“High” Testosterone levels shouldn’t prevent Women from Competing


Kimberly Wilson, Opinion Editor

Reading Time: 3 minutes


The Court of Arbitration for Sport recently ruled female athletes with high testosterone levels can no longer compete as women. The ruling came in the legal case brought against the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) by South African middle distance runner Caster Semenya. The professional female athletes who will be affected by this decision cannot control the hormones their bodies naturally produce. They should not be punished for a naturally occurring process in their bodies.

Semenya has long been a controversial figure in the world of track and field. The IAAF argues the high levels of testosterone in Semenya and other female athletes like her such as Indian sprinter Dutee Chand give them an unfair advantage over their competitors whose testosterone levels are in the so-called acceptable range of below five nanomoles per liter (5nmol/L).

Over the years many fans of the sport have also negatively commented on Semenya’s physique. Many believe she appears to be “stronger” and “more powerful” than her opponents, and that her high levels of testosterone contribute to this.

Semenya’s testosterone levels should not be seen as more abnormal than any other natural physical advantage many other prominent athletes possess. Famous sprinter Usain Bolt’s height has been said to give him a significant advantage on the track. His 6’ 5’’ frame makes him noticeably taller than many of his rivals and allows him to take longer strides than many other sprinters.

In an article published on the Telegraph’s website by Claire Thomas, Sports Biomechanics Laboratory Director of Cardiff Metropolitan University Dr. Ian Bezodis states, “There is a balance to be found for tall athletes, which Bolt manages, combining a long step length with a step frequency high enough to run faster than anyone else.”

Multiple-time Olympic gold medal swimmer Michael Phelps’ “proportionally longer wingspan” also gives him what many believe to be an advantageous reach. According to an article by Adam Hadhazy on Scientific American’s website, Phelps is also double jointed, which gives him even more of an edge in the water.

This attribute means his “size-14 feet reportedly bend 15 degrees farther at the ankle than most other swimmers, turning his feet into virtual flippers.” The article also states that this flexibility can be found in Phelps’ knees and elbows as well, “possibly allowing him to get more out of each stroke.”  

If these and many other athletes are able to compete freely with the physical advantages they were born with, it is nonsensical to state that Semenya and others like her should be held to a different standard. Testosterone has long been thought of as the hallmark “male” hormone, and it is for this reason many say Semenya’s increased levels give her an unfair advantage against other women.

Another article published on Scientific American’s website states studies have shown there is no scientific evidence high levels of testosterone actually increase athletic performance in males or females.

The article posits high testosterone levels are “not always synonymous with good performance,” and notes that several top-level male athletes even have testosterone levels that “dip into the female range.”

The side effects of the measures these women would have to take to reduce their testosterone levels are also reportedly quite severe. The same article on Scientific American states the athletes would either have to take medication that would suppress their hormones or undergo surgery to get rid of hormone producing organs. Side effects of these measures could include an electrolyte imbalance that could result in an irregular heartbeat as well as nausea and excessive thirst and urination.

There is no reason for athletes to have to withstand the serious physical and emotional toll lowering their natural hormone levels would lead to. The IAAF claims high testosterone levels give these female athletes an unfair advantage. But what is really unfair is their insistence on implementing a punitive rule against athletes who have done nothing wrong.