They may be hope for embattled South African athlete, Caster Semenya, in her case against the International Association of Athletics Federations’ (IAAF) regulations that seek to limit the testosterone levels of female athletes who can compete in women competitions.
Writing in an editorial in the British Medical Journal, Dr Sheree Bekker, from the University of Bath, and Prof Cara Tannenbaum, from the University of Montreal, said the IAAF’s regulations had the risk of "setting an unscientific precedent for other cases of genetic advantage".
Last year the IAAF set rules that were meant to regulate the amount of testosterone female athletes can be allowed to compete with. In a 22-page ruling released last year, the IAAF had stated that women who have more than 5 nano-mols per litre of testosterone in their blood—like South African sprinter and Olympic gold medalist Caster Semenya—must either compete against men or take medication to reduce their natural testosterone levels.
However, the implementation of the rules has been delayed as South African athlete Caster Semenya launched a challenge on the legality of the rules. There was an outcry around Africa as many thought the rules were targeted at the South African 800m star runner. In her own words, the Olympic gold medalist called the proposed rule "unfair", adding: "I just want to run naturally, the way I was born."
Writing in an editorial for BMJ, Tannenbaum and Bekker argue that the medical profession "does not define biological sex or physical function by serum testosterone levels alone" and they say the regulations "challenge the evidence-based, the benevolent ethos that underlies medical practice."
At the core of their argument is also the fact that there is no scientific correlation that has been established between medal winning in medal winning. This poses a challenge for the IAAF. It has previously been challenged before about similar rules by Dutee Chand, a female Indian athlete who had a condition, hyperandrogenism, which caused her to produce excess androgens.
“If more science is needed to develop an objective measure of androgen sensitivity, then call for health research organisations to deliver on this mandate,” they write. “In the meantime, complacency around the IAAF 2018 testosterone regulation for women with differences of sex development risks setting an unscientific precedent for other cases of genetic advantage.”
Prof Peter Sonksen, professor of endocrinology at St Thomas's Hospital and King's College and visiting professor at the University of Southampton, agreed that the IAAF's proposed new rules were not "fit for purpose". He viewed the regulations as “personal and targeted” at Semenya.
The Court of Arbitration for Sport is expected to issue a ruling on the controversial regulations on 26 March. Till then the sporting world remains divided with the IAAF stating that it is intent on maintaining “fairness” in the sport.