IWD: A Waking Nightmare For Women’s Sport? What History Teaches Us In The Gender Debate

Swimmer start for the Backstroke leg in the women's 4x100m Medley Relay Heat 2

2020s Vision: The Sunday Essay

Today we republish the following essay in our 2020s Vision series for those who missed it – ahead of taking up the theme again in the coming week.

First Published March 8:

Today is International Women’s Day and Swimming World celebrates by looking at the achievements and work of leading women and pathfinders in swimming:

This is also a good moment to introduce the third theme of the year in our 2020s Vision Series: the gender debate. What are the issues in sport and what happens when boys grow as boys and some into men before they identify as women? We’ll be taking a close look at the theme with guest contributors of note soon. In this Sunday Essay, we consider a dark chapter of swimming history and what lessons it has to teach us about the risks now posed to women’s sport for very different reasons but along significant parallel lines.


Does Testosterone Really Give Caster Semenya an Edge on the Track?

The question, used as a headline in the New York Times in May last year, cuts to the chase in a furious debate destined to end in either the survival of women’s sport or the end of it. The answer the NYT came up with was: ‘probably, so medical experts say. But whether that means athletes like her should be barred from competitions is a fraught question”.

Indeed it is. Starting with media reports that fail to mention certain essential things, such as Semenya being a DSD (disorders of sex development) athlete with an XY chromosome. Such as a troublesome fact in the balance of argument: the rights of one athlete have weighed heavily in coverage, while the rights of all women have players second fiddle. The risk that women will no no longer be confident that they are competing within a reasonable range of advantages and disadvantages to be found in any population or community of humans is real. Indeed, it is already playing out. Must women now compete against rivals who enter the race with physical capacities and competitive advantages significantly beyond said range?

At the heart of the issues is a refusal to acknowledge a simple fact: chromosomes and the associated biology and processes of development are for life even if and when and where gender and gender choices are fluid.

It was that clinical clarity that drove the planners of State Plan 14:25 who understood precisely what they needed to achieve in order to dominate women’s sport: turn girls into boys.

That job was done with biting efficiency, as the trail of medals, mugging, misery and medical histories confirms.

30 Years On from The Fall of The Berlin Wall: What Can The Experience Of Androgenized Athletes Tell Us?

The 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and reflections on what came to pass passed into the history book late last year. One might imagine that so many lessons had been learned, so much knowledge gained that nothing even similar could ever happen again. Right?

Andrea Pollack

Andrea Pollack – Photo Courtesy: International Swimming Hall of Fame

Reasons To Think Again

Last year also marked the death of Andrea Pollack, three Olympic golds to her name and now a year in the grave next week. She was gone at 57.

We will never know whether or to what extent her battle with cancer was related to her being doped, between the ages of 12 and 19, with steroids designed to tilt her girlhood to just enough boyhood to make her a butterfly swimmer and world record holder who the rest of the world could not compete with.

We do know that some of her GDR teammates from back in the 1970s and 80s believe there is a link, for they’ve said so in statements to the German media that trickle and, on anniversaries, deaths and as legal challenges arise, flood yet.

What we can also say with certainty is that the little blue and pink pills, Oral Turinabol – Chlorodehydromethyltestosterone (CDMT; brand name Oral Turinabol), anabolic–androgenic steroid, the 4-chloro-substituted derivative of metandienone (dehydromethyltestosterone), in common use among cheats for half a century now) – and the workloads they and related injections provided the alchemy for building a girl into a tomboy who in 1976 got down to a minute flat, 100m ‘fly for Olympic silver and 2:11 over 200m for Olympic gold.

Think of the 14-15-year-old girls in your program 43 years down the stream of human progress and spot the ones going that quick: hard to find. Indeed, the 2018 world rankings confirm that there were just 12 girls of that age capable of swimming faster than Pollack did in 1976 (two years shy of 59 and 2:09 world records).

In wider context: European Swimming, 1973-1989 – more than 80% of all medals went to GDR women, more than 90% of all gold to GDR women buoyed by the ‘benefits’ of artificial maleness that would become curses in the real lives of many down the years.


Andrea Pollack – Photo Courtesy: Swimming World Magazine

We know the truth. And so did Andrea, who stood in a Berlin court room with other athletes in the 1998-2000 German doping trials and gave witness to the abuse behind her three gold and three silvers at the Olympic Games, her two silvers and a bronze at world titles and two golds and a silver at European championships.

In 1976, after Montreal 1976, she also raced at European juniors. Take away the silvers won by teammates in her wake and Pollack beat the next best European age-peer girl by 4.9sec over 100m and 8.72sec over 200m, the bronze medals to a national record holder from Italy who, in common with all those behind her, had no chance of getting remotely close to a swimmer buoyed by the chemical boyhood added to her nature.

Among the men distributing the pills and administering the injections was Dr Lothar Kipke, the FINA medical commission man criminally convicted in the Doping trials but to this day the holder of a FINA honour for services to swimming.

Pollack was one of the first wave from a medals-machine of Wundermädchen who took the GDR from being a good swim nation with a few successes to its name in the 1960s to being the powerhouse in the pool among women between 1973 and 1976. She led a GDR sweep in the 200m butterfly at the Montreal Olympic Games in 1976, taking the Olympic record of 2:11.51 she set in heats down to 2:11.41 for the crown ahead of teammates Ulrike Tauber and Rosemarie Kother Gabriel.

That race contributed to a domination for the GDR’s women the sport had never seen the like of: of the 39 medals on offer in Montreal, 18 of them went to the GDR, whose women claimed 11 out of 13 golds and 6 silvers and a bronze, in the sum an 18/26 count of all the golds and silvers up for grabs.

Years later, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Pollack worked as a physiotherapist at the Berlin Olympiastützpunkt (high-performance centre) but rarely made public appearances. In 2005, as Frau Pinske, she was a guest at a “50 Years of Elite Sports” celebration staged at the Bundesleistungszentrum Kienbaum.

What suited the GDR - Photo Courtesy: NT Archive gdrsuit-1

What suited the GDR – Photo Courtesy: NT Archive/Craig Lord

When Bildnewspaper revealed the news of Pollack’s death to former Olympic teammate Rica Reinisch, now 54 and long a victim and an advocate for victims of GDR doping, she said: “I have not seen her for 25 years. I feel very bad right now, I have goose bumps. She was an incredibly happy person. We always had our fun, even if she was a Berliner and I Dresdnerin. She had a very unique, dark sense of humour. We had many beautiful memories in common.”

Reinisch quit swimming at 16 in 1982 after triple gold at Moscow 1980, Pollack’s swansong Olympics. Rica’s ovaries were swollen and a non-sports doctor advised the family that she would be wiser to leave sport.

With a nod to Pollack’s cancer, Reinisch said: “I can well imagine that Andrea could have long-term consequences for the disease, but I’m not a physician and can not say for sure.”

Reinisch, a long-time advocate of justice for the victims of the GDR’s State Plan 14:25, once said:

“We were guinea pigs, there to win Olympic gold, used like a taster in ancient Rome. I can clearly remember that I was 14 years old when my trainer Uwe Neumann gave me Oral-Turinabol for the first time. When my ovaries were treated in the hospital, the doctors found an excess of male hormones. To be able to heal me, they also injected me with estrogen. From that ‘cure’ I ballooned like a yeast cake.”

She described young athletes as “a perfect manipulation machine” for politicians, coaches and doctors. “We were told you are here at a special school, it costs the state a lot of money, now do something for it. Being downgraded [to a normal school] was seen as a disgrace for us, the children”.

Some of the manipulators faced the music in court 20 years ago. Among them Dr. Ulrich Sunder, a man with a name a letter beyond apt description (Sunde in German = sin).

The boss of the Sports Medicine Service of the GDR, he admitted in court that doctors had gone “along with this struggle without questioning the dangers, the fallout”.

His defence came down to “only following orders”, his testimony including sickening references such as: “… I was told by my medical superiors that the deep voice, the hair, the virilisation would all reverse after the women stopped taking,” the little blue pills and stopped receiving injections’ “we left it to the experts to inform us if there were problems”. The experts and their apprentices are dead or dying these days. The problems live on.

Despite the waves of hurt and harm before him in court, in the shape of women with serious medical problems, a history of multiple miscarriages, in spite of the bitter testimony of women who brought their disabled children to court with them, Sunder seemed proud of his work: “The swimmers were unbelievable,” he boasted. “Their muscle mass was enormous, their recovery between heavy workloads remarkable … and most of the swimmers handled the drugs very well.”

Those 20 years ago, he also spoke these words echoed by leaders of FINA and other federations unwilling to change a single result nor acknowledge requests for reconciliation: “There is waning interest … people don’t care about what happened 10 or 20 years ago in the DDR.”

It Took A Woman Doctor To Spell It Out

Dr Dorit Rosler did. She broke down in court, apologised to the victims of abuse, and said: “We documented all of this: the pills, the time of day, the training regimens … I was far too obedient. We were pressured into producing for the political leadership; we were tasked with creating champions in sport for the glory of the communist state.”

She noted what many others had noted: that if she had refused to do the work she was asked to carry out, she would have simply been replaced. One of the key scientists who worked with swimmers like Kristin Otto, Helge Pfeifer once told me: “It was a simple choice: I could continue to work in the area of expertise I was trained in or I could clean toilets for the rest of my life.”

Rosler went further, however, in her statements to the media during the doping trials when referring to the choice she made to stay in the system and do as she was asked/told:

“That was the same excuse used during the Third Reich, that if we didn’t do as Hitler asked, another doctor would carry it out. I should have shown more courage.”

And she went on to do just that: by spending many years, long after the fall of the Wall, treating the women athletes who developed medical problems beyond their sports days.


GDR’s Medals Machine – the news went down well at home – Image courtesy: Craig Lord

Those doctors who did object in DDR days, Rosler noted, were “removed from the DSSV (the East German swimming federation)”.

They were removed by people that included four men honoured to this day by FINA alongside Kipke.

As Rosler – herself something of a victim of grown men sitting around a table and deciding to roll out a policy and program with abuse of minors at its core – put it: ‘Have we learned nothing?’

  • Answer: we learned a lot. The bigger question is ‘what have we done with the knowledge’ to ensure no repeat, to protect the health and welfare of women?
  • Answer: not nearly enough.

And now comes the next threat to the integrity and fairness of women’s health, one not unrelated to State Plan 14:25: the gender debate in sport.

As we consider those issues, keep in mind the following words from former GDR swimmers Cathérine Menschner and Martina Gottschalt, both mentioned later on:

“The consequences of doping children are massive: I have had five miscarriages. And I’m sure the manipulation of my hormone balance is responsible for that.” – Menschner

“Look my 15-year-old son in the eye and tell him you were just following orders,” – Gottschalt, in court as her severely disabled son sat quietly next to her, to Kipke, a signatory to the Hippocratic oath of healing and no harm and a signatory to and tub-thumper for the anti-doping rules of FINA he advocated abroad but torched on a daily basis back home.

Two main strands or argument in a complex field:

  1. Girls to women are born with XX chromosomes – so what to do about girls to women born with XXY chromosomes with all the ‘advantages’ (strength and size, for example) of those born with XY, otherwise known as boys to men?
  2. Those born boys but as men identify as women.

In life generally, such things are matters of rights and respect and understanding of the complex nature of human experience and choice. In sport, the issues are critical to the very nature of sport, fair play and why it is important that XX competes with XX and YY competes with YY.

The debate in the middle of all of that has turned into a furious arena, complete with name-calling, threats and intimidation of those who believe women’s sport should be for humans born as girls with XX chromosomes because anything beyond that introduces maleness and distinct advantage outside the range of ‘standard’ difference.

Point 1 above is best characterised by the case making headlines around the world: Caster Semenya, the South African runner.

A tidal wave of articles and features followed a ruling from the IAAF, the world athletics federation, that Semenya would have to take testosterone reducing treatment if she wanted to continue to race in her signature 800m event (but not in other events, bizarrely one might say with a nod to the history of GDR sport).

What the vast bulk of those articles, particularly those siding with Semenya and not the IAAF, did not mention was a key and clear fact: she was born XY, female. In sport, that Y and its male nature, is significant – and that counted towards a Court of Arbitration for Sport ruling some weeks ago in support of IAAF decisions that included requiring Semenya – and other 46 XY DSD-born athletes (from a population in which 1 in 10,000, some academic papers say 20,000, are estimated to be one of many variables in humans categorised as DSD) – to take testosterone-reducing medication if she wanted to continue to race in her signature 800m event on the track. That ruling did not extend to other events/distances, leaving many long-time observers of sport scratching their heads: in the context of historic results and outcomes and state plans in many sports, such distinctions made no sense whatsoever.

Last year, the CAS ruling was not so much overturned as set aside by a Swiss Federal Tribunal (SFT) no less – in a move that will surely have sent shudders down the collective spines of the ‘autonomous’ blazers of the International Olympic Committee and its respective international federations, many of them, like FINA, based in Switzerland. CAS is the ONLY body that may deliberate on challenges and counter challenges to sporting law, the rules of international federations such as FINA.

The SFT, as we shall see in the Sun case, rules on matters of procedure and matters in sport of wider relevance, such as human rights.

Here are examples of pertinent rules from swimming:

“A Member, member of a Member, or individual sanctioned by the Doping Panel, the Disciplinary Panel or the Ethics Panel may appeal the decision exclusively to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), Lausanne Switzerland. The CAS shall also have exclusive jurisdiction over interlocutory orders and no other court or tribunal shall have authority to issue interlocutory orders relating to matters before the CAS.”


“C 26 ARBITRATION: Disputes … between FINA and any of its Members or members of Members, individual members of Members or between Members of FINA may be referred for arbitration by either of the involved parties to the Court of Arbitration for Sports (CAS), Lausanne. Any decision made by the Arbitration Court shall be final and binding on the parties concerned.”

Well, apparently not.

Before Semenya, there were others who challenged international sports rules in domestic courts – and won. In the case of Astrid Strauss, the GDR distance freestyler who denied many, such as Britain’s Sarah Hardcastle, the prizes they should have won, and tested positive in the days beyond the fall of the Wall, the ruling she won (that she could not be barred from competition because that infringed her rights, ruled a German court) only applicable in Germany. As such, there were no losers: she raced on (not for long) at home, while international waters remained a forbidden zone.

The history of decisions stacked with inconsistency is a fat tome. It got fatter when the FINA Doping Panel gave the benefit of the doubt to Sun Yang. CAS overruled the unruly on February 28 and released its report in full last Wednesday. Sun is now off to the SFT.

In general, the theme of inconsistency in federation rules, interpretations and approaches to sticky problems is highly pertinent. As sports scientist Ross Tucker notes in an excellent analysis of the Semenya situation, there is a high level of inconsistency in the IAAF’s argument and the science and ‘evidence’ the track and field federation based its decisions on. He made that point, among others, in evidence he gave in the Semenya hearing at CAS in favour of the athlete’s appeal (on that point).

Talking backwards through events, Swiss judges ruled last year that Semenya would not need to take testosterone-reducing medication to compete (in the 800m event, all distances from 400 to the mile covered) when they temporarily suspended the IAAF ruling backed by CAS against Semenya’s appeal a month before.

The IAAF said its eligibility rule for DSD athletes would remain in place until they receive official notification from the Swiss court, adding a note that has widespread support in sport and all the more so in women’s sport:

“We will continue to fight for what we believe is in the best interests of all female athletes in our sport.”

The Swiss Tribunal said that it had “super-provisionally instructed the IAAF to suspend the application of the ‘Eligibility Regulations for the Female Classification for athletes with differences of sex development’ with respect to the claimant, until the decision on the request for issuance of provisional measures. At present, it is not known when the Swiss Federal Supreme Courts will issue an interlocutory order concerning these provisional measures.”

That was then. The case moved on and the court found that the IAAF’s ruling for athletes with differences of sexual development (DSD) were discriminatory. However, the ruling also noted that the discrimination was “necessary, reasonable and proportionate” to protect “the integrity of female athletics”.

More deliberation and challenge will follow in a story stretching back to 2009, when 18-year-old Semenya ran the fastest 800m time of the year to win gold at the Africa Junior Championships. Here’s what followed:

  • A month later, in August, Semenya was asked to undertake a gender test before the World Championships in Berlin. She is told by her own federation that it is a random doping test – and is therefore unaware of what she is agreeing to. She wins the 800m world title and then, somehow, news of her gender test reaches the media. It will be another three months before reports start suggesting that Semenya has female and male characteristics. Even so, she is cleared to race season after season, picking up more titles along the way.
  • In 2014, India sprinter Dutee Chand, 18, is banned from competing after a hormone test shows natural levels of testosterone normally only found in men. The following March, 2015, Chand begins a legal challenge against the IAAF’s ‘gender test’ and in July that year is cleared to compete as the CAS suspends, for two years, the introduction of an earlier version of IAAF rules requiring female athletes to take testosterone-suppressing medication.
  • Come 2016, we find Semenya taking Olympic gold against a backdrop of questions from fellow runners suggesting she should not be eligible to compete as a woman.
  • In 2017, research commissioned by the IAAF concludes that female athletes with high testosterone levels have a “competitive advantage” and in April last year that led to the IAAF introducing new rules for female runners with naturally high testosterone.
  • Semenya challenges that and in February this year, her challenged was heard by the CAS. She loses the case on May 1 but sin June 3, that is set aside by the Swiss Federal Supreme Court.
  • The IAAF defended its new rules, saying that is is “convinced there are some contexts, sport being one of them, where biology has to trump identity”. It “believes the right to participate in sport does not translate to a right to self-identify into a competition category or an event”.
  • Further, “to define the category based on something other than biology would be category-defeating and would deter many girls around the world from choosing competitive and elite sport after puberty.” Regulations [for those with differences of sexual development] are a necessary, reasonable and proportionate means of protecting fair and meaningful competition in elite female athletics, and CAS agreed.”

The Swiss Tribunal should reverse its decision to avoid “serious confusion” among athletes and event organisers and “to protect the integrity of the sport”, said the IAAF.

Countering those views, Raswyn Lovett, co-chair of the International Working Group on Women in Sport, Diane Huffman, president of WomenSport International, and Professor Rosa Lopez de D’Amico, president of the International Association of Physical Education for Girls and Women sent the IAAF a letter in which they said the proposed regulations “imply wrongdoing and come with a penalty” and “force an athlete to take medication that alters their natural state”.

The rules did not “enforce gender inequality”, the IAAF responded. Indeed, they were introduced “precisely because the IAAF is committed to protecting the rights and opportunities of female athletes”.

The track and field federation set out its stall with this mission statement:

“The challenge that the IAAF faces is how to accommodate individuals who identify as female (and are legally recognised as female) but who – because of a difference of sex development – have XY chromosomes that lead to testes that produce high levels of testosterone, and therefore have all the same physical advantages over women for the purposes of athletics as men have over women.”

Whatever World Athletics, CAS, the SFT or anyone else nails in rule and law, questions will remain

The Testosterone in Testosterone

Testosterone (T) is said to be irrelevant or “not a silver bullet” by some. The truth lies elsewhere.

Take this from Tucker:

“Back to the root issue, the reason for the separation between men and women is the effect of androgens on the physiological systems that are germane to performance. One can debate for hours how predictive high levels of T are for performance, and there is without doubt a lot of poor thinking in this space – when people argue that high T does not guarantee performance and thus T is not the difference between men and women, it makes me want to bang my head repeatedly on a desk. It is a poor argument, appallingly lazy and disingenuous.”


He continues:

“Fundamentally, the difference between the men’s world champion and the women’s world champion in any given event is ‘androgenisation’ or virilization that drives a set of secondary sex characteristics including higher muscle mass, lower fat mass, greater strength, increased cardiovascular capacity and function, more haemoglobin, different skeleton. There are of course other changes, but they are not germane to sport.

“When discussing T and performance, it is important, in my opinion, that the issue is framed appropriately. By this, I mean that one should NOT be asking whether women with high T outperform women with low T, or that men with high T are better athletically than men with low T. This approach creates numerous “loopholes” and erroneous thinking, the main one being that you can explore this relationship, NOT find it, and then conclude that T is not important. This is what many academics have done – they will look for associations between T and performance in a group of athletes, all men or all women, and then find no association, thus concluding that T has no effect.”

They are wrong, of course – and the history of swimming results and outcomes, coupled with the point and purpose of State Plan 14:25 scream that truth to and from every peak and valley.


Brigitte Berendonk – Von Der Forschung Zum Betrug

Take the following points made to me when I met Prof. Werner Franke a few years ago. Dr. Franke is the man who, with his wife and former athlete Brigitte Berendonk, helped to save forests of Stasi documents from the Stasi shredders before the dust of a falling Wall had settled. He noted:

  • male sex hormones, androgens, to which testosterone and its derivatives as anabolic steroids belong, are needed by both genders for their entire lifetimes
  • they help to determine everything from the various sexual differentiations of the embryo to the development of sexual characteristic at puberty and, beyond that, maintain sexual functions (for the purposes of reproduction, men and women having distinct roles in that critical part of the survival of the human species)
  • androgens are required in the generation of new cells and the structures of skeletal muscles, bone, the formation of fat, and in organs such as the brain, kidneys and others vital stuff
  • the extreme variety of biological effects involved in those processes are controlled/signalled by special androgen receptors in the relevant cells: they ID each other, ‘talk’ to each other and provide critical and specific information to the genetic material (DNA) – upon which the cell responds by building new proteins.
  • biologically active androgen is primarily found in the testicles, ovaries, adrenal glands, skin and fatty tissues
  • men produce 2.5 to 10mg of testosterone daily; women produce about a tenth of that amount
  • the plasma level of testosterone for men is about 3,000 to 9,000 pg/ml; for women, its 100-500 pg/ml
  • Testosterone levels in men are 295 to 1,150 nanograms per deciliter of blood, while the levels in the women are 12 to 61 nanograms per deciliter of blood.
  • from puberty, such levels make an enormous difference, contributing not just to sexual development but the shape and size and strength of male and female, including dimensions of hands feet, capacity of lungs, muscle mass and much else.

Back to Oral Turinabol and the purpose of those 1mg pink pills and 5mg blue pills and the Turinabol ampules (Turinabol-Depot replacer by Testosterone-Depot around 1978 because the Turinabol hung around in the system for too long for the comfort of those wishing to avoid positive tests) that were injected intramuscularly.

They are anabolic steroids, derivatives of testosterone.

In 1981, Prof. Manfred Donike, a pharmacologist from Cologne, developed an indirect procedure for testing for testosterone, by measuring the testosterone:epitestosterone ratio. Knowing the natural quotient in the body allowed him to identify readings out of that natural range as testosterone introduced artificially. With the IOC, a ratio of 6:1 was set for testosterone to epitestosterone: anything higher would indicate a positive test.

The GDR had insiders at the IOC and FINA and other federations, members of medical commissions and anti-doping bodies among them. Knowledge is power – and the exploitation of 6:1 ensued. No GDR swimmer ever, in GDR days, tested positive in official tests but Stasi (state security police) papers confirm that many tested positive in internal tests at the IOC-accredited laboratory at Kreischa in Saxony.

Official documents showing the names of swimmers next to ratio and level readings and the word “positiv” are a part of the official record, have been produced in open court and are housed in various places in the world. They are available to federations such as FINA should they ever choose to act on information now known for at least decades and, in some cases, included as evidence in the convictions of officials in the doping trials, FINA’s Dr. Kipke among them.

GDR doctors and scientists knew and were aware of two critical things:

  • the rate of ‘success’ through steroids administered to teenage girls on the cusp of puberty (the record shows that some as young as 12 were doped) was far greater than use of steroids among boys and men for obvious reasons: the effects of plying girls with the traits of boys and increasing the maleness in women was far more dramatic in terms of the gains to be made over other girls and women.

There were other dramatic effects, too: side-effects of the chemicals of choice in the GDR sports system included fatal liver and heart conditions, brain retardment, disruption and destruction off fertility, abnormal rates of body and pubic hair, enlargement of the clitoris, imbalance in metabolic processes. Such things, at least in Germany, are no longer ‘theory’: they were used to secure official and legal compensation for victims.

Fast-forward to today and we find the same basic knowledge of the architects of State Plan 14:25, of Donike, of Franke and many others echoed in a New York Times article explaining the Semenya case:

Testosterone “builds muscle,” said Dr. Benjamin D. Levine, who studies sex differences in athletic performance at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. “It builds skeletal muscle, it builds cardiac muscle. It increases the number of red blood cells.”

The effects are seen whether the hormone is naturally present or introduced with drugs. In one of the most infamous examples, women who represented East Germany at the Olympic Games in the ’70s and ’80s achieved astounding success after they were unknowingly doped with anabolic steroids including testosterone.

“The science is quite clear,” said Dr. Aaron Baggish of Massachusetts General Hospital, who is an expert on testosterone’s effects. “An androgenized body has a performance advantage.”

What’s the difference between testosterone, a leg, an arm & a lung?

Answer: a great deal

Some wishing to support Semenya despite the facts of biology, sex and any strength not scientific argument, reached for the following arguments that some media have fallen for because the simplicity of thought makes for a lovely graphic:

  • Usain Bolt had really long legs and Michael Phelps had really long arms, so why can’t Semenya have really high testosterone?

Easy: sports organisations and their rules do not classify athletes by arm, leg, lung and size of foot, no matter how much the size of such things contributed to the might of an Ian Thorpe, Phelps, Bolt, Matt Biondi or anyone else. Sports organisations and their rules DO classify athletes by sex – and there are two of those in sport: men and women do not compete for very good reason.

In the mix of simplistic and simply erroneous argument are suggestions that the world of sport should move to being more inclusive by allowing para athletes to race with the able-bodied – and for the same prizes.

Nothing could be more stupid if the interests of fairness, purpose and point are to be served: anyone in swimming knows very well that those the vast majority of those winning para golds would not stand a chance in hell of making an able-bodied final nor even qualifying for international waters.

Then there’s ‘well, Britain’s Sharron Davies was big and strong and could beat some boys’ – and other such absurdities. True, she is Amazonian and athletic. True, she has and doubtless still can beat an awful lots of boys and men in water – as well as girls and women.

Here’s truth, too: she’s bigger than me … but not, at my best, stronger. At my best way back when, I would have beaten Sharron in many races, though not as a master (I once paddled in the lanes beside her for a season when she was making her comeback – no contest, she could kick my ass on any stroke, any distance  … in my day, however, I was a decent swimmer who on a good day would have given Petra Schneider (GDR) a tough race.

Schneider beat Davies for Olympic 400IM gold to silver in 1980 by 10.54sec: a massive margin. Schneider had, by then, been alchemised, androgenized. In swimming terms, she had the capacity of a boy. Davies, a much better swimmer than me, was not the first woman home that day in Moscow but she was the first clean athlete home and she was the first athlete home with her XX and other readings in the same place as nature had intended them.

Back to Tucker: “Fundamentally, the difference between the men’s world champion and the women’s world champion in any given event is ‘androgenisation’ or virilization that drives a set of secondary sex characteristics including higher muscle mass, lower fat mass, greater strength, increased cardiovascular capacity and function, more haemoglobin, different skeleton.”

Davies has been invited to do the media rounds and taken to social media to raise the ghost of injustices from her era to highlight why it is crucial to preserve women’s sport for women, XX and within a range that does indeed include advantages and disadvantages of the kind we see when comparing a Katie Ledecky, a Sarah Sjostrom, a Mireia Belmonte, a Rebecca Adlington, a Janet Evans, a Mary T Meagher, a Shane Gould, a Debbie Meyer, a Dawn Fraser with many more.

In support of Davies’s argument is a majority of medical experts who believe that testosterone is exceptional and not to be compared with legs, arms, lungs, feet, determination, discipline, smart work and much else that goes into what it takes to become a champion.

In one study, Dr. Benjamin D. Levine, of the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine in Dallas, put sedentary young men and young women through a year of athletic training. They started out with similar-sized hearts. A year later, the men’s hearts were much larger, the result of muscle-building directed by their naturally occurring much higher levels of testosterone.


Katie Ledecky – Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

In swimming, there are exceptional cases of the best of women producing performances than many boys could only dream of. Katie Ledecky, the American who is the most outstanding woman swimmer of her era and one of the all-time greats of her sport, is a case in point. Even then, there are a fair few young men who would beat her on the clock (mind matters, so who knows what would happen in an actual race…). Against the best men, however, Ledecky would have no chance: she would not make a major final, let alone have a shot at a prize. No matter: she’s one of the most outstanding swimmers the world has ever known.

Her 15:20.48 world record over 1500m freestyle from 2018 gives her an advantage over the second-best ever, Lotte Friis (DEN) of almost 20sec, or more than 1sec every 100m of the race. Phenomenal. The time leaves her outside the best 600 men, however.

Doriane Coleman, a former middle-distance runner who is now a law professor at Duke University, confirms that picture on the track: in 2017 alone, she found, more than 10,000 men and boys running 400m races beat the best times of the three best women in the world had ever run.


Brigitte Berendonk – Von Der Forschung Zum Betrug

The IAAF took such things as their first reason for action when it came to Semenya but in trying to determine what the difference in obvious difference was all about and where lines should be drawn sought to show that the ‘evidence’ for justifying rules on DSD athletes was stronger in some events than others.

While Ms. Coleman confirmed to the NYT that in middle-distance running events, athletes’ results “show that they have a clear performance advantage”, a recent study also showed that athletes “who identify as women” but who have testosterone levels in the male range are overrepresented in women’s middle-distance running events.

These athletes won 30 medals in Olympic and world championship races at distances ranging from 400 to 1,500m, the NYT asserted in an article last month, while noting: “Their incidence in the general population is just 1 in 20,000, meaning they were overrepresented by about 1,700-fold on the podium, the study concluded.”

If you have not by now already done so, then read Ross Tucker’s excellent explanation on why he is sympathetic with the IAAF’s efforts to safeguard women’s sport for women, he believes there is an “internal contradiction” in the arguments used to determine why a bar on DSD athletes in certain events but not all events is “fatally flawed”. He also explains very well the variants of DSD that make a big difference to performance in sport and why lumping all DSD together does not work if evidence-based fairness is a guiding light.

A recent Guardian headline asked: ‘Is fair play in running more important than fairness to Caster Semenya as a human?

The editorial concluded: “If fair play has in any sense been restored to athletics, it’s hard to shake the sense that something important has been lost.”

No denying the emotions involved, no denying what it all means for the one athlete but the answer to the headline question is: yes, the rights of XX demand respect, understanding and support, too, otherwise women’s sport would not be that. We’re not talking about the human rights of people born outside XX XY norm; we’re talking about what XX plus Y and related means of XX in elite sport.

We’re talking about whether the vast majority of women should have their rights sledgehammered in order that a ratio of DSD athletes far in excess of that 1 in 20,000 in general population – in other words, relatively high numbers of DSD athletes in the elite athletic population compared to the levels you will find in the general population – can have their rights upheld.

While no-one has an automatic right to be an elite athlete and all must fulfil certain criteria and abide by certain rules to enter that club, all have a right to expect fairness, safety, welfare and health (physical and mental) at the core of values and practice in world-class sport.

The conclusion of the Guardian comment indicates that it has overlooked the rights of those who must race against rivals with very distinct competitive advantages. What is lacking in the author’s reasoning and in general in media coverage, often from people who were babes or not born when the first wave of GDR underage victims of abuse were being rolled out as ambassadors in tracksuits on a mission to thrash the world of women in sport, is knowledge, the backdrop and the facts of the Sporting Crime of the 21st century.

If the masterminds of State Plan 14:25 were world class at anything, it was this: the criminals, among them doctors, scientists and politicians, knew what it meant to make girls more like boys, they knew how to achieve it (not just ‘take this build muscle’ but ‘take this and this and that and two of those and that regime will help you do workloads beyond the capacity of your rivals, build strength beyond the capacity of rivals and deliver certain success for the state’); and they knew, too, that while handing out nicer apartments and pushing people up the waiting list for the family Trabant and other privileges, there were hiding the truth they knew about the high risks and serious side effects for the teenage girls they were systematically abusing.

The abusers were soaringly excellent at keeping a good note, too, and so we know the truth, those notes and the result sheets of the 1970s and 1980s confirming the woeful wipeout delivered to women’s sport.

GDR: State Plan 14:25

Beyond the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the IAAF, now World Athletics, needs to rethink key aspects of its approach to the latest issues threatening to reduce fairness in women’s sport. It should, however, hold its head up on these grounds: where other sports lag and turn a blind eye, Track and Field has at least had the courage to take on a thorny issue that must be debated in all sports if women are to have confidence that those lining up next two them do not include significant male characteristics that afford them similar certainty of success that the architects of State Plan 14:25 pursued to devastating effect so many decades ago.

Swimming Yet To Wake Up & Plan A Response


Brigitte Berendonk – Von Der Forschung Zum Betrug

The androgenization they set out to achieve, and did achieve, in the GDR meant domination of world waters (and similar ‘success’ in many other sports). Consider the top of the all-sports Olympic medal table in 1976 and 1988, the columns gold, silver, bronze:

1976.                               1988

SOV 49 41 35                   SOV 55 31 46
GDR 40 25 25.                GDR 37 35 30
USA 34 35 25.                 USA 36 31 27

Population: SOV and USA, either side of the 300m mark. GDR? 16 million.

The aforementioned commentary in The Guardian said of the the IAAF/CAS ruling that went against Semenya before the SFT stepped in:

“If fair play has in any sense been restored to athletics, it’s hard to shake the sense that something important has been lost.”

In fact, something important was lost long ago… and it has never been recovered.

The victims stretch as far as the eye can see, both sides. Women’s sport as a whole was also among the victims.

Which question is being and should be asked? Both would be reasonable if you’re a woman in sport”:

  • Is it fair to Caster… ?
  • “… is it fair that every result of an era in which girls were more like boys (on their way to a lifetime of ill-health, multiple miscarriages, disable children and more woe still) stands to this day and defines ‘women’s sport’?

No, is the answer in both cases, one could easily argue. Other Q&As might read:

  • ‘Is it fair that swimmer x has had mental health problems for many a long year and undergone therapy for the damage done to her by theft of prizes, status, life chances and more because said swimmer, a decade of 5am rises, four hours in the pool every day and more behind her, finished 4th behind 3 GDR girls more like boys?’ No.
  • Did that athlete lose something never to be regained? Yes.
  • Was the something lost much more than a medal? Yes.
  • Who speaks up for her in this debate? Few.
  • Who spoke up for her human rights? No-one.
  • Where were all the writers now suggesting we consider whether the situation of one athlete is more important than the entire status of and fair play in women’s sport? Nowhere.
  • As said, something was lost long ago. Now to suggest a fine outcome would include what was lost falling deeper into the depths of ‘never mind, what’s done is done and can never be undone’ in order for us all to feel we’ve done the right thing by one athlete while knowing that more wrong has been done to the many simply asking for fairness and knowing that those criminal minds are still out there watching and waiting and plotting for the moment a loophole appears in the warp of women’s sport, seems to miss the bigger point and invite harm to the blocks of women’s sport.

In the mix of debate, as mentioned, we saw the physical and biological swimmer strengths of Michael Phelps held up as the example that ought to justify allowing the advantages of Caster Semenya. Such comparisons are perverse, attempt to make XY a factor in a debate about XX and what +Y might mean for XX … and do a disservice to both MP and CS.

Those in the CAS process against Caster S did themselves no favours and sport a disfavour by including debatable and even what some suggest is erroneous data in their argument, as Ross Tucker has eloquently pointed out. As for events A, B and C ‘IN’, E, F, G and P ‘OUT’ – just doesn’t work.

Nor do anti anti-doping rules. Impossible, immoral, unethical. All words that may be used to describe the act of asking athletes not to dope but then asking others, like Semenya, to take drugs to meet the anti-doping rules by reversing their nature – and then only in some events. A recipe for more harm and hurt in a realm pulverised by damage down the decades.

What to do? Create new categories of athlete, as it has been in para sport? As Tucker notes, that would not be as straightforward as it sounds: within DSD athletes are a multitude of variations, some that have ‘elevated’ levels of testosterone but cannot use it; some who can partially use it; and others who can use the testosterone, do use it and gain significant advantages outside the range of the vast majority of women, XX. A similar but not, on all points, the same argument is blazing when it comes to transgender women in sport.


What suited the GDR – and how Brigitte Berendonk told the story of systematic doping and State Research Plan 14:25 – Main Photo Courtesy: NT Archive/Craig Lord

Davies brings all issues to one logical conclusion when she says:

“To protect women’s sport, those with a male sex advantage should not be able to compete in women’s sport.”

Her remarks drew fury from Rachel McKinnon, a transgender cyclist who won a Masters Track World Championship title last year. Davies was a “transphobe” and was “sharing hate speech”, said McKinnon.

Not so, says Davies – and many agree. Tennis ace Martina Navratilova, who had a trans coach, apologised for suggesting that trans athletes were cheating but made sure ‘sorry’ came with a ‘however, we need to be aware’: “I certainly was not suggesting that transgender athletes in general are cheats. I attached the label to a notional case in which someone cynically changes gender, perhaps temporarily, to gain a competitive advantage. We should not be blind to the possibility and some of these rules are making that possible and legal.”

That ‘not be blind to the possibility’ is where I depart a touch from Tucker when he writes “neither side had evidence”.

That may well be true in the context of prevailing cases. However, let’s remind ourselves of where the GDR women won gold medals at Olympic, World and Continental levels:

  • every single distance 50 to 800m freestyle and all others events, all strokes and distances. No nation in swimming history had ever been able to boast, none have since been able to boast a regular 70% plus hit rate on all medals up for grabs at global level, while the GDR’s 90% hit rate on all medals in women’s events at Continental level unfolded in Europe, in the presence of 40 and more nations.

Track and Field knew its fair share of jaw-dropping GDR moments, too.

If such statistics combined with a library of books on the GDR doping regime, its architects and outcomes – such as the academic tomes of Giselher Spitzer and the more close and personal accounts and witness of the kind Berendonk put together in her work “Doping – Von Der Forschung zum Betrug” – are not evidence enough, then there never was an Ancient Rome nor could the Egyptians have built the Pyramids.

There is no easy ‘right outcome’ to the gender debate but the wrong outcome is easier to see: XX athletes should not be asked to race under rules that oblige them to compete against distinct levels of maleness that have been proven to make a difference to performance; asking athletes not to dope yet to dope to amend their nature to meet the criteria of another form of nature that makes sport a fairer place is to ask them to enter a bargain with the twin devils of irony and hypocrisy.

Given all we know about systematic approaches to performance in sport and access to the rewards that flow – be that GDR, China, Soviet Union and of late Russia or particular programs and rogues in the USA and in many places beyond – surely there is no-one who thinks there will not be people in this world working hard yet in pursuit of the potential and prizes to be had by introducing maleness to women’s sport in any shape they can get away with.

That includes transgender athletes, born boys, grown into men and then identifying as women. The debate is polarised and in some quarters ugly and even menacing, with some big names of sport suggesting that women are being made to feel as though they cannot speak up in defence of XX in the face of the maleness of XY and more without being labelled as haters and worse.

  • In our series, soon: Why Olympic medallist Sharron Davies believes women’s sport to be on a cliff-edge; and what it means, in general and in the sports environment, to grow up as a boy into a man and then identify as a woman.

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine, the International Swimming Hall of Fame, nor its staff.

Notify of

Welcome to our community. We invite you to join our discussion. Our community guidelines are simple: be respectful and constructive, keep on topic, and support your fellow commenters. Commenting signifies that you agree to our Terms of Use

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Sam B
Sam B
4 years ago

Awesome information! Enjoyed the read.

Assuming the following “ Girls to women are born with XX chromosomes – so what to do about girls to women born with XY chromosomes with and the ‘advantages’ (strength and size, for example) of those born with YY, otherwise known as boys to men?” should really read XX followed by XXY and then XY? if relating to chromosomes.

Cynthia Finney
4 years ago

That’s a pretty biased article.

Craig Lord
4 years ago
Reply to  Cynthia Finney

Cynthia Finney not at all … which bit is biased… be specific, and please don’t make it anything related to the history of swimming … all facts not opinions … and please note, it’s a commentary, so bias is allowed… in the same way the comment you left is biased

Rick Stanfield
4 years ago
Reply to  Cynthia Finney

Cynthia Finney hardly. Very well written, historically accurate in relating how the past affects the present and the future. Many salient points surrounding the issues with female sports with enough sensitivity to those w real chromosomal differences that can affect female sports. It also points out that there will always be those who exploit rules to cheat, which deprives the rightful winners of their place in history. Unless you can offer actual instances of bias that the author didn’t acknowledge, please refrain from offering opinion lacking in any specifics.

Jacque Smith Foshee
4 years ago

Such a sad article. My heart breaks for those girls.

Lee Thomas
4 years ago

Great article and historically accurate. Women’s sport must remain as such!

Nancy Hopf Sintes
4 years ago


Kimberly Joy
4 years ago

I cant believe this is a thing. There are two sexes. Thats it. You dont get to pick.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x