Putting the T in Athletics

The Track and Field community is up in arms over the link between testosterone and athletic performance.

If you’re a track enthusiast or regular reader of the paper, you probably read last week that Caster Semenya, the South African back-to-back 800m gold medalist, lost a ruling in the Court of Arbitration for Sport-- which is a real thing... they have a mansion in Switzerland.

At issue was Semenya’s naturally elevated levels of testosterone, which the court ruled was an unfair advantage when competing in the women’s middle distance races (400m to one mile). Semenya will now be required to take a hormone suppressing drug (such as birth control) to reduce her testosterone levels.

The ruling has sparked a fierce debate on Twitter, granted it doesn’t take much to do that. I thought I’d pick the story up in this blog since I have previously gone on the record as a vocal advocate of Testosterone pill commercials. I love them, and you should too. Given the constraints of this blog (it is short, and my attention span is shorter), I won’t try to delve into the thorny issue of whether Caster Semenya has an unfair advantage or not. Instead, I’ll focus on the more narrow question of what the science says about the link between testosterone and athletic performance.

So here’s one thing we can all agree on: the typical male body (after puberty) has higher levels of testosterone than an ordinary female body. The male testes is responsible for the difference; male T levels are 295 to 1,150 nanograms per deciliter of blood, while women are between 12 and 61 nanograms per deciliter of blood.

T, as the commercials say, builds muscle. It builds skeletal muscle, cardiac muscle, increases red blood cells, and is possibly related to this:

That is why many consider T to be a different kind of advantage than say abnormal limb size or an obsessive brain (ahem, Kobe). But not everyone agrees. They point out that testosterone alone is not enough to turn someone into an elite athlete, which requires a number of other factors (like work ethic, muscle type, and skill level). And further, you cannot predict the winners of athletic competition simply by examining who has higher T levels.

So the relationship of T to athletic performance is complicated. It’s not a secret sauce for winning, but all things held equal, it converses distinctive advantages (which is why it’s popular for elite athletes looking for an edge on the competition).

As for the question of how all this relates to women’s sports; I leave that to you, reader.

Football was meant to be played in leather helmets and sweaters. Currently taking suggestions for which NHL team I should support.

Twitter: @IshFarooqui