If you prefer to consume your sports without sex, this week’s column may not be for you. In an effort to maintain “fair and meaningful competition within the female classification,” and ensure a level playing field, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), track and field’s world governing body, recently published regulations limiting testosterone levels in female athletes who compete on the world stage.
Women with naturally produced testosterone levels above certain limits who wish to compete in international events will be forced to elect one of three unsatisfactory options: undergo hormone therapy to lower – and maintain - their testosterone levels, compete against men or give up their careers.
Ironically, hormone therapy to reduce testosterone levels causes physiological change, the reverse of PEDs, which the IAAF prohibits. The regulations were developed after the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) suspended prior rules in 2015.
The court said the IAAF had insufficiently quantified the performance advantage gained by athletes with raised testosterone levels. So, the IAAF commissioned a study which showed that women with elevated testosterone levels gained a competitive advantage from 1.78 percent to 4.53 percent in middle-distance events, the hammer throw and the pole vault, although curiously, only middle-distance events are affected by the new regulations. The IAAF’s latest study said most women, including elite female athletes, have testosterone levels from 0.12 to 1.79 nanomoles per liter, while the normal range for men is 7.7 to 29.4 nanomoles per liter.
According to the IAAF, when women have testosterone levels between five and 10 nanomoles per liter they gain a clear performance advantage over other women derived from a “4.4 percent increase in muscle mass, a 12 percent to 26 percent increase in muscle strength and a 7.8 percent increase in hemoglobin,” which transports oxygen in red blood cells.
“To the best of our knowledge, there is no other genetic or biological trait (i.e., testosterone levels) encountered in female athletics that confers such a huge performance advantage,” the IAAF said
Some women are born “intersex,” meaning they “do not fit typical binary notions of male or female bodies,” according to a definition by the human rights arm of the United Nations. Intersex individuals typically display both male and female sex organs, which can result in higher testosterone levels than non-intersex females. The regulations were both supported and criticized by athletes and professionals across the globe. I’m not a scientist, so I can’t comment on the effect of testosterone on athletic performance. However, common sense tells us there are a number of factors beyond testosterone levels that affect athletic performance, including some of a “genetic and biological” nature such as height, body build, oxygen-carrying capacity and stride length.
In addition, nutrition, age, weight, coaching and training also affect athletic performance. There is no such thing as a “level” playing field in sports. If it existed, I would have played left field for the Boston Red Sox.
Perhaps the IAAF should get out of the sex business and stick to regulating facilities to ensure fair competition.
Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a professor in and chair of the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog, sportsbeyondthelines.com. The opinions in this column are the author’s. Kobritz can be reached at email@example.com.