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Testosterone in female athletes – gender expert comments

A new report from The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) says that female athletes with high levels of testosterone, such as Caster Semenya, could have a competitive advantage over their rivals.  Currently the Court of Arbitration for Sport has suspended a rule enforcing a limit on naturally occurring levels of testosterone in female athletes but the new research has re-opened the debate and sparked reports that these athletes may be required to take hormone therapy medication.

Caster Semenya and Alice Schmidt during 2011 World championships Athletics in Daegu

Caster Semenya and Alice Schmidt during 2011 World championships Athletics in Daegu. Pic:
Erik van Leeuwen [GFDL , via Wikimedia Commons

Expert on gender and sport at The Open University, Emeritus Professor Kath Woodward, says that gender is much more fluid than simple levels of hormones:


“The latest study could be a disaster for Caster Semenya and athletes like her who have competed all their lives as women. This is a result of previous responses to the dilemma of intersex and trans athletes – but the potential requirement for them to have HRT to reduce Testosterone levels seems punitive and unjust.


“Measuring someone’s suitability to compete on Testosterone levels alone is problematic – Testosterone is generated by competitive physical activity and some women naturally have higher levels than the norm.  Sport is distinctive, it’s different from defining your gender at work or in personal relationships, because body size, mass and structure matters – it is a dilemma.  But in my opinion the IAAF should be looking to use a combination of factors, not just the blunt level of a hormone, to determine identity.


“Although I sympathise with the IAAF, it is on the back foot and this is a step too far.”

More information:

Read Kath’s article about misogyny in sport

Free resources on sport on OpenLearn

Study Sociology with the OU


About Author

Kath works in the Media Relations team within the Communications Unit at The Open University. She is a skilled communicator with more than 15 years’ experience working in both the public and private sectors. She has a BA (Hons) English and American Literature from University of Warwick and specialises in stories from the Faculty of Social Science, Faculty of Education and Language Studies, BBC programmes, and student stories. In her spare time Kath enjoys touring the country in her hand-painted camper van, Trevor.

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