LONDON: Forcing female athletes to regulate testosterone could breach international human rights rules, according to the United Nation’s top human rights group in a rare foray into sports amid an escalating row over intersex and transgender competitors.
The move came as the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) delayed judgment until April on athlete Caster Semenya’s appeal hearing against the International Association of Athletics Federations’ (IAAF) rules on testosterone suppression.
South African 800-metres double Olympic champion Semenya is seeking to overturn a set of IAAF regulations that aim to lower the testosterone levels of intersex athletes.
Semenya was born with the intersex condition hyperandrogenism, which leads to higher amounts of testosterone.
Some rivals say this gives her a competitive advantage.
The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR) passed a South African-led resolution on eliminating discrimination against women and girls in a sport that criticised the IAAF.
It called on all countries to ensure sports organisations “refrain from developing and enforcing policies and practices that force, coerce or otherwise pressure women and girl athletes into undergoing unnecessary, humiliating and harmful medical procedures”.
An UNHRC statement late Thursday said there may have been a “lack of legitimate and justifiable evidence” for the IAAF regulations to the extent they may not be “reasonable and objective”.
The council requested a report on the intersection of race and gender discrimination in sports for June 2020.
The IAAF ruled last year that hyperandrogenic athletes must suppress testosterone levels for at least six months before being allowed to compete.
This came after the CAS suspended the IAAF’s hypoandrogenism rules in 2015, initially for an interim two years, for the IAAF to conduct more scientific research into the subject.
Hypoandrogenism, which is also known as a difference of sex development, is characterised by higher-than-usual levels of testosterone, a hormone that increases muscle mass, strength and haemoglobin, which affects endurance.
Opinion is divided on whether this can give athletes a competitive edge.
“There is no published, transparent and reproducible evidence of a clear … advantage by women athletes born with variations of sex characteristics” said Morgan Carpenter, co-executive director of Intersex Human Rights Australia on Friday.
“Exclusion from women’s competitive sport is discriminatory under such circumstances.”
A spokesman for the IAAF said the body shared common ground with the UN Human Rights Council as both believed it was important to preserve fair competition in female sport “so women are free to compete in national and international sport”.
“To do this it is necessary to ensure the female category in sport is a protected category, which requires rules and regulations to protect it, otherwise we risk losing the next generation of female athletes since they will see no path to success in the female sport,” the spokesman added.
The U.N’s move comes as the world of sport has been rocked by a vicious row over the participation of transgender women, pitting trans activists against sports stars including US tennis legend Martina Navratilova.
Whilst the resolution published on Thursday made no reference to trans athletes, the question of the competitive advantage of testosterone is at the heart of both debates.
Navratilova spoke out recently in support of more research into what she saw as competitive advantages for trans women.
Others have countered the testosterone-blocking effects of hormone therapy undergone during the transition would negate any advantage.