Ever since 800 metre runner Caster Semenya’s first ever gold at the 2009 World Championships, the world has speculated about her biology.
Many pointed to the South African’s appearance – her ‘broad shoulders’ or ‘square jaw’. They said her success was down to an ‘unfair advantage’.
Caster Semenya has, unintentionally, it seems, become the face of hyperandrogenism, which causes a female to produce excessive levels of male sex hormones, including testosterone.
On May 1, the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport dismissed an appeal lodged by the 28-year-old against hormone standards proposed by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) in April 2018.
The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) ruled that Semenya would have to take medication in order to continue competing in the women’s category for her sport.
Paediatric endocrinologist Dr Jacky Hewitt told Mamamia‘s daily news podcast The Quicky, increased testosterone can give advantage to athletes – but not as much as you might think.
“The effect of testosterone on the increase in the sports capacity is thought to be around 10-12 per cent improvement… When we look at individuals with intersex variations, their average benefit is unlikely to be that 10-12 per cent because by definition these individuals were born with atypical sex variations so they are not typically biologically developed as males.
“They may have higher testosterone levels than the typical female population, but the active effect of that higher testosterone level is clearly not to the level of male, hence why they were born with an intersex variation and raised female.
“There is some data that has come from IAAF suggesting that benefit from being in the higher third of testosterone verses the lower third of testosterone confers an advantage of 1-3 per cent, but there are questions around the quality of the data.”
Hewitt rightly pointed out that conditions such as polycystic ovary syndrome, which impacts 1 in 10 women of childbearing age, can also increase testosterone levels.