Caster Semenya (center), 2016 Olympic silver medalist Francine Niyonsaba (left) and bronze medalist Margaret Wambui would be denied a potential rematch in Tokyo at 800 meters because of the regulations Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Testosterone Again

In the first 2-mile race of her professional career, Burundi’s Francine Niyonsaba beat Ethiopia’s 5000m world record holder Letesenbet Gidey by six seconds in Friday’s women’s 2-mile at the Prefontaine Classic in a Hayward Field record of 9:00.75, less than two seconds off Meseret Defar’s world record.

Question: should this result reopen the conversation regarding high-testosterone in women’s athletics, or does it simply represent a particularly full-ranged athlete in top form? After all, Niyonsaba placed 5th in the Tokyo Olympic 10,000m final in 30:41.93.

Acknowledging her hyperandrogegism in 2019, Ms. Niyonsaba, the 2016 Rio Olympic 800m silver medalist, was among a handful of athletes (most famously South Africa’s Caster Semenya) forced to abandon their primary racing distances (400m up to the mile) in light of new World Athletics rules governing athletes with naturally high testosterone levels competing in those races.

Caster Semenya (center), 2016 Olympic silver medalist Francine Niyonsaba (left) and bronze medalist Margaret Wambui would be denied a potential rematch in Tokyo at 800 meters because of the regulations Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The World Athletics Council approved new eligibility rules at the 2019 World Championships in Doha, Qatar. The new rules required female athletes with naturally high testosterone levels, as well as transgender female athletes, to lower their testosterone concentration levels to a new limit of less than 5 nanomoles per liter of blood to “bring them back into a competitive balance”.

That new < 5 nmol/L limit would then have to be maintained continuously for a period of at least 12 months prior to an athlete being declared eligible for competition in the 400m to 1-mile. The previous limit was < 10 nmol/L But those lower levels would not be necessary for races contested below 400m or above the mile.

I was never good at math, so this new equation meant to represent “competitive balance” had me a bit flummoxed.

When you Google “normal testosterone measurements for females”, you discover values scaling between 0.52 to 2.43 nmol/L.  (Normal men range from 7.7 – 29.4 nmol/L).

My math-challenged male brain then wondered why an allowance nearly twice the high end of the normal limit (5.0 vs. 2.4) could be considered as “competitive balance” as it seemed decidedly imbalanced.

Why isn’t the appropriate new level for High-T and transgender females within the “normal range” topping out at 2.43 nmol/L, or rounded off at 2.50?  The answer World Athletics gave is that < 5 nmol/L is the number because that is the highest possible level that a healthy woman with ovaries would have.

Alright, but should the highest possible value become the new standard if the goal is to achieve “competitive balance”, especially if that number involves a very small but important segment of the racing population?

While that new standard may well produce an equilibrium, it’s hardly an even balance. In fact, you could argue that with no policy at all the sport had achieved equilibrium. A decidedly imbalanced one, mind you, but an equilibrium nonetheless.

Why should athletes within the normal range of 0.5 – 2.4 nmol/L be expected to compete fairly with athletes with essentially double their testosterone levels (5.0)? So they lose by, what, a lesser but still substantial margin?

Also, if regulators expect transgender or high-T females to reduce to a certain level, why not allow the non high-T or transgender athletes to go up to the same < 5.0 nmol/L limit that their high-T/transgender competitors have to come down to, all in the interest of fairness?

If World Athletics now requires drug use to lower certain athletes’ lab levels – call it performance-restricting drug use – then drug taking per se doesn’t seem to be the primary issue at hand anymore. Rather, it is the level of testosterone concentration in the athletes that officials are most concerned about.

So why not test everyone, and put them all in a similar range? If < 5 nmol/L is the number, then that’s the number for everybody. Those too high have to come down, but those below are allowed to come up.

We always talk about the winners and try to control their advantages. Why don’t we talk about the non-winners and make compensations from that end of the spectrum, too?

As always, just asking.