Nearly four years after it announced a set of rules to restrict the participation of DSD (Difference in Sex Development) athletes in some of the athletics events, World Athletics (WA), has brought in a new set of regulations that would bar DSD athletes across all events.
WA, formerly IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations), announced this decision, along with the one that concerned barring transgender from its competitions, after its Council meeting on March 23.
The decision to bar DSD athletes in all events if they failed to meet certain conditions specified by WA had long been widely speculated since restricting them in some events, say for example the 400 metres, and not in some others, say for example, the hammer throw made little sense to anybody, least of all to the scientific community.
The latest decision will have far-reaching consequences since it encompasses all events including those in which some of the known DSD athletes, especially from Africa, have participated in major championships including the Tokyo Olympics, World junior championships and last year’s Commonwealth Games.
Should she overcome her current uncertainty over participation because of a provisional doping suspension, and express her desire to continue in athletics, India’s record-holder Dutee Chand would also be affected by the extension of the DSD regulations to all events. The Odisha woman is currently the national record holder in the 100 metres.
It was Dutee Chand who challenged the IAAF’s hyperandrogenism regulations in the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in October 2014. Backed by a set of international activists and lawyers, the Indian sprinter had won her appeal in the CAS next year, paving the way for many athletes, pegged down by the hyperandrogenism rules, to stage remarkable comebacks.
However, in 2019, the IAAF introduced new gender regulations namely the Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athletes with Differences of Sex Development), what we now know as DSD regulations. These rules were then challenged in CAS by the former Olympic and world champion, Caster Semenya of South Africa.
In May 2019, in a landmark judgement, CAS rejected Semenya’s appeal and ruled that the IAAF regulations were in order even if they were “discriminatory”. Still later, Semenya lost another appeal in the Swiss Federal Tribunal. Her appeal with the European Court of Human Rights is still pending. She tried to make a mark in other events and even tried the 5000m in the last World championships but could not make the final.
If earlier, the IAAF regulations applied to events ranging from the 400m to 1500m (also in the combined events where these figured) and the metric mile the latest rules announced by WA would bar all athletes competing without meeting certain conditions under the DSD regulations including athletes like Namibia’s Christine Mboma who won the Olympic silver in Tokyo in the 200m and won the title over the same distance in the 2021 World junior championships. She also won the bronze in the 200m in the Birmingham Commonwealth Games last year.
Further legal challenges could be expected in the coming months both against the DSD regulations and the transgender rules, but the women in athletics, left with little choice but to compete with these athletes would be relieved even if they normally do not come forward to argue their case. Of late, many of those arguing for fairness in women’s competitions had been pressing for rules to bar transgender athletes. Some of the international federations have introduced such regulations but the International Olympic Committee (IOC) took a neutral stand, leaving the task to the federations. Many independent observers and former athletes have suggested that it would be better to create a separate category for transgender and DSD athletes.
The WA’s 2023 DSD regulations are more elaborate than their previous versions. They require the athletes to be responsible for whatever they could be expected to do to meet the requirements of the WA Medical Manager or the Expert Group to be appointed by the WA.
The regulations say: “…surgical anatomical changes are not required in any circumstances.”
The above clause is obviously inserted to rebut the worldwide criticism that previous rules necessitated the athletes to undergo surgery as an alternative to continuous testosterone suppression therapy to help them reduce their androgens.
The latest rules have fixed the testosterone levels to less than 2nmol/L (nanomoles per litre) compared to the 5nmol/L limit prescribed in the previous rules.
Athlete will have one of the DSD conditions listed:
i. 5α-reductase type 2 deficiency;
ii. partial androgen insensitivity syndrome (PAIS);
iii. 17β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase type 3 (17β- HSD3) deficiency;
iv. ovotesticular DSD; or
v. any other genetic disorder involving disordered gonadal steroidogenesis;
The individuals, as explained in the rules, will have fully functional testes (internal) rather than ovaries. They would be sensitive to androgens leading to a much higher level of testosterone than usually present in females.
It is an established fact that testosterone in larger quantities is produced by the testes in males though the ovaries in females also produce the male hormone. The anti-regulations lobby had been arguing through the years that ignorance about the source of testosterone had led to the argument that testosterone was a male hormone while it was not.
The CAS, in 2015, had asked the IAAF to bring concrete proof that the male levels of testosterone was crucial in athletics performance. Later the IAAF presented a research paper based on performances in two World championships and argued that higher testosterone levels had considerable bearing on performances in certain events.
Athletes would now be expected to approach the authorities if they are aware of their condition or the WA Medical Manager could be getting information from other sources, say from an anti-doping procedure in which the serum levels of androgens have been determined. At the secondary level of consultations, the Expert Panel would be involved.
DSD athletes wishing to compete in the female group, if identified, would be expected to maintain their testosterone levels below 2nmol/L throughout a 24-month period during which, just like in anti-doping procedures, they would be required to furnish “whereabouts” information to the WA. The entire procedure, at the national level as well as the WA level, would be kept confidential.
As an interim measure, if the athletes in the previously unrestricted events want to compete after the March 31 deadline, they have to give a two-week notice to the Medical Manager to inform that they would comply with the requirements by July 2023. They would then be able to compete in unrestricted events after six months of testosterone suppression.
The new restrictions would apply to all athletes in all events competing in World-ranking events. Effectively, this shuts out athletes wishing to compete at any of the events, national or international, that are included in the WA Global Calendar for ranking purposes. This schedule comprises international events plus national events notified in advance by national federations to the WA. Previously, the restrictions were not applicable to domestic meets and lower-category international meets.
Disciplinary action would be initiated by the WA against national federations if they fail to stick to regulations. Athletes could also face disciplinary action if they violate rules. Those failing to meet requirements or refusing to go through with the procedures would eventually become ineligible to compete.
In India, the possibility of having at least one leading athlete coming under the latest rules and thus being declared ineligible is being speculated. It has been speculated for the past few years but the confidentiality clauses in the rules made sure that the federation would not reveal the name.
It is not known whether the WA had undertaken further research during the post-2019 period to support its case to extend the DSD restrictions across all events.
As for the transgender rules, the WA has backtracked on its proposals to allow them as reported in a British publication last January. It has apparently taken the line adopted by the International Swimming Federation (FINA) in the transgender debate. It was apparent there was little support from within the athletics family for the earlier proposals to allow transgender with certain restrictions in place.
It has been decided now to exclude male-to-female transgender athletes “who have been through male puberty “from world-ranking competitions in female events.
According to WA president, Sebastian Coe, there were no transgender athletes competing in the world right now. In India, too, there had been no indication that transgender athletes were competing in any sport.