What is femininity?

New rules could mean some female track runners might have to race against men

South Africa's Caster Semenya. (ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images)

The world governing body for the sport of track and field has imposed new regulations to require women with naturally elevated testosterone levels to either lower the amount of the hormone in their bodies or compete with men. The new rules, which will only apply to middle distance races of 400 meters to one mile, are the latest attempt by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) to bar what the group calls “athletes with differences of sexual development” from competition. In 2015, the IAAF’s ban on women with elevated testosterone levels was suspended by the Court of Arbitration for Sport after the federation failed to provide evidence that the hormone significantly impacted competition.

According to a study commissioned by the IAAF following the suspension of its previous ban, women with elevated testosterone levels gained a competitive advantage from 1.78 to 4.53 percent in events such as the 400 meters, the 400-meter hurdles, the 800 meters, the hammer throw and the pole vault. But according to Katrina Karkazis, a bioethicist and visiting senior fellow at the Global Health Justice Partnership at Yale who specializes in hyperandrogenism and athletic performance, the new ban is political rather than practical in nature — and based on shaky science to boot.

Athletes in the hammer throw and pole vault, which showed the highest performance advantage with elevated testosterone according to the IAAF, are not targeted by the organization’s ban. Karkazis has suggested that the organization appears to be attempting to target specific athletes in middle- to long-distance running such as South African runner Caster Semenya, a two-time Olympic champion in the 800 meters event. Karkazis aso noted that the ban will disproportionately impact women from developing nations that do not conform to Western notions of femininity. The targeted athletes, she said, will face humiliation and a “choice of no choice” — either subject themselves to treatment that could adversely impact their health, or remove themselves from the international stage.

Read the full story at The New York Times.

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