Dr Annette Brömdal, an intersex health and rights scholar, has led a critical policy analysis of how women athletes born with particular intersex variations and with elevated levels of testosterone are represented and governed by World Athletics.
Last month, South African runner and two-time Olympic champion Caster Semenya lost her Swiss Federal Supreme Court appeal against World Athletics to be allowed to compete at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 and defend her 800-metre title, unless she reduces her naturally occurring high testosterone levels through the use of hormonal contraceptives.
“Since the 1930s, medical representatives have proposed the need for policies to ‘protect’ athletes in women’s competition from ‘unfair competition’,”
The target group of such policies has consistently been women with intersex variations, however which intersex variations, and the language used to refer to the ‘undesirable’ athletes, have shifted numerous times,” Dr Brömdal said.
“The research I’m leading is attempting to highlight human rights issues and bioethical concerns that run incredibly deep at the highest levels of elite sport. Women with intersex variations have been historically marked as being a ‘problem’ in elite sport and that’s related in part to societal views defining particular bodies and athletic abilities in women’s sport as either ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.
Dr Brömdal said when someone is born with genetic variations that make them incredibly tall, society celebrates that trait when it’s used to their advantage to play basketball, but women born with the genetic variation of elevated testosterone are systematically told they don’t belong.
“Parallel to this, men who have been diagnosed with low testosterone, such as being diagnosed with the intersex variation Klinefelter’s syndrome, are allowed to take synthetic testosterone for health reasons in line with the World Anti-Doping Agency’s Therapeutic Use Exemptions Guidelines, which raise noteworthy contradictions,” she said.
The research led by Dr Brömdal has been published in the International Journal of Sport Policy and Politics and encourages sports governing bodies to better advocate for human rights and biomedical ethics.
“The medical ethics and rights of all athletes in elite sport is a major issue, so it’s important that the powerful voices representing sports women are challenged persistently around how they treat those who are simply born with differing hormone levels,” Dr Brömdal said.
“The research methodology employed by World Athletics to determine who can and who cannot compete needs to be under the spotlight in an effort to ensure policies are developed transparently and in line with international medical ethics and human rights standards.”