Track’s testosterone rules questioned
Researchers say flaws in study invalidate findings
Researchers have found flaws in some of the data that track and field officials used to formulate regulations for the complicated cases of Caster Semenya of South Africa, the two-time Olympic champion at 800 meters, and other female athletes with naturally elevated testosterone levels.
Three independent researchers said they believed the mistakes called into question the validity of a 2017 study commissioned by track and field’s world governing body, the International Federation of Athletics Associations, or IAAF, according to interviews and a paper written by the researchers and provided to the New York Times.
The study was used to help devise regulations that could require some runners to undergo medical treatment to lower their hormone levels to remain eligible for the sport’s international competitions, like the Summer Games.
The researchers have called for a retraction of the study, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. The study served as an underpinning for rules, scheduled to be enacted in November, which would establish permitted testosterone levels for athletes participating in women’s events from 400 meters to the mile.
“They cannot use this study as an excuse or a reason for setting a testosterone level because the data they have presented is not solid,” one of the independent researchers, Erik Boye of Norway, said Thursday.
The IAAF has updated its research, which was published last week in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. “The IAAF will not be seeking a retraction of the 2017 study,” the governing body said in a statement. “The conclusions remain the same.”
But the statement did little to dampen criticism by the independent researchers. The IAAF seems “bound to lose” an intended challenge by Semenya to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, a kind of Supreme Court for international athletics, said Boye, a cancer researcher and an antidoping expert.
The IAAF has argued that rules governing testosterone levels are needed to level the playing field and to reduce an unfair advantage gained in some women’s events by athletes with so-called differences of sexual development. The study was only one facet of 15 years’ worth of field study, the IAAF said.
Dr. Stephane Bermon, the IAAF’s senior medical and scientific consultant and a co-author of the 2017 study, last week acknowledged some errors in the data in an email sent to one of the independent researchers. But Bermon added in the email, obtained by the Times, that the mistakes “do not have significant impact on the final outcomes and conclusions of our study.”
Karim Khan, editor-in-chief of the British Journal of Sports Medicine, did not respond to emails seeking comment.
The disputed study examined results from the 2011 and 2013 world track and field championships. It found that women with the highest testosterone levels significantly outperformed women with the lowest testosterone levels in events such as the 400 meters, the 400-meter hurdles and the 800 meters, which distill speed and endurance.
In examining the study’s results from those races, plus the 1,500 meters, the independent researchers said they found that the performance data used in the analysis was anomalous or inaccurate 17 percent to 33 percent of the time.
The errors included more than one time recorded for the same athlete; repeated use of the same time for individual athletes; and phantom times when no athlete could be found to have run a reported time. Also included were times for athletes who were disqualified for doping.
“I think everyone can understand that if your data set is contaminated by as much as one-third bad data, it’s kind of a garbage-in, garbage-out situation,” said one of the independent researchers, Roger Pielke Jr., the director of the Sports Governance Center at the University of Colorado.
Researchers have called for a retraction of a study that could be used to keep South Africa's Caster Semenya from competing in women’s track events because of unusually high testosterone levels.