New Olympic testosterone-testing rules for female athletes spark debate

The International Olympic Committee has issued new rules for the 2012 London Games that would require checking testosterone levels in athletes whose eligibility as females is called into question.

Several elite female athletes have previously been accused of secretly being males, including South African runner Caster Semenya , who was investigated and later cleared after her 2009 world championship victory in the 800-meter event drew accusations from competitors.

The IOC says its intent is to identify athletes who would be ineligible “by reason of hormonal characteristics”—not to determine gender, but the policy has drawn criticism. Stanford University bioethicist Katrina Karkazis said the inclusion of a gynecologist and geneticist on the IOC examining panel contradicts this message. “It’s way more than a blood test or a series of blood tests. There will be genital exams, there will be genetic testing,” she said.

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Athletes will be disqualified to compete as females if they are found with testosterone levels typical of males, and if they possess cellular receptors that respond to the hormone’s effects, which include boosting muscle mass and strength.

“They chose something that really does discriminate between males and females,” said Dr. Joshua Safer, an endocrinologist at Boston Medical Center and expert in transgender care. Testosterone levels vary from one individual to another and, for a given individual, can vary widely by time of day. But the overall ranges of testosterone are about 10 times higher in men than in women, he said.

“I understand there may be other issues at hand, and I may even be sympathetic to them, but from an endocrinology perspective, they made a reasonable choice,” Safer said.

Even so, critics of the policy maintain that the link between testosterone levels and athletic ability are not clear. “You would have to have evidence that women beyond a certain testosterone level in fact performed consistently better than women below that level. There is no data on that. Zip,” said Rebecca Jordan-Young, associate professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Barnard College.

Jordan-Young worries that the rule could bring unfair scrutiny and invasive medical testing upon female athletes who challenge traditional notions of feminine appearance and mannerisms.