Every four years, countries gather to take part in the illustrious Olympic games. Millions of young athletes dream of being Olympians, but due to certain unsubstantiated regulations set by athletics governing bodies, these dreams can easily be washed away. For example, for female long-distance runners, there are surprising guidelines that determine if you are allowed to compete with other female athletes or not.
So what makes an athlete ‘female enough’ to compete as a woman at the current Tokyo Olympic games? In 2015, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) ruled that all female athletes could only compete on female teams if they maintained a testosterone level under 10 nanomoles per liter for at least a year before the competition. Then, in 2019, World Athletics, the international governing body for track and field contests, lowered the international standard to below 5 nanomoles per liter for at least 6 months before such competition.
Most females, including professional athletes, have average testosterone levels between 0.12 and 1.79 nanomoles per liter. World Athletics claims that 5 nanomoles per liter is the highest amount a healthy female with ovaries should have. Yet, (transgender women aside) there are multiple cases of cisgender women with natural testosterone levels that surpass the 5 nanomoles per liter requirement. In fact, five women have been banned from competing in certain events at the Olympics due to their naturally high testosterone levels.
One of the five women includes two-time gold medallist Caster Semenya of South Africa. Semenya has hyperandrogenism, a medical condition that causes higher than average levels of testosterone. She has faced ridicule from people and organizations that question her sex. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) even forced her to take a sex verification test. Although it confirmed that she was a cisgenderwoman, this experience has traumatized her, as she now refuses to answer questions about her sex.
As recommended by World Athletics, Semenya took the contraceptive pill from 2010 to 2015 to lower her testosterone levels. However, she claimed that the pill made her “constantly sick” and she was tired of being treated like a “guinea pig.” Further efforts to convince Semenya to try to reduce her testosterone levels have not phased the 30-year-old athlete, however. She explains that she refuses “to let World Athletics drug [her] or stop [her] from being who [she] is.”
Forcing hard-working athletes to consume medication to lower their natural hormone levels is appalling. Some women have trained for decades to compete at a high level, and many would feel uncomfortable taking birth control or other bodily altering substances. Additionally, taking medication can affect more than one’s athletic ability; other physical and mental consequences are ignored, leaving women with no other choice but to abide.
While the buzz surrounding Semenya’s testosterone levels will probably never go away, there are other Olympians with genetic advantages that are never questioned or scrutinized. For example, Michael Phelps, the most decorated athlete in the history of the summer Olympic games, has a relatively longer wingspan than his fellow swimmers, and it gives him extra reach. He is also double jointed, which allows him to bend his feet 15 degrees farther at the ankle compared to other swimmers, virtually transforming his feet into flippers.
But most importantly, Phelps naturally produces less lactic acid than the average person. When people exercise, the body produces lactic acid, which causes muscle fatigue. In short, lactic acid is what makes people feel exhausted after a workout. When swimmers produce lactic acid, they have to take time to recover from their exhaustion. However, Phelps’ lactic acid production, and therefore his necessary recovery time are less than that of his competitors, giving him a biological advantage.
Once Phelps began racking up medals and gaining reputation, there were no major movements demanding he take injections to increase his lactic acid production. So why are we forcing women with a natural advantage to take birth control just to compete, while Michael Phelps was allowed to extort his natural advantage? The Olympics and other major sports organizations are extremely biased if they continue to ban women from competing due to natural differences in hormone production.