UK: What Is Women's Sport? The Dilemma Of The IAAF's DSD Regulations

Last Updated: 12 July 2019
Article by Libby Payne

Most Read Contributor in UK, July 2019


In this series we are looking at some of the challenges faced by women's sport but also celebrating the achievements of female athletes and opportunities for further growth and development. At the very same time a fierce debate is continuing in Switzerland between Caster Semenya, Athletics South Africa and the IAAF as to what criteria define who can and cannot compete in women's sport.

History of sex testing in sport and modern developments

Whilst women did not feature at all at the ancient Olympic Games, women have been allowed to compete in all but the first edition of the modern Olympic Games with the number of events increasing substantially over time. In most sports men and women compete separately and this is generally considered necessary due to the significant performance advantage male athletes have over their female counterparts.

This separation allows both genders to excel. However, since the 1950s there have been attempts to test participants to ensure their eligibility to compete in the face of suspicion that male athletes were competing as women. These tests were rudimentary; first a visual examination and then in later years chromosome analysis, before being abandoned altogether in the 1990s.

Our modern understanding of gender appreciates that gender is not binary but is a spectrum and that previous testing methods were inadequate. Nevertheless, in order to have the category of women's sport, it is necessary to define who can participate in that category.

On the one hand there are those who argue that legally recognised gender is the only relevant factor and, specifically, those individuals who have been legally and socially considered female since birth should not be precluded from competing as women just because some later medical test uncovers an intersex condition or difference of sexual development ('DSD'). There is a related school of thought that queries why DSD is such a focus of attention, when controlling or limiting other physical conditions that confer a competitive advantage (for example, oxygen processing) on either men or women is not considered necessary. Testosterone is not the only differentiating factor between male and female athletic performances.

On the other hand are those who argue that allowing individuals who have all, or nearly all, of the advantages of male athletes to compete in the female category is simply unfair. Eligibility they say, must be determined according to biology. That however is a far from simple proposition when translated into practical steps.

The IAAF DSD Regulations

At the heart of the current dispute are the IAAF's DSD Regulations which apply to female athletes who have XY chromosomes and are able to benefit from the additional testosterone in their bodies that comes with this. This is one of many different types of DSD and occurs in around 1 in every 20,000 people in the general population. However, it is estimated that amongst female elite athletes the proportion is 7 in every 1,000 (i.e. 140 times higher) – which it is argued tends to show an advantage.

Individuals with this condition are born with internal testes but with external genitalia that are not fully masculinised. As a result, the level of testosterone available is much higher and this is widely considered to give a performance benefit. This is however disputed and it is clear that the level of advantage is not settled and could vary from event to event. Some individuals may have conditions that do not enable them to use this testosterone (androgen insensitivity) and they do not fall within the IAAF DSD Regulations as a result. However, a key feature of the recent Court for Arbitration for Sport ('CAS') decision was a discussion about how to determine whether or not there is any androgen insensitivity. This cannot be determined from a blood test alone but requires an assessment based on a physical examination, which could be distressing or degrading.

If an individual falls within the scope of the DSD Regulations, they will be required to take medication (it is suggested oral contraceptives) to reduce their testosterone levels to bring them down to levels closer to the normal female range in order to compete in certain specified events (currently clustered around 400m, 800m and 1500m events).

Semenya, having taken the required medication for a number of years, refused to continue taking the medication after another athlete, Dutee Chand, effectively won her case against the IAAF. However, the implementation of the new DSD Regulations have resulted in her being banned from competition at elite level unless she takes the medication, which she has stated she will not do. Semenya, backed by Athletics South Africa, appealed to the CAS to have the DSD Regulations overturned.

The recent CAS Decision

The issues in the decision are complex and the science highly disputed. Ultimately the CAS found that the IAAF's DSD Regulations were discriminatory but were necessary, reasonable and proportionate. They did not however go as far as to accept the IAAF's suggestion that an individual had a 'sports sex' but preferred to focus on matters of eligibility to compete in a particular event.

The CAS did however express concerns about the DSD Regulations and in particular how they may be implemented and the need for them to develop and evolve in light of new evidence. In particular the panel were concerned about the strict liability nature of the requirement to reduce testosterone levels below a particular threshold and whether it was possible for an athlete to be sure that they would achieve the required reduction even if they followed all of the treatment protocols. Further, the panel expressed concerns about the basis for applying the regulations to certain events, such as the 1500m, where evidence of performance advantage was 'sparse'.

This decision was appealed to the Swiss Courts who have cleared Semenya to continue competing pending hearing of that appeal. An urgent appeal against that decision by the IAAF has not been upheld.

What next?

There will clearly be further hearings in the Swiss Courts. Any substantial changes to the DSD Regulations could also potentially result in a further appeal to the CAS. In the meantime, a wider question remains as to whether it is possible and reasonable to set a point on the gender spectrum to divide men and women for the purposes of competitive sport, or whether only legal and social factors should be considered. This debate will have wider implications for a broader category of athletes than those with DSD and will also affect trans athletes, where current regulations in certain sports also require affected athletes to take testosterone reducing medication.

It is also clear that scientists in this field are not all in agreement. Carrying out further research will always be hampered by the relatively small number of DSD athletes and the necessity to consider any advantage in relation to each sport and event. It is quite conceivable that another situation will arise where sports are forced to react and create rules in the face of concerns raised about a particular athlete. Meanwhile it is clear that the way Semenya and Chand were treated throughout the process and the level of information that was released about them was itself problematic. This inflamed an already sensitive situation and arguably involved more public discussion of personal information than was necessary for a proper resolution of the issue.

However the appeals are decided, sport needs to find a better way of addressing the impact of DSD. This may be achieved by creating proportionate rules based on scientific evidence and finding a way of implementing those rules in a way that does not unfairly affect an athlete who has been competing in good faith for a number of years. Or it may be achieved is by adopting a more socio legal approach to defining eligibility for women's sport.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Similar Articles
Relevancy Powered by MondaqAI
In association with
Related Topics
Similar Articles
Relevancy Powered by MondaqAI
Related Articles
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Mondaq Free Registration
Gain access to Mondaq global archive of over 375,000 articles covering 200 countries with a personalised News Alert and automatic login on this device.
Mondaq News Alert (some suggested topics and region)
Select Topics
Registration (please scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of

To Use you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.


The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.


Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions