The bioethicist dilemma in female athleticsSunday, September 19, 2021
“Go, Jamaica, go!” I screamed like an emergency siren as I watched the women's 200-metre final.
“But, wait, who's the girl with the shocking acceleration closing in!” I said in disbelief.
“That's Christine Mboma, she used to run the 800 metres, but she just started to run the 200 metres in July this year” said my husband, Richard.
“What! And doing so well? How's that possible?” I asked him.
He had no response.
When the first Olympics Games were held, 2,700 years ago, athletes competed for the glory of their city of origin. The Games were also a declaration and a sign of peace as every four years before these Games began messengers were sent out with announcements of a truce, which meant that wars should be called off so that spectators could travel safely to Olympia to watch the Games.
Since then, throughout our history, international competitive sport, with all its rivalry, has been a unifying rallying force for people in times of despair. The 2021 Olympic Games in Tokyo were perhaps the most prolific example of how sport brought people together, even in the face of great uncertainty and adversity. For 16 days we all forgot about the novel coronavirus pandemic for a moment and cheered on our elite athletes.
But, as we all enjoyed the Games, we were also watching history in the making with a new phenomenon unravelling before our eyes. This was Namibian Christine Mboma running the 200-m women's final for the first time. She was competing in this race by 'force', you could argue, based on the new rules enacted by the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) in November 2018. These rules banned women who naturally produced higher-than-normal levels of testosterone from participating in races ranging from 400m, 400m hurdles, the 800m, and the 1,500m (NPR, 2018).
Namibian female athletes Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi were, therefore, banned from competing in these races at the Tokyo Games for a condition known as hyperandrogenism, whereby there is an excessive presence of the male sex hormones — testosterone, androsterone and androstenedione. Prior to being banned from these particular events, these women had clocked four of the five best meet times in the 400m earlier in the year.
So, what did Mboma do for a chance to participate in the Games? She competed in the women's 200m as there was no rule banning her from that event.
Professor of endocrinology and metabolism Michael Boyne says the presence of elevated levels of testosterone does have a physiological impact on a woman's body with more androgenous features, increased muscle mass, better muscle performance, an increased red blood cell count with more oxygen going to the muscles allowing them to run faster and longer and the ability for muscles to expand and contract more vigorously. And, if people take testosterone as a performance-enhancing drug, they will generally perform better.
“There are certainly a number of factors that affect athletic performance and testosterone is certainly only one of those factors; however, if you're looking for factors that differentiate male performance from female performance, the majority of biologists feel that testosterone is the primary factor that distinguishes that.” (Joanna Harper Loughborough University)
As more women athletes step forward with hyperandrogenism, the sport of female sprinting is being confronted with a major bioethicist dilemma: Should female athletes be forced by the IAAF to reduce their blood testosterone levels to below 5 nmol/L for a continuous period of at least six months; and thereafter maintain their blood testosterone level below 5 nmol/L continuously (that is whether they are in competition or out of competition), for so long as they wish to remain eligible?
The fact is, however, that women with higher testosterone levels have been competing in track and field since 1932. Stella Walsh, in her 24-year career, established 20 World records and 41 Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) titles. She was a sprinter, discus thrower, and long jumper. When she was killed fatally in 1980, a post-mortem examination revealed she had a chromosomal disorder known as mosaicism that left her with sexually ambiguous genitalia. She competed as a woman all her life. (Cliff Notes Biology: XY Chromosomes Equal Boy, XX Chromosomes Equal Girl)
When double Olympic 800-m champion Caster Semenya lost her appeal against the new IAAF regulations requiring female athletes to reduce testosterone levels the Court of Arbitration of Sport judged that the IAAF's proposed rules on athletes with “differences of sex development (DSD)” are discriminatory but that “such discrimination is a necessary, reasonable and proportionate means of achieving the IAAF's aim of preserving the integrity of female athletics in the restricted events” (International Olympics Committee).
The decision ruled that 46 XY DSD athletes “enjoy a significant sporting advantage… over 46 XX athletes without such differences in sex development” due to biology ( The Guardian, 2021).
But why to only restricted events? The question or research should now be whether the alleged proven advantage these athletes have when running long distances exist when running short distances. Who will usher in that kind of research?
In other words, if her testosterone levels are close to a Usain Bolt should she be in the same race with an Elaine Thompson-Herah? Whether it be the 200m or the 100m? Or should women who present with this condition be completely banned from running in all races with other women based on performance advantage from their natural elevated testosterone levels?
In speaking with Garth Gayle, president of the Jamaica Athletics Administrative Association (JAAA), he confirmed the organisation's support of the IAAF regulations. Notwithstanding this, he stated our junior and senior female athletes have the personal choice to compete in races with women known to have elevated testosterone levels.
This past week Burundian runner Francine Niyonsaba, who has a DSD, broke a world record and set a new 2,000m record at a Continental Tour Gold meeting in Zagreb, Croatia. Niyonsaba, who was the 2016 Rio Olympic Games silver medallist in the 800m, had to move up in distance because of the ban:
“I am feeling seriously wonderful… it was my first time here. I came here to do what I have to do,” Niyonsaba said after the race reported CNN.com.
Now that athletes with hyperandrogenism are being allowed to compete in the sprints, it is just a matter of time before we see their impact there too. Christine Mboma went on to win two sections of the Diamond League race series in the women's 200m and the women's 200m final at the Continental Tour Gold meeting post the Olympic games. That's pretty impressive for an 18-year-old girl who just started training and running this event in July.
Lisa Hanna is Member of Parliament for St Ann South Eastern, People's National Party spokesperson on foreign affairs and foreign trade, and a former Cabinet member.
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