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UN condemns forcing women athletes to limit testosterone amid intersex row

South Africa's Caster Semenya athletes

The United Nation’s top human rights group has condemned moves to force female athletes to regulate testosterone levels.

The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR) has said forcing women athletes to cut testosterone intake could breach international human rights rules.

The rare intervention by the UN comes amid athlete Caster Semenya’s appeal hearing against the International Association of Athletics Federations’ (IAAF) rules on testosterone suppression.

The South African 800-meters Olympic champion has the intersex condition, hyperandrogenism, which causes higher testosterone levels, Reuters reports.

Semenya is hoping to overturn IAAF regulations designed to lower testosterone levels in intersex athletes.

However, a number of critics say that higher levels of testosterone could give trans or intersex athletes a competitive advantage.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport has delayed judgment on Semenya’s hearing until April.

‘Humiliating and harmful medical procedures’

The UNHCR criticized the IAAF in a draft resolution aimed towards ‘elimination of discrimination against women and girls in sport’.

The resolution criticizes the IAAF’s regulations for ‘female classification’ for not being ‘compatible with international human rights norms and standards, including the rights of women with differences in sex development’.

It goes on to say that sports organizations should ‘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’.

The UNHCR resolution adds that there is an ‘absence of legitimate and justifiable evidence for the [IAAF] regulations to the extent that they may not be reasonable and objective’.

Divisive issue 

Opinions remain divided as to whether or not the testosterone levels caused by hyperandrogenism gives intersex athletes an advantage.

‘There is no published, transparent and reproducible evidence of a clear … advantage by women athletes born with variations of sex characteristics,’ said Morgan Carpenter, the co-executive director of Intersex Human Rights Australia.

‘Exclusion from women’s competitive sport is discriminatory under such circumstances,’ Carpenter adds.

A spokesperson for the IAAF said the organization supported the UNHCR’s ideology.

However, he added that 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 female sport,’ the spokesperson said.

Trans and intersex rights in sports 

Trans and intersex representation in sports has become an increasingly divisive topic in recent years.

In 2016, the International Olympic Committee began allowing athletes who are transitioning from male to female to participate without restriction.

Those transitioning are required to maintain their testosterone levels below a certain level for at least 12 months.

Critics have maintained that because some trans women have an advantage over cisgendered women because they have larger bodies.

However, medical tests have shown that this is not always the case, particularly in sports requiring speed and agility.

Additionally, experts have said that trans women who regularly take estrogen do not have an advantage.

Trans rights advocates have also pointed out how few trans world champions there are.

A number of athletes and former athletes have also come out against allowing trans athletes to compete in women’s sports.

These include tennis legend Martina Navratilova and former British swimmer Sharron Davies.

Navratilova, who has campaigned for gay rights for decades, received considerable backlash for her comments from trans rights supporters.

The tennis star was also dropped by athletics group, Athlete Ally. The group said Navratilova’s comments ‘perpetuate dangerous myths’ on trans issues.

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Author: Calum Stuart