Take heart, Caster, the hormone report is rubbish and you'll win your case
This is the message from three top scientists who have examined the IAAF testosterone report and found it to be flawed
The study the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) relied on to decide a new regulation on intersex athletes is flawed and should be scratched.
This is the view of a group of leading sports scientists who have analysed the report used to force athletes such as Caster Semenya to medically reduce her testosterone levels if they wanted to compete.
South African sports scientist Ross Tucker of the University of Cape Town, Norwegian sports doping expert Dr Erik Boye and the director of the Sports Governance Centre at the University of Colorado, Dr Roger Pielke jnr, have called on the British Journal of Sports Medicine (BJSM) to retract the report.
BJSM editor Dr Karim Khan told Times Select a statement on the matter would be issued soon and that the journal was always open to suggestions for improvement.The trio of scientists say some of the numbers used in the study were fake and others were incorrect.
The IAAF requires all intersex athletes running the female 400m to one-mile events to medically lower their testosterone levels to double that of 99% of the levels female athletes.
This new regulation is set to come into effect in November.
The IAAF has relied on a 2017 study it commissioned to support the policy.
A matter of pure science
The study, by French sports scientist Dr Stephane Bermon and medical doctor Dr Pierre-Yves Garnier, shows that very high testosterone levels in athletes provide a 5% advantage to them in five track (running) events.
The research analysed female athletes’ testosterone levels and their race times at the 2011 and 2013 World Athletics Championships.
The IAAF says only intersex people – who are neither biologically male or female – and those with tumours have such high testosterone levels.
The study was published in 2017 in the BJSM, one of world’s leading sports journals.The fact that the study is flawed is good news for Semenya, said Tucker.
Semenya is taking the IAAF to the Court for the Arbitration of Sports (CAS) to challenge the new policy that she must medically lower her natural testosterone levels.
Tucker said: “If I were Semenya, this would embolden me. It undermines the credibility of the foundation of the IAAF policy. I would let go of all the other emotive, non-scientific issues in this case, and I would realise that I can win the case on the basis of science alone.”
He has forwarded the problems with the study to her scientific adviser.
The saga over the poor science began in May.
Boye, Tucker and Pielke asked the sports medicine journal to release some of the study’s data. They wanted to check that the statistical processes were “robust and credible”.
Tucker said the experience was “surprising”.
It started with an “innocuous” request to audit the numbers, which is the norm in academia. But after six weeks they couldn’t get any data and wondered why.
Tucker explained: “Transparency underpins science ... and it keeps science honest and robust.”He added that the science used by sports authorities to make the rules must be made public and be open to scrutiny, which did not seem to be the case here.
The three scientists were given only a small portion of the data but what they found shocked them, said Tucker.
Some athletes’ race times were counted twice, and the times of some performances included in the data set never happened at the championships.
Tucker described these race times as “phantom” and says he has no idea how they were included.
The trio also found that times belonging to Russian athletes who had been caught doping and who were disqualified, had not been removed from the study.
In a blog post this week Pielke wrote that “up to 33% of the numbers” are incorrect.
Tucker said: “It was very clear, however, that this innocuous request has revealed anything but a robust and credible process, and so here we are, asking for a retraction of that paper.”He said he was surprised by the results as he actually supported the IAAF’s call for intersex athletes to reduce their testosterone levels, so that female athletes can fairly compete. But he added: “Good decisions require good science.
“The only thing that matters it that the [testosterone decision] process has integrity. It must be trustworthy, able to withstand scrutiny, because in this case the IAAF is arguing for an intervention that has real-life consequences. This is not some abstract academic issue. It will involve real people.”
Pielke said of the call for a retraction: “Mistakes are made, it is inevitable. But it is how you deal with them that counts.”
Boye writes on www.sportsintegrityinitiative.com: “We have pointed out this [poor data] to the IAAF and to the publisher. None of them appear to handle this well. It is unacceptable that the paper stands ... we should insist that scientific standards ... are followed.”Khan, the medicine journal’s editor, told Times Select: “The BJSM is considering all the elements in this discussion and will make a statement about the paper once we have had a chance to consider and consult appropriately.
“We appreciate the respectful manner in which all actors have engaged in this process. We also appreciate the suggestions on ways for BJSM to improve practice.”
On Thursday, the IAAF said it was not going to push for the study to be retracted. “The conclusions remain the same.”
It defended Bermon’s work. Bermon works for the IAAF.Tucker said if the authors redid the study with the correct numbers, they might find even more evidence to support their conclusion that high testosterone levels gave athletes an advantage.
But, for now, the study is “full of problems and its main premise, that there are performance differences between high and low testosterone groups, cannot be trusted”.
Yale University ethicist and avid Semenya supporter Katrina Karkazis, who is writing a book on testosterone and athletes, said she had known this all along: “The IAAF is doing its own studies because the broader sports science literature on testosterone and athleticism does not support their claims.”