Last week, the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that female athletes with naturally elevated levels of testosterone could not compete as women unless they made efforts to reduce the hormone in their bodies.
The face of this controversial decision, Olympic gold medalist Caster Semenya, a South African mid-distance runner, who filed a case against the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF), challenging the fairness of their recent ruling requiring hyperandrogenous athletes to take medication to lower their testosterone levels.
On May 1, 2019 the court rejected her challenge.
This news sent my mind swirling.
As an athlete, I bought into the myths around testosterone: I believed that athletes with naturally higher levels of testosterone had an advantage, period.
And. Because their hormone levels were out of my control, I focused on the things I could control.
I also knew full well that there were parts of my DNA that gave me an advantage: my height and hyper-flexible joints just to name two. Genetic advantages were everywhere. Some you could see, some you couldn’t — heck, Michael Phelps was a teammate of mine.
So, when a friend shared this piece from the New York Times: The Myth of Testosterone: It is not the “male sex hormone,” nor is it the key to athletic performance. Why do we insist otherwise? I wondered what the myth was - and how they could possibly claim that it’s not the key to athletic performance as I had believed.
I opened it anyway. And I’m so glad I did.
The studies mentioned in this piece clash with what I thought I knew about testosterone + its impact on performance:
"The problem with trying to flatten athleticism into a single dimension is illustrated especially well by a 2004 study published in The Journal of Sports Sciences.
The study analyzed testosterone and different types of strength among men who were elite amateur weight lifters and cyclists or physically fit non-athletes. Weight lifters had higher testosterone than cyclists and showed more explosive strength. But the cyclists, who had lower testosterone than both other groups, scored much higher than the others on “maximal workload,” an endurance type of strength.
Across the three groups, there was no relationship between testosterone and explosive strength, and a negative relationship between testosterone and maximal workload.
Though small, that study isn’t an outlier: Similar complex patterns of mixed, positive and negative relationships with testosterone are found throughout the literature, involving a wide range of sports."
Our brains actively seek out information + evidence to validate existing beliefs - even if those beliefs aren’t grounded in truth.
So in all my humanness, my brain’s first reaction was to categorize both studies mentioned as bullshit. Too small a sample size. Hidden agenda. Testosterone mattered in swimming. My mind racing to protect itself and make this new information fit with my existing beliefs.
Human brains don’t like being in this space of cognitive dissonance (where new information clashes with existing beliefs) because it causes discomfort. And mine is no exception.
Our beliefs impact the way we see the world - and at times, those beliefs can blind us to new information. It’s our job as humans to ask ourselves HOW, not if, our beliefs are impacting the way we see ourselves, each other and the world.
Instead of dismissing what I was reading, I chose curiosity.
I clicked on the links to the studies. I started asking questions.
I still have questions. And what I know for sure is that it’s not so simple.
That these myths about testosterone are so deeply woven into the culture of the athletic arena is alarming.
When the International Association of Athletics Federations president, Seb Coe, was asked "whether he would delay the regulations for the 1,500-meter and the mile races — regulated events for which the court said there was no evidence of a difference in performance among athletes with different testosterone levels,” he simply replied, “No.”
As a biology and anatomy + physiology teacher, I've always wondered how / when the sporting world would collide with this boxed in, black-and-white concept of gender. In our class discussions, we would dive into the most complex conversations around gender + sport - never fully landing on an 'easy,' straight forward answer.
The messiness made them uncomfortable. And, I always felt like it was one of the most powerful discussions of the year. Because, where in life do things fit so neatly into boxes?
And that’s exactly what it feels like we’re trying to do here.
As a human who identifies as female raising four little humans, this ruling has me feeling all the feels. Mostly outrage.
The concept of leveling the playing field is important.
We have to ask ourselves if it’s really leveling the playing field if there are studies that show, for most sports, there is no correlation between these high level of testosterone and superior performance.
How are we defining leveling?
Even if it was true - even if we had a mountain of evidence that correlates naturally high testosterone levels with superior performance,
We have to ask ourselves at what cost?
And what about other genetic advantages? Are we going to level those?
MP might have been born with a genetic gift that gave him fins for feet. And an ability to clear lactic acid faster than anyone I’ve ever swam with - because his body didn’t produce as much. AND. Those genetic gifts certainly wouldn’t have given taken him to the top of the podium without all of the other attributes that allowed him to achieve at such a high level, for so long.
We’re complex humans. There’s no chance things are going to be equal.
Where + how do we draw the line? I’m not sure I have a definitive answer here.
I love what Olympian and Professor of Kinesiology, Bruce Kidd writes:
“Then there’s the ethical question. On what basis do you exclude athletes because of who they are? Natural testosterone is a human condition. When I used to urge athletes against doping, I often said “play with your own chemicals.” Now the IAAF is banning female athletes who play with their own chemicals. The Court of Arbitration for Sport emphasized that Semenya was not cheating, and that she should be admired for her athleticism and courage.”
Forcing a female athlete to take drugs in an attempt to lower her naturally occurring hormones?
It feels like a dangerous, slippery, unethical slope.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.
Samantha Arsenault Livingstone is an Olympic Gold Medalist, high-performance coach and consultant, transformational speaker, educator and entrepreneur. She is the founder of Livingstone High Performance, LLC., the Rise Free Academy and the online course, Strengthening Our Emotional Agility — inspiring, empowering and equipping athletes, coaches and women who lead with the skills they need to cultivate high-performance - to achieve AND feel fulfilled along the way.
In addition to private and group coaching, Samantha consults with teams and organizations on athlete wellness, Mindful Sport Performance Enhancement (MSPE), leadership, courage building, rising skills and creating high-performance environments.
A mama of heart warrior and mama of twins, Samantha and her husband, Rob, live in the Berkshires with their four girls. To learn more about her offerings, go over to www.samanthalivingstone.com