Field Theory by Hadyn Green


Testosterone and the running woman

Caster Semenya has a testosterone level three times that of the average woman. That is what is currently being reported. Of course no one would expect an average woman (or even the average man) to have the muscle density necessary to win gold in the 800m at the World Athletic Championships.

So what are the levels of the average woman? The International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) considers a testosterone-oestrogen ratio of 1:1 normal for men and women.

What are considered "normal" levels vary from individual to individual and in the individual themselves depending on several factors: Testosterone levels vary during the menstrual cycle as do other sex hormones, testosterone peaks during the middle phase of the cycle around the time of ovulation.

It also fluctuates during the day; levels are higher in women in the morning than later in the day. Levels also decline with age gradually before menopause but not over the time of natural menopause. Testosterone levels of women in their 40s is half of those in their 20s.

Moreover, birth-control, training for athletics, and gaining muscle mass can also do crazy things to a woman's testosterone levels.

None of this is meant to explain the variance in Semenya's test; it is merely to give some perspective. According to reliable reports Semenya was born with a form of hermaphroditism. What is unknown is if she has had surgery to remove any male gonad tissue she may have had, and if so, when.

The IAAF has thought through these possibilities and does have protocols for them (pdf).

5. Reconstructive surgery and sex reassignment

  • if sex change operations as well as appropriate hormone replacement therapy are performed before puberty then the athlete is allowed to compete as a female
  • if the sex change and hormone therapy is done after puberty then the athlete has to wait two years after gonadectomy before a physical and endocrinological evaluation is conducted

(The crux of the matter is that the athlete should not be enjoying the benefits of natural testosterone predominance normally seen in a male)

6. Conditions that should be allowed:
(a) Those conditions that accord no advantage over other females:

  • Androgen insensitivity syndrome (Complete or almost complete - previously called testicular feminization);
  • Gonadal dysgenesis (gonads should be removed surgically to avoid malignancy);
  • Turner's syndrome.

(b) Those conditions that may accord some advantages but nevertheless acceptable:

  • Congenital adrenal hyperplasia;
  • Androgen producing tumors;
  • Anovulatory androgen excess (polycystic ovary syndrome).

So as you can see, this isn't a feminist issue as has been put forward on some sites that centre on those issues. If anything it's an issue to do with biological conditions, you could even say it's an issue with disabilities. She may have some medical issue causing her testosterone levels to be too high and a panel comprising of a gynaecologist, an endocrinologist, a psychologist, an internal medicine specialist, and an expert on gender/transgender issues will determine what exactly is going on.

Sadly the South African authorities did not do proper testing before Semenya reached Berlin.

However, to say Semenya was unfairly singled out because she looks a bit like a man is like saying a swimmer is unfairly targeted because you can see the outboard motor she has strapped to her butt. If you look like you might be cheating then you'll get tested. And there is precedent.

So having extra testosterone is cheating because it's a steroid hormone, it helps you build muscle and grow hair and possibly gives you the ability to back a trailer. Various athletes (men and women) have had excuses about why they might have higher levels of testosterone than normal (as decided by the T/E ratio). "Recently had sex" is a common one. As is "was drinking the night before". That's what cheating motherfucker Floyd Landis said after he was caught.

Speaking of cycling, Lance Armstrong had his testosterone levels altered when he had a gonad removed.

Now as for steroids in general, let's get this straight right now. If you can't hit the ball now, no amount of steroids, human growth hormones, blood-doping or extra testosterone is going to help you. But if you can hit, then… wow.

Looking at baseball in 2007, Roger Tobin published a paper in the American Journal of Physics saying that a ten percent increase in muscle mass would create a four percent increase in the speed of ball off the end of the bat. That four percent translates into 50 percent more home runs.

That's huge, but it's not the main issue with steroids.

For a start this only helps hitters, what about pitchers? Pitchers can increase the speed of their pitches by roughly five percent, that isn't a huge increase in speed and is not significant if a hitter can hit your 90mph fastball already.

Pitching is about deceiving the batter into swinging for a ball at the wrong time or place, and increased muscle mass isn't going to help that.

Here's what taking steroids does for pitchers, footballers and other athletes where pure muscle mass isn't an advantage, it allows them to keep going.

Sabermetrician Bill James wrote a position paper that claimed that "steroids was no harm to baseball". No harm at all because:

One of the characteristics of the steroid era was that we had several dozen players who continued to improve beyond the normal aging time frame, so that many of them had their best seasons past the age of 32. … But what does it mean? It means that steroids keep you young. … Well, if steroids keep you young, what's wrong with that?

So pitchers, like Roger Clemens (one of the many players of baseball's "Steroid Era"), can keep putting off retirement, keep earning money and keep adding numbers to records. Longevity is not something that can be replicated with muscle-training at the gym, at least not with a day-to-day sport like baseball or even football, basketball or cricket.

Suddenly all those records set years ago are within reach. Even Cal Ripkin's ones.

It should be noted that muscle-training can be effective.

At the last Olympics, American swimmer Dana Torres competed in the 50m freestyle. A typical day for her was swimming followed by hours of intense training of individual muscles to do particular things. This is not the type of training Michael Phelps does; it's not the type of training Torres did when she won her first gold medal, a year before Phelps was born. She didn't win at the Olympics, but she showed that great athletes can still be competitive for many years after their peak.

As for Semenya; if she's found to be within the limits of IAAF regulations then good luck to her. The atmosphere before her 800m final was apparently quite ugly and afterwards wasn't much better. She won't be able to find a friendly track anywhere outside of South Africa (where she apparently has quite a fan base). She'll smash records but her career will be very short because if she shows up to a meet, then other runners won't.

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