Caster Semenya Decision Is Wrongheaded and Discriminates Against Elite Female Athletes I Opinion

Wednesday was a dark day for women's sport. The Court of Arbitration for Sport, the international body that handles the highest sporting disputes, ruled in a 2-1 decision against Caster Semenya's challenge to the latest effort by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) to limit the level of natural endogenous testosterone that female athletes like Semenya may have.

The decision was a setback for Semenya, 28, a South African middle-distance runner who has won OIympic gold twice but was subject to sex tests after winning the world track and field championships in 2009. She was found to have high levels of naturally occuring testosterone.

The arbitrators agreed that the IAAF policy is discriminatory, but said it was necessary and reasonable to ensure the integrity of female track competition.

I think they're dead wrong. And this decision will have serious, dangerous implications for sport and for society more broadly.

The science on which the IAAF formed and defended its policy is highly suspect and, in my expert opinion, doesn't even support it. It was a 2013 study, published in 2017, that tested the correlation—not causation—between performance at IAAF world championships and endogenous testosterone.

Here's what the researchers buried in the paper and the media has ignored: researchers found no relationship at all between testosterone and performance in men. Men with below the average for women (below 1.8 nanomoles per liter of blood) performed no worse than men with over 20 times as much endogenous testosterone (greater than 30 nanomoles per liter).

Here's a surprise: in another study of almost 700 elite athletes in a variety of sports, researchers found that 6.5 percent of cisgender men already fall below the proposed 5-nanomole cutoff for women. These cis men were at no competitive disadvantage to other men with higher testosterone.

There are successful cis men athletes wih lower testosterone than the average cis woman. This is why no testosterone policy will ever work to "protect" women's sport. Biology just isn't that simple.

In women, the reported relationship is unreliable and nonpredictive. There's no pattern to the data, and the overall average performance for the high-testosterone athletes was0.3 percent better. In Semenya's event, the 800 meter, the performance of the high-testosterone women was only 1.8 percent better than the performance of the lowest-testosterone women.

But in the 100-meter and 200-meter events, there was a disadvantage for the high-testosterone women of 2.6 percent and 1.6 percent, respectively. The marathon showed a 3 percent correlation. Curiously, the IAAF only focused its policy on the 400 to 1,500 meter, but excluded the marathon. The marathon showed the highest correlation of the group. It's clear that the IAAF focused on the 800 meter, Semenya's event, sandwiched between the 400 and 1,500 meter, even though the 1,500 meter showed a 0.3 percent disadvantage.

But here's what matters: We already permit much larger competitive advantages than what's being (wrongly, I think) attributed to endogenous testosterone.

Consider the 2016 Rio Olympics high jump women's final. The average podium height was 6 feet 1.7 inches The gold medalist was the tallest in the competition, at 6 feet 3.6 inches. The last-place athlete in the final was the shortest at 5-foot-5.

So the height difference between the winner of Olympic gold and the athlete who tied for 10th was over 10 inches. That's a huge competitive advantage, much larger than the 2 to 3 percent being unreliably attributed to testosterone.

Why is being very tall fair, but being born such that one's body produces more than average testosterone not? This is a fundamental flaw in singling out endogenous testosterone. It's the only natural physical characteristic for which we deem some women as ineligible for competition. And there is no characteristic for which men are deemed ineligible.

Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps and a long list of other dominant male athletes are celebrated for their natural advantages and their dominance in their sports. But women, especially women of color, are viewed with suspicion for not being feminine enough, and for not being a "real woman."

This is fundamentally unfair. The International Olympic Committee lists seven Fundamental Principles of Olympism. The fourth begins, "The practice of sport is a human right."

Unfortunately, the arbitration court's decision reinforced the sad fact that sport is only a human right for men. Intersex and trans women are women; they are legally female (depending on one's country's policies).

The idea that we need to "protect women's sport" from other women, from other legally female athletes, is inherently discriminatory.

I never wanted to be an "activist" for athlete rights. Truly, I just wanted to race my bike and see how far I could advance in the sport I love. So far, this has led to a UCI Masters Track Cycling World Championships gold medal in 2018. It's certainly hard enough to achieve such lofty goals, but it's a lot harder when people are actively doing everything they can to ban you from competing, even when you're following every rule under the strictest of scrutiny. They still call me a "cheater" just for existing.

But even with setbacks like the latest court decision, we're making progress. Sport organizations at every level are joining us in to fight for the principle that #SportIsAHumanRight. I encourage you to join us and to press sporting bodies to do the same.

Rachel McKinnon, a transgender woman, is an associate professor of philosophy at the College of Charleston in South Carolina and a world-champion cyclist.

The views expressed in this op-ed are the writer's own.