Laurel Hubbard and Caster Semenya are world-class women’s athletes, but only Semenya has been considered female her entire life. Hubbard transitioned from male to female at age 34.
Yet Hubbard is set to compete Monday in women’s weightlifting at the Tokyo Olympics while Semenya watches the Summer Games from her home in South Africa. Her bid to defend her title in the 800-meter race has been dashed by her refusal to lower her naturally occurring high testosterone levels.
The difference is that Hubbard has followed the testosterone rules in her sport and Semenya has chosen to fight them. The specter of the intersex runner being sidelined as Hubbard makes history as the first transgender women’s Olympian has inflamed the debate over fairness, inclusion and what it means to be female for purposes of elite athletic competition.
Linda Blade, author of “Unsporting: How Trans Activism and Science Denial are Destroying Sport,” said the situation illustrates the flaws in the International Olympic Committee’s 2015 guidelines, which permit transgender athletes to compete in the women’s category as long as they keep their testosterone below a certain level.
“It is impossible to change sex, even if we admit that someone has the right to identify or simulate being the opposite of what they are,” said Ms. Blade, a former Canadian track champion. “Admitting Hubbard while excluding Semenya only proves that the 2015 IOC ‘consensus’ regulation on sex reassignment and transgender athletes is arbitrary and nonsensical.”
Critics on social media have taken note of the contrast and called it a “disgrace,” “a joke in bad taste” and a “shameful paradox.”
“I’m unsure on where I stand on how transpeople should compete in the Olympics, but I find it crazy how Semenya can’t compete whilst Hubbard can,” said one message on Twitter, where the debate has raged.
The race issue has also come into play, given that Semenya is Black and the New Zealander Hubbard is White.
“Laurel Hubbard, a white trans-women: can compete in the olympics as a women. Caster Semenya, a black African woman, born a woman, banned from competing in the olympics as a women,” said a South African tweet. “I’m not against Hubbard competing, but the shifting standards are gob-smacking.”
Such frustration is understandable, said Roger Pielke Jr., a University of Colorado Boulder professor who testified as an expert witness for Semenya in her 2019 case against international track’s governing body, now called World Athletics, before the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport.
“I can understand how people might look at these cases and think they are inconsistent with one another,” said Mr. Pielke. “I think the issue is not just about fairness, but also inclusion. In Semenya‘s case, World Athletics favored exclusion. In Hubbard‘s case, IOC favored inclusion.”
Under the IOC 2015 guidelines, transgender athletes may compete in women’s sports as long as they limit their testosterone levels to below 10 nanomoles per liter starting at least six months before competition. The International Weightlifting Federation follows that standard.
Hubbard, 43, has kept her testosterone levels below the limit since she began competing in 2017, five years after her gender transition. Ranked seventh in the world, she competes Monday in the women’s +87kg category with an outside shot at a medal.
Taking a narrower path was World Athletics, which lowered its testosterone standard in 2019 to 5 nmol/L for distances of 400 meters to one mile. That rule applies to transgender runners and those with a 46 XY difference in sexual development, such as Semenya.
World Athletics, previously known as the International Association of Athletics Federations, called its lower testosterone limit “the highest level that a healthy woman with ovaries would have.”
That might even be generous. Average testosterone levels for women fall between 0.06 and 1.68 nmol/L, far below the 7.7 to 29.4 nmol/L range for men, according to World Athletics.
Those born with a 46 XY DSD, also known as hyperandrogenism, may have female or ambiguous genitalia. They have male chromosomes and internal male testes, and they typically produce testosterone after puberty at levels in the male range.
Reducing testosterone levels usually involves taking birth control pills, but the 30-year-old Semenya has refused. She said they made her feel sick when she tried them and were “taking the soul out of my body.”
“They want me to take my own system down. I’m not sick. I don’t need drugs. I will never do that,” Semenya told The Guardian in April.
‘Significant performance advantage’
Semenya‘s running career may be over. She is awaiting a ruling on her appeal at the European Court of Human Rights after losing her case before the Court of Arbitration for Sport and the Federal Supreme Court of Switzerland.
World Athletics clamped down after the 2016 Rio Olympics, where three 46 XY DSD runners swept the 800 meters: gold medalist Semenya, Burundi’s Francine Niyonsaba, who won the silver, and Margaret Wambui of Kenya, who took the bronze.
Such intersex athletes are disproportionately represented in women’s track and field, according to World Athletics, whose research over the past decade found that about 7.1 in every 1,000 elite female athletes were “DSD athletes with very high testosterone levels in the male range.”
“This frequency of DSD individuals in the elite athlete population is around 140 times higher than you will find in the general female population, and their presence on the podium is much more frequent even than this,” World Athletics said on its website. “The CAS accepted that this demonstrates, in statistical terms, that they have a significant performance advantage.”
The tougher standard derailed U.S. hurdler CeCe Telfer, the first transgender athlete to win an NCAA women’s title. She was ruled ineligible at the U.S. track and field trials in June.
Two 18-year-old Namibian track sensations, Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi, were disqualified this month from the 400-meter race after testing high for testosterone, even though the Namibian National Olympic Committee president reportedly said they both have XX chromosomes.
The Namibian government reacted by calling on sports federations to “seek ways that would not exclude any athlete because of natural conditions that are not of their own making,” OutSports reported.
The 2020 Games will have at least one intersex runner. Niyonsaba pulled off what Semenya could not by qualifying in the 5000-meter race, which falls outside the World Athletics testosterone window. Her first heat is slated for Friday.
Women’s sports advocates such as Ms. Blade argue that the Olympics should draw the line at competitors with XY chromosomes. She chided the IOC for putting off a review of its guidelines until after the Tokyo Olympics.
“The IOC admits that there must be a review of the 2015 parameters, but they will only undertake said review AFTER Tokyo 2020,” Ms. Blade said in an email. “It is beyond absurd.”
At a July 17 press conference, IOC President Thomas Bach said “you cannot change the rules during an ongoing competition,” but the committee was in an “inquiry phase” to examine the rules and “come up with some guidelines.”
“[They] cannot be rules because this is a question where there is no one-size-fits-all solution. It differs from sport to sport,” Mr. Bach said.
Semenya‘s supporters have long maintained that the runner should not be penalized for being born with a natural advantage. They compare her natural testosterone levels to long arms, exceptional height or fast-twitch muscles.
Her champions include Unilever’s Lux beauty brand, which in March launched an ad campaign called “Born This Way” and a #StandWithCaster petition in support of overturning the World Athletics rules.
“Reasonable people can disagree on what proper rules should be, but a good starting point is that no athlete should be penalized by exclusion for her naturally occurring biology since birth (Semenya) and no athlete should be stigmatized for following the rules of sport as they encounter them (Hubbard),” Mr. Pielke said in an email.
While there are no separate categories for, say, tall and short athletes, sports deliberately distinguish between men and women, said Duke Law School professor Doriane Lambelet Coleman, who has testified on behalf of the track-and-field authority.
“To say that normal male testes and T-levels when brought into the female range are to be celebrated like [swimmer] Michael Phelps’ special feet and arms and body is to ignore that sport has decided for policy reasons to set aside a woman’s category that excludes precisely the traits that define the men’s category,” she said in a May 2019 interview on the Quillette podcast.
Even those who oppose Semenya‘s competition in her preferred event have expressed sympathy for her dilemma and praised her “grace and fortitude,” as the Court of Arbitration for Sport said.
“[T]here can be no suggestion that Ms. Semenya (or any other female athletes in the same position as Ms. Semenya) has done anything wrong. This is not a case about cheating or wrongdoing of any sort,” said the April 2019 decision. “Ms. Semenya is not accused of breaching any rule. Her participation and success in elite female athletics is entirely beyond reproach.”
Semenya has made it clear that she will compete only in women’s events, but Wambui drew headlines last month by calling for a third category for female competitors whose high testosterone levels exclude them from their preferred races.
“It would be good if a third category for athletes with high testosterone was introduced because it is wrong to stop people from using their talents,” Wambui told BBC Sport Africa.
The 25-year-old athlete, who has refused to take hormones, said she wanted to “motivate others who are hiding their condition.”
“We could show them that it is not their fault, that this is how they were created,” said Wambui, “and that they’ve done nothing wrong.”