by Jacob W.
The aim of this blog post is to educate stakeholders within all sport and recreation communities by bringing attention to the oppression of female athletes with androgen levels higher than what is deemed to be acceptable by governing agencies of sport, specifically the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). The IAAF have, until recently, not allowed female athletes to compete as a woman if their body contained greater than the conventional amount of androgen hormones found in a woman’s body. In the interest of becoming knowledgeable to the plight of these athletes that have been oppressed, the following points will be discussed in this blog post. Firstly, a layman’s explanation of the function of the androgen hormones in the human body will be provided to the reader; secondly, the logic behind IAAF decisions will be elucidated; lastly, the process of changing the IAAF practice of exclusivity will be explored. In the concluding paragraph, the implications for stakeholders in the sport and recreation communities caused by these evolutions in the oppression of certain women will be expanded upon.
The two most prevalent types of the androgen gene are testosterone and androstenedione, which are linked to the male reproductive system and associations to having contained biological characteristics that are commonly associated to the stereotypical traits that have been used to identify the male gender (Simon, n.d.). For that reason, men have traditionally had much higher levels of the androgen hormones produced by their bodies than women. The hormones are naturally produced by a woman’s body as well, but the hormones typically play a different function in a woman’s body in comparison to within a man’s body. One of the principal roles that the androgen hormones plays for a woman’s body is to be processed into estrogen, which is commonly associated to having stereotypical traits that are commonly used to identify the female gender (Simon, n.d.).
The logic behind the IAAF decision to exclude women with high levels of androgen hormones from participation in competition was that the presence of greater than normal levels of these hormones in the female body provides the athlete with an unfair advantage compared to women with normal levels. Although the hormones can be naturally produced at higher amounts than what has been established as normal for the female body, in some instances athletes look to enhance their body’s production of androgens with illicit substances to increase their athletic performance (Devine, 2018). The IAAF claims that the intention behind their decision is to provide athletes with what they consider to be a fair and competitive environment, and to discourage athletes from taking and abusing banned substances that unnaturally enhance the body’s productions of androgens (Bermon, Vilain, Fénichel, & Ritzén, 2015). Even if the intentions of the IAAF are not to demonize athletes, this is effectively the outcome of their quest to fulfill their “responsibility to create a level playing field in female sport and … to protect the sport… carefully.” (Press Association, 2018).
Until recently, The IAAF had banned female athletes who were found to naturally have levels of androgen that are higher than a predetermined threshold from being eligible to compete in sport as a woman (Macur, 2017). This practice of oppressing certain women by not allowing them to compete in the IAAF based on the presence of androgens in their body has since been overruled by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in 2015, after an appeal to the hormone regulations for eligibility was granted for the interim. The CAS allowed the IAAF a two-year window to provide scientific documentation that supports the restoration of the ruling to ban female athletes with high androgen levels from participation (Kessel, 2018). The two-year period ended in the summer of 2017, and the CAS allowed for a two-month extension for the IAAF to submit their basis for the justification of reinstating the ban. After the additional allotted time the IAAF submitted documents to the CAS to have the appeal decision reversed, in the documents they stated that there is reason to assert the belief that abnormally high levels of the hormones in question increases athletic performance (Bermon, 2017). Despite the attempt to provide the CAS with sufficient evidence that elevated levels of androgen hormones in women can be attributed to an increase in sport performance, the IAAF could only provide proof of a 1 to 3 % increase in competitive advantage among female athletes whose bodies naturally have additional amounts of the androgen hormones (Bermon, 2017). Critics of the stance taken by the IAAF have noted that this documentation of the supposed advantage of a 1 to 3 % increase in athletic performance is negligible and that the recording of the increase in competitive advantage do not take in account other relevant variables that may impact the reported increase (Sőnksen, et al. 2018). The IAFF acknowledged this possibility as well in the documents that were submitted to the CAS, and ultimately could not deliver proof of the existence of a competitive advantage comparable of the difference between men and women which has been previously established as 10 to 12 % being present in women who have more than the typical number of androgens present in their body to those that do not (Sőnksen, et al. 2018). However, the new findings presented by the IAFF to the CAS were sufficient enough to once again prolong the official decision on a ruling by another six months beginning in January 2018 (Press Association, 2018).
The implications for stakeholders in the sport and recreation communities caused by these evolutions in the handling of this oppressed group of women are of a large scale. Decisions on eligibility that are made by CAS, which acts as the international authority for litigation, mediation and arbitration for sport tend to trickle down and in turn imposes itself upon sport and recreation communities. Stakeholders of these communities must educate themselves on not only the developments related to judgments rendered on the matter, but the makeup of the components involved as well, so that they can think critically, and make decisions that they come up with on their own. Most importantly, progressing to the establishment of an ultimate and inclusive environment for all people to participate in sport regardless of their hormonal output is in the best interest of humanity as implementing practices of inclusivity can lead to the widespread acceptance of people who have once been marginalized and oppressed in the past.
Bermon, S., Vilain, E., Fénichel, P., & Ritzén, M. (2015). Women With Hyperandrogenism in Elite Sports: Scientific and Ethical Rationales for Regulating. The Journal Of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 100(3), 828-830. http://dx.doi.org/10.1210/jc.2014-3603
Bermon, S. (2017). Androgens and athletic performance of elite female athletes. Current Opinion In Endocrinology & Diabetes And Obesity, 24(3), 246-251. http://dx.doi.org/10.1097/med.0000000000000335
Devine, J. (2018). Gender, Steroids, and Fairness in Sport. Sport, Ethics And Philosophy, 1-9. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17511321.2017.1404627
Kessel, A. (2018). The unequal battle: privilege, genes, gender and power. The Guardian. Retrieved 20 February 2018, from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/feb/18/the-unequal-battle-privilege-genes-gender-and-power
Macur, J. (2017). What Qualifies a Woman to Compete as a Woman? An Ugly Fight Resumes. The New York Times. Retrieved 20 February 2018, from https://nyti.ms/2hsYvfW
Press Association (2018). CAS suspends controversial IAAF hyperandrogenism rule for six more months. Daily Mail. Retrieved 20 February 2018, from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/wires/pa/article-5289497/CAS-suspends-controversial-IAAF-hyperandrogenism-rule-six-months.html
Simon, J. (n.d.). Diseases & Conditions > Androgen. Healthy women. Retrieved 20 February 2018, from http://www.healthywomen.org/condition/androgen
Sőnksen, P., Bavington, L., Boehning, T., Cowan, D., Guha, N., & Holt, R. et al. (2018). Hyperandrogenism controversy in elite women’s sport: an examination and critique of recent evidence. British Journal of Sports Medicine. Retrieved 20 February 2018, from http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bjsports-2017-098446