s complaints.

The last time I wrote about Castor Semenya (that’s her, leading the pack above), I opined,

“We can’t have special leagues and categories for however many gender categories science identifies and activists fight to have recognized, and there is no justification for creating artificial standards to eliminate outlier performers. The “solution” imposed on Caster Semenya—force her to take drugs that eliminate her natural advantage—is horrifying. How is this different from banging brilliant kids on the head until they have brain damage and no longer dominate their less gifted fellow students in school? What right do the sports czars have to declare an unprecedented, unique competitor unfit to compete because her, or his, unique qualities are advantageous? Why are so many woman condemning Caster as a cheat, when they should be defending her as a human being with as much right to compete as she is as anyone? Because she’ll win? Because it’s unfair that God, or random chance, or her own dedication rendered her better at her sport than anyone else?”

I ended up concluding that gender distinctions in sports had to be abandoned. I’m not so sure now. This is an issue torn three ways over the definition of fairness. What is fair here—to prevent gender anomalies from dominating women’s sports by requiring all competitors to compete within a consistent and controllable testosterone range…to allow individuals with natural advantages to use them to achieve athletic superiority…or to make all sports competitions open to everyone, regardless of gender, identification or hormone levels?

24 thoughts on “Regarding Hormone Restrictions In Women’s Sports.

  1. Gender distinctions aren’t just for sports anymore.

    Silly me; here I thought the Next Big Thing was sure to be Feminist Glaciology AKA: Human-Ice Interactions.

    Glaciers, gender, and science
    A feminist glaciology framework for global environmental change research

    [ ]

    ”Abstract: Glaciers are key icons of climate change and global environmental change. However, the relationships among gender, science, and glaciers – particularly related to epistemological questions about the production of glaciological knowledge – remain understudied. This paper thus proposes a feminist glaciology framework with four key components:
    *1) knowledge producers;
    *(2) gendered science and knowledge;
    *(3) systems of scientific domination; and
    *(4) alternative representations of glaciers.

    Merging feminist postcolonial science studies and feminist political ecology, the feminist glaciology framework generates robust analysis of gender, power, and epistemologies in dynamic social-ecological systems, thereby leading to more just and equitable science and human-ice interactions. (bolds mine)

    • I just shot myself after reading that. As I lay here bleeding out, I want you to know that I hold you blameless Paul; you were just the messenger.

    • Wow. I had no idea the novelization of Frozen would be such a dry read.

      Jokes aside, I thought this was a manifestation of Poe’s Law until I started reading. I’ll reserve judgment until I read more of the article and see how well it backs up its points.

    • This was sent to me by my science-trained Brother (a career Lefty) with an uncharacteristically WTF?? qualifier:

      “…unless you are already fully abreast with feminist glaciology (I shit you not!)” (bolds mine)

      It begs the question: Are the glaciers that are melting doing so because
      they were studied by members of the EVIL White Male Patriarchy?

  2. Would drug testing reduce the Soviet Swimmer problem? If so, seems a better solution for that part of the problem.

    As for women who we transition to recognize as women (for as we all are told they were born women and we were in error to think otherwise), I am not sure if there is enough of a problem to do anything about it yet.

    Before prematurely fixing it, I well, I think we need to let more issues develop to see if the problem isn’t self-correcting or if better solutions do not come up.

  3. This seems like an easy answer to me: stop officially labeling them “men’s” and “women’s” sports, and classify them like weight classes in boxing, except with testosterone levels. No judgements about gender or sex, just a recognition that it’s more interesting to see competition on a level playing field. We could even have more than two (again, like weight classes) if it makes an interesting difference.

    • I’m glad you explored that angle. I was going to post about some reasonable analogy to “weight classes” and am content someone already did. I don’t know if testosterone levels is the right answer, but it’s a good idea in the brainstorm.

      • I agree with the brainstorming, but it sure seems like a rabbit hole.

        Testosterone levels, fast twitch vs slow twitch muscle composition, muscle mass, etc., and we haven’t even touched the mental aspects of it yet.

        Pretty soon it’ll be inputting our chemical and physiological characteristics into a simulation. Seems like it takes the fun and purpose out of it. But I legitimately don’t know how to deal with people taking these hormones.

        • But does it really take the fun and purpose out of it? Most sports are set up in such a way that athletes or teams are on as equal footing as we can manage because that’s when competition is exciting. That’s why we seperate pros from amateurs, high school from college, weight classes, men’s and women’s, etc.

          Thus far we’ve been limited more or less by visable or obvious differences, but if we find other things we can objectivly measure wouldn’t they just allow for league distinctions or match-ups that are less predictable and more exciting?

    • If you eliminate gender segregation in sports, men will dominate at the highest levels. This will be deemed sexist.

      • The idea of merging men and women in a single competition is a complete nonstarter. Men would dominate at every level, not just the highest levels. Beginning in adolescence and continuing for the rest of the lives, girls would be virtually shut out of the opportunity to compete.

        An example that I’m familiar with: At a high school track meet, it is typical for the fastest girl in almost every race to finish slower than the slowest boy. Often, the difference between the slowest boy and the fastest girl is as large as the difference between the fastest boy and the slowest boy. Occasionally, the top 1 or 2 girls may finish ahead of the slowest 1 or 2 boys, meaning that if those girls happened to go to the same school as those boys, they would have been able to make the team as a scrub. Otherwise, none of the girls at the meet would be on their school’s team at all.

        Of course, the very fastest girls in the country are faster than most boys. But there are very, very few girls like that. My godson is ranked approximately 22,000th in the country among boys in the 400 meter dash and, looking back at his records, I don’t think he has ever finished behind a girl at a high school track meet.

        Some statistics if you don’t want to rely on anecdotal evidence: In the 400 meters last year, according to, there were 632 high school boys in the United States who ran faster than the women’s world champion. (There were even 18 ninth-grade boys who ran faster than her.) There were 4,600 boys who ran faster than the fastest high school girl. There were 13 girls who would have finished in the top 10,000 in a mixed-gender race. The actual disparities are undoubtedly much greater than that, because we can be sure that the time of the country’s fastest girl will be reported to the people who keep those kinds of statistics, while the times of the 1,000th, 2,000th, 3,000th and 10,000th boys very well may not be. Moreover, we can be pretty sure that the country’s fastest girl is on her school’s track team, while the 1,000th, 2,000th, etc. boy will often be satisfied with playing football and basketball and not even bother going out for track.

        High school boys have not yet finished developing. When they grow older, the gap between college men and college women grows even wider.

        I think there is very little constituency in this country for barring girls from playing sports and sending them all back to the sidelines to wave pompoms and cheer the boys on.

  4. I think there should be some adjustment, which will probably get tweaked for a time until it becomes somewhat acceptable to nearly all. It can’t stay they way it is. If we don’t change, there is no point for women to compete as they don’t have fair field. What was the point of the women’s movement to compete in sports if they’re shut out. All that effort and there’s men’s sports and almost men’s sports. There are always more gifted, but the plastic qualifications are excluding women from achieving in their own events- not female empowerment lacking in many places. I don’t think there can be a perfect answer for all competitors, as talent and gender together will usually overwhelm training.

    The larger thing is that the really competitive may want to compete upward to the tougher slots for more glory or money. The sad thing is I think that that others want to compete down for the easy win. Maybe more sports should be like wrestling, and where competitors are broken into similar capability, including weight and body type. Weight and body type division means Conan does not face Aunt May, which will include biological differences.

    • ”where competitors are broken into similar capability, including weight and body type.”

      Unless things have changed unbeknownst to me, wrestling divisions have never been defined by relative capability and/or body type but are based on weight and weigh alone.

      • No, wrestling is just an example of a sport where there already are subdivisions within the sport. If people were insistent in combining a sport to allow all competitors there would still have to be divisions. But that gets to be messy and will be prone to gaming the system. I’m sorry trans would not be able to compete in their preferred presentation but their are bioogical differences like the above discussion of track and field. Social constructs are evolving, but that doesn’t change bone and muscle. Biology wins on the track, off you can be yourself.

  5. I’m wondering why this decision is a problem. There has always been a rule against using steroids and strength-enhancing drugs. But hormones – upping either gender definition, the same ones used in sexual transitioning — are and have always been forbidden to competing athletes. To be absolutely clear, that makes transgender men or women ineligible for these competitions on two grounds. Even if they have not been rendered stronger, faster, or tougher, they are still able to take the place of someone who has NOT taken sports-enhancing drugs to get there. It’s the difference between someone who has passed the exam due to their own intelligence, and one who had even one of the answers given to them beforehand. As Molly useta say to the Fibber: T’ain’t fair, McGee.

  6. All dominant figures in sport are anomalies. No more girls divisions are the answer. After all, gender is just a societally imposed construct. Let the games begin.

    • Yup, just another progressive form of ‘help’ that sound good and makes them think they are great people, while hurting the recipients.

      See ‘abortions’ ‘welfare’ or ‘gun control’ for more examples.

  7. This is only an issue because we insist that after thousands of years of history and accumulated knowledge, we have become so educated that we are suddenly unable to distinguish a man from a woman.

    • Not as such. I refer to the Babylonian Talmud, Torah and Mishnas,

      This description from Trans Torah/Rabbi Elliot Kukla:

      Zachar/זָכָר: This term is derived from the word for a pointy sword and refers to a phallus. It is usually translated as “male” in English.

      Nekeivah/נְקֵבָה: This term is derived from the word for a crevice and probably refers to a vaginal opening. It is usually translated as “female” in English.

      Androgynos/אַנְדְּרוֹגִינוֹס: A person who has both “male” and “female” sexual characteristics. 149 references in Mishna and Talmud (1st-8th Centuries CE); 350 in classical midrash and Jewish law codes (2nd -16th Centuries CE).

      Tumtum/ טֻומְטוּם A person whose sexual characteristics are indeterminate or obscured. 181 references in Mishna and Talmud; 335 in classical midrash and Jewish law codes.

      Ay’lonit/איילונית: A person who is identified as “female” at birth but develops “male” characteristics at puberty and is infertile. 80 references in Mishna and Talmud; 40 in classical midrash and Jewish law codes.

      Saris/סריס: A person who is identified as “male” at birth but develops “female” characteristics as puberty and/or is lacking a penis. A saris can be “naturally” a saris (saris hamah), or become one through human intervention (saris adam). 156 references in mishna and Talmud; 379 in classical midrash and Jewish law codes.

      For an example of Ay’lonit, see 5ARD syndrome.

      Science 1974 Dec 27; 186 (4170): 1213-5

      In an isolated village of the southwestern Dominican Republic, 2% of the live births were in the 1970’s, guevedoces…. These children appeared to be girls at birth, but at puberty these ‘girls’ sprout muscles, testes, and a penis. For the rest of their lives they are men in nearly all respects. Their underlying pathology was found to be a deficiency of the enzyme, 5-alpha Reductase.(5ARD)

      Furthermore, rather than dragging out dozens of mediaeval, biblical, enlightenment and dark age articles on the subject, from a recent submission to SCOTUS

      Accordingly, when Congress enacted the provision at issue here, it knew—or, at minimum, should have Known—that not all students could be straightforwardly categorized as “male” or “female” based on Their anatomy alone. Congress could not have believed otherwise without ignoring millennia of Western history, science, and law.

      The idea that there was a strict divide between only two sexes based solely on chromosomes, XX and XY, only dates from 1890. By 1950 we knew better, but you still find this simplified approximation in textbooks today.

  8. While I strongly support the use of science and evidence to make these decisions – this stinks to high heaven. The books were cooked, and very obviously so.

    ” One of the world’s most respected sports lawyers has quit his position on a committee of the governing body of international athletics, slamming the controversial new rule that is believed to target gold medal-winning South African runner Caster Semenya.

    Four months after being appointed to the IAAF’s disciplinary tribunal, Steve Cornelius said “in good conscience” he could not continue in the role.”

    Without going into allegations about “real reasons”, let’s just look at the facts.

    “A peer-reviewed article co-authored by Dr Bermon and published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found female athletes with high testosterone had the greatest advantage in the pole vault and hammer throw, yet these events were not included in the newly created “restricted events” category.

    The IAAF’s investigation also found no advantage in the 1,500 metres event but it was included..”

    Let’s look at the evidence of advantage.

    Dr Karkazis was an expert witness at Chand’s CAS appeal, and has raised concerns over the validity of the IAAF’s study.

    “The research that they’re pointing to is their own. In other words, they funded it, they’ve published it, they’ve analysed it, so it’s not impartial, it’s research designed to support this regulation.

    “It was published after it was required, not before they decided to institute a regulation.”

    Epidemiologist Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz ran a statistical analysis of that study, and concluded it used flawed methodology because the report authors ran the tests 43 times to come to their conclusion.

    “When you do that kind of test what you should be doing is what’s called correcting for multiple comparisons. Basically, you do a statistical calculation that says this is the number of positive results I found, but this is the number of tests I did, how likely is it that those positive results are actually true? And they didn’t correct for multiple comparisons.

    “If you do any correction at all, you find that none of the results they found are statistically significant. Which means basically that it’s likely the results that the IAAF found in their study are down simply to chance and don’t describe a true finding.”

    This is really basic statistical science. It defies credulity that any scientist working on this could not know it.

    Now there is considerable evidence that high testosterone is correlated with (though not causative of) a number of medical syndromes that probably (I’d say almost certainly) give a small percentage of advantage, when not corrected for weight categories. The correlation is inexact though, as the sensitivity of individual cells to androgens (testosterone mainly) varies considerably. Some syndromes such as Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS) make testosterone levels meaningless. One person with level X would gain far more advantage than another with 100X.

    This is Junk Science.

    It would only be necessary to ignore in this way the peer reviewed data that would not exclude a certain high profile case if such exclusion was desired. Even that wouldn’t be enough, one would have to ignore basic statistical methods in the data that was used. But even that wouldn’t be enough, one would have to ignore the events where the evidence, poor though it is, is strongest, and arbitrarily include an event where there’s no evidence whatsoever.

    If the object was to exclude a specific individual.

    Otherwise it’s inexplicable.

    It’s also bloody dangerous, both for the individual concerned, and for sport in general. You see, there is a much, much, much higher degree of correlation, proven correlation not junk science, with advantage in certain sports with another physical characteristics : amount of melanin in the skin.

    The use of this method, if applied consistently, would I feel be a Very Bad Thing™

    Beginning in the mid-1930s, when African-American women began to excel in track and field, their success was seen through a mainstream prism of success in a “mannish” sport and reinforced disparaging stereotypes.
    In the late 1940s, an Olympic official, Norman Cox, sarcastically proposed that in the case of black women, “The International Olympic Committee should create a special category of competition for them — the unfairly advantaged ‘hermaphrodites’ who regularly defeated ‘normal women,’ those less skilled ‘child bearing’ types with ‘largish breasts, wide hips and knocked knees.’ ”

    Note that he was being sarcastic, at the antedeluvian attitudes of his colleagues.

    Sources : ABC Australia news 2018, New York Times 2003

  9. It occurs to me that in competitive sports, all inanimate objects that a person may use (rackets, cars, balls, shoes, swimsuits, et cetera) have regulations that prevent them from being a quantum leap better than other equipment. It would seem only logical to extend this regulation to the body itself, because it is also a physical tool for competition.

    Therefore, in addition to having different classes for varying skill levels, in the end I think it may make sense after all to divide competitors up based on gender, but as Sue points out, there are many factors that go into whether a person’s body is really a quantum leap stronger, and I’m not sure how well we’d be able to discern that.

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