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The fine art of sporting fairness

Here in the sports department on The Rust we try to move with the times and stay fixed in the moment (and/or even the future) but there are occasions when – yes, even in this post-Trump false reality – one’s mind harps back with wistful nostalgia to the wacky 1961 Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley musical Stop The World – I Want To Get Off.

Cue my text for this morning’s Thought for The Day – a Press Association report upon the news that Human Rights Watch is accusing the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Associations) of discriminating against female athletes with unusually high levels of male testosterone in their bodies – a representative example of which appears today upon the website of – THE GUARDIAN

[I shall allow a short pause for Rust readers to read said item] …

So let’s get this absolutely straight, then.

This is, of course, a complicated subject. All women have some degree of testosterone in their body’s make-up. (But not too much, right?).

It is an accepted scientific fact that the properties of testosterone – e.g. the promotion of strength, endurance, aggression even – naturally tend to aid athletic/sporting performances, even (or is it especially?) in females.

Ergo, on any given day in any given sporting event, any woman who has in her body more naturally-occurring testosterone than normal (howsoever ‘normal’ for a woman is defined) will have an in-built competitive advantage over those that do not.

Furthermore – to take the point to its logical extreme – we can presume with some degree of confidence that the woman in any event who has the greatest amount of naturally-occurring testosterone in her body of all those taking part will have the greatest in-built advantage in this respect.

Is that fair and/or reasonable?

I don’t know about you, but for me a key fundamental point about sporting contests – and one which in many respects could justifiably be said to make the world go around in terms of human recreation and indeed spectator-interest – is the notion that they are taking place (physically, metaphorically and literally) on a level playing field.

In other words, both participants and onlookers want to be secure in the knowledge that what is taking place is a true contest between those who – on the face of it – are equals and who have not cheated and/or deliberately gained some unfair (disguised, immoral and/or illegal) advantage in an effort to take the winner’s spoils.

The nub of this issue, of course, is in the detail – and mostly particularly in the issue of what is ‘deliberate’ in terms of ‘taking an advantage’ and what is not.

Those like South Africa’s Caster Semenya – the most celebrated case in point – would maintain that their testosterone ‘advantage’ is natural, none of their deliberate making, and therefore should be allowed.

However, for several season now I have watched female athletic events at World, European and Olympic level on television with a decreasing amount of enjoyment.

Firstly, because in most races there are some competitors who (for good or ill) look far more masculine than others – a fact which naturally leads to suspicions on its own.

Secondly, because on the faces of those female athletes (often British) trailing up the home straight in places three, four, five and lower one can often see stark degrees of disappointment through to borderline outrage/frustration at the knowledge they are not competing as equals with those possessed of greater testosterone in their bloodstreams.

If I was in their situation I doubt I would feel any different. It’s only natural. You may work just as hard as anyone else, make the same sacrifices, go those extra miles in training … and yet, because of some freak circumstance of nature, your chances of beating a certain type of person are close to zero.

It’s not an easy subject. After all, if someone is six feet five and weighs 12 stone, arguably they have an in-built advantage in the high jump (and maybe basketball too).

Nobody could really complain about that.

Ditto if you’re five feet tall and weigh 7 stone when it comes to competing in female gymnastics. Or – as apparently Bjorn Borg did – you have a resting heart rate of only 37. Those are simply natural, perhaps genetic, sporting advantages that nobody can do anything about.

And, if you were to go to the other extreme, maybe in the female 800 metres at the Olympics they should have different events for those with ‘normal’ testosterone … for those with between 10 and 20% more testosterone than normal … those with between 20% and 40% more than normal … and so on. Then at least, arguably, each of those finals would be ‘fair’.

It’s a legal/moral minefield. I don’t envy anyone engaged in the business of administering sporting ethical and moral standards in the 21st Century.



About Tom Hollingworth

Tom Hollingsworth is a former deputy sports editor of the Daily Express. For many years he worked in a sports agency, representing mainly football players and motor racing drivers. Tom holds a private pilot’s licence and flying is his principal recreation. More Posts