By Christianna Silva
Two Kenyan sprinters were dropped from their national team over hormone tests just days after the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) effectively banned South African Olympic gold medalist Caster Semenya from competing due to her natural testosterone levels. Such decisions based on hormone levels aren’t entirely new to the sport, but the new, stricter rules are already creating rifts in medical, athletic and activist communities across the world.
The East African reported on Friday, May 10, that the Kenyan team dropped Maximila Imali and Evangeline Makena after tests marked their testosterone levels as being naturally higher than the average for female athletes. The team then decided that such results constituted a “risk” of disqualification it wasn't willing to take after an appeal made by Semenya against the IAAF's ban was rejected on May 1.
Following the decision by the court presiding over the appeal — the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), the Swiss-based high court for international sport — Semenya and other female athletes with similar test results would have to take testosterone suppressants in order to compete in the women’s division, a measure Semenya has called “discriminatory, unnecessary, unreliable, and disproportionate.”
“We could not risk traveling with the two athletes after the recent IAAF ruling on the restriction of testosterone levels on female runners,” the Athletics Kenya director of competitions Paul Mutwii told the news outlet.
Imali is familiar with such discrimination. In 2015, the 23-year-old, who holds the Kenyan 400m record, was withdrawn from the world championship in Beijing because a blood test showed she had hyperandrogenism, a condition in which the body produces more androgens, or sex hormones, than average, The East African reported.
For her part, Semenya is pushing back against CAS's decision, and the South African government has thrown their support behind her to appeal the ruling. Semenya has been fighting against rules like this for over a decade, after the IAAF made her take a “gender verification” test in 2009 when she dominated a 800-meter race, the New York Times reported.
Last year, though, the rules got stricter after the IAAF introduced a new regulation that stated female athletes with “difference of sexual development” have to meet specific criteria if they wish to compete internationally in the women’s division, including reducing their testosterone below a certain level for at least six months before their race. The regulation — now approved by CAS — will force women like Semenya, Imali, and Makena, who simply have more naturally occurring testosterone in their bodies, to change their bodies in order to compete. Even CAS admitted that the IAAF's ban was "discrimination" but nevertheless maintained it was "necessary, reasonable and proportionate" to ensuring fair competition in women's sports.
That Semenya, Imali, and Makena do have biological differences shouldn’t be cause to question their status as female athletes, especially given that testosterone isn’t a hormone specific to male bodies. In their book, Testosterone: An Unauthorized Biography, Katrina Karkazis and Rebecca M. Jordan-Young point out that testosterone is found in bodies of all genders, and the two argue that science hasn’t proven how much testosterone actually benefits athletes.
It should be noted that male athletes are not held to a similar standard, and don’t have to prove their gender in order to compete internationally like their female counterparts do. In Lindsay Parker Pieper’s book, Sex Testing: Gender Policing in Women’s Sports, she points out that these policies, that have specifically targeted women since the 1940s, range from “gender parades (show your lady parts) to gender verification cards issued by medical doctors to chromosomal cheek swabs,” Slate reported on May 1.
Commenting on the apparent double standard in an essay for the Cut, Olympic swimmer Casey Legler pointed out that Michael Phelps has an unusually low level of lactic acid that makes his muscles tires less quickly than his competitors. Legler herself has a condition called Erlhos Danlos Syndrome which results in larger hands and feet that are closer to the size of men’s than to women’s, which help propel her forward in the water.
“One difference I cannot help but notice between myself, Phelps, and [Ian] Thorpe versus Caster, is whiteness,” Legler added, echoing statements made by activists.
“This decision is biased, not only based on the fact that Caster is intersex, but that she is from South Africa, she’s a Black South African, she’s queer, and she’s gender non-conforming,” Sean Saifa Wall, co-founder of the Intersex Justice Project, told Wired on May 1. “We’ve only seen this kind of humiliation and shaming of Black and brown intersex athletes.”
“This is a scheme to demoralize us,” Imali said, according to the East African. “I am not ready to quit athletics, nor to take a suppressant treatment. I am so happy the way God made me to be.”