27th February 2019

Sebastian Coe defends IAAF’s DSD Regulations

Sebastian Coe, President of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), has defended the introduction of its Eligibility Regulations for the Female Classification (Athletes with Differences of Sex Development), which were challenged by the Caster Semenya at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) last week. “It is the responsibility of an International Federation – the governing body of a sport – to maintain a fair field of competition when you are looking at athletic competition”, said Coe, who arrived at the CAS in Lausanne last week, in an interview with Nick Butler for ARD’s SportsChau (below).

“The dominant factor in the outcome of any competition is testosterone”, continued Coe. “It’s about muscle mass, it’s about oxygenation, it’s about bone density. It’s the dominant feature. If you have women – legal women – with testes that are producing levels of testosterone that are in the male range, then you clearly have a massive advantage – a huge disadvantage to biological females.

“You have athletes that are producing testosterone that is within some of the higher levels of male testosterone. That cannot be a fair and free and open type of competition […] If we were back in 2009, we would have either created another category, or prevented them from competing in total. We’re not doing that. We are setting a set or Regulations that will allow them to compete, but with some fairness, given the biology that is to their advantage.”

However, not everybody agrees that testosterone is the “dominant factor in the outcome of any competition”, as Coe asserts. “It [testosterone] does not bring the performance advantage that the IAAF claims it does”, Katrina Karkazis, author of Testosterone: An Unauthorised Biography, told the BBC, reports The Independent. “It is one factor among many that contribute to athleticism. It is not the decisive factor. So it is impossible to say and it is untrue that people with the highest levels do better and that there is a dose-response relationship, if you will, that this much testosterone will produce this much performance benefit. It is far more complicated than this.”

Regarding performance advantage, Dr. Dick Swaab of the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience asserts that testosterone is only half the story. ‘The focus is now on the level of testosterone, which is easy to determine, but only half the truth’, he wrote in an email to The Sports Integrity Initiative. ‘In order to let testosterone work on muscles, bones brains etc., an androgen receptor and a whole molecular cascade that is stimulated by the receptor is needed. There are many variations (polymorphisms, SNPs [single‐nucleotide polymorphisms]) in the receptor and related molecules that determine the sensitivity of a cell to testosterone. A receptor complex that is more sensitive to testosterone can also be seen as ‘unfair’. A receptor complex that is less sensitive to testosterone needs more testosterone to function in a ‘normal way’. The sensitivity to testosterone is not easy to determine.

‘A second, more philosophical point. We have all millions of such small variations (SNPs) in our DNA. The variation was the driver of our evolution. Elite athletes are people that have an exceptional combination of such SNPs in their DNA to start with. Consequently, fair play does not exist. I realise that the consequences of both remarks are not easy to implement in elite sports.’

Coe’s comments are also likely to be of interest to those that consider preventing Caster Semenya from competing as a female due to her unique physiology would be an infringement of her human rights. Coe describes the DSD Regulations – as they have become known – as applying to “legal women” with testes, but asserts that such women have an advantage over “biological females”. That statement could be viewed as an assertion that women covered by the DSD Regulations are not biological females – an assertion the IAAF has previously denied.

‘The IAAF is not classifying any DSD (Differences of Sexual Development) athlete as male’, read an IAAF statement issued in response to an article in The Times. ‘To the contrary, we accept their legal sex without question, and permit them to compete in the female category’.

The CAS is expected to issue its judgment in the Semenya case by 26 March. If Caster Semenya is unsuccessful in her appeal against the DSD Regulations, they would require her to lower her testosterone levels to below 5 mol/L for six months prior to competing. If the CAS judgment is delayed by a single day, then Semenya would be prevented from competing at the Doha 2019 IAAF World Championships, which take place six months and one day after the CAS’s expected judgment date (27 September to 6 October). The women’s 800m Heats are held on 27 September.

When agreeing to postpone its planned 1 November 2018 introduction of the DSD Regulations, after they were challenged by Semenya, the IAAF sent out a letter to member federations. It warned that athletes could miss out on key events leading up to the Worlds, and offered support to any athlete who wished to comply with the Regulations while they were suspended in order that they could return to competition sooner, if the Regulations were reinstated. However, it doesn’t appear to have warned member federations that unless athletes covered by the DSD Regulations did this, they risked missing the 2019 Worlds.

“We recognise that this five-month shift in the timetable from a November to a late March start date could result in affected athletes having to sit out the bulk of the outdoor season leading up to the IAAF World Championships, including international competitions such as the Diamond League which begin in May 2019”, read a letter from IAAF Health & Science Department Director, Dr. Stéphane Bermon, said the IAAF in a statement. “The original November 1 start date was designed specifically to avoid this. Because of this, although the Regulations are formally stayed pending the outcome of the CAS proceeding, the IAAF Health and Science Department stands ready to support athletes and receive biological results from individual athletes with DSDs wishing to start their six-month suppression period at any time from today. Athletes wishing to begin their six-month period sooner than the end of March should contact me directly.”

Dr. Stéphane Bermon is also the key author behind much of the research used by the IAAF in support of the DSD Regulations. Last summer, the IAAF was forced to re-submit a 2017 Study authored by Bermon in support of the DSD Regulations, after inaccuracies were found in the data used to underpin it. 

In a February 2019 article published by the Asser International Sports Law Journal, it is alleged that the revised Study remains the bedrock to the DSD Regulations, despite many of the flaws not having been corrected. Researchers found that the times of athletes disqualified for doping had been included in the Study, as well as duplication of some athletes and times. The Study is also based on the Daegu 2011 and Moscow 2013 IAAF World Championships, where significant doping is alleged to have taken place. For further analysis of the IAAF’s evidence in support of the DSD Regulations, click here.

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