“This opens Pandora’s box.”
Those were the words uttered Thursday by Tom Virgets, executive director of amateur boxing’s global governing body, 24 hours after a landmark ruling from the highest legal authority in sports that female track athletes with naturally elevated levels of testosterone must suppress the hormone to participate in certain races.
Virgets, like the leaders of other sports, has been scrambling to digest the highly charged ruling that’s likely to have major implications on elite women’s sports well beyond track and field, the focus of Wednesday’s judgment. The Switzerland-based Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled on intersex athletes after a decade of heated debate and litigation, but the ruling may only serve to spark further debate rather than provide a final answer.
The subject, as controversial as it is emotive, has divided opinion across the spectrum, including within the court, which ruled 2 to 1 against Caster Semenya, a two-time Olympic 800-meter Olympic champion from South Africa, who had challenged the restrictions drawn up by the International Association of Athletics Federations, or I.A.A.F., track and field’s world governing body. In its most literal sense, the judgment means some female athletes will no longer be considered as such for some races — from 400 meters to a mile — unless they take measures to suppress testosterone production.
While Semenya’s lawyers have vowed to fight on, and while the fuzzy wording of the court’s judgment adds a further layer of confusion to what is already complex terrain to navigate, sports that have so far watched from the sidelines may soon be forced to tackle the issue.
The court’s decision could now open the way for new complaints about unfair advantages and similar rules in other women’s sports, such as weight lifting, boxing, wrestling, rugby and soccer, where speed and power can prove crucial in determining athletic success.
“This question is going to come to every international federation,” said Virgets, expressing bewilderment over what it would mean for boxing.
Virgets said it is widely accepted that testosterone creates an unfair advantage for certain boxers, because it gives them additional strength and stamina, but researching and quantifying the advantage would require extensive testing.
“This is going to be debated for many, many years,” he said.
Semenya’s case required the court to weigh fair play on the sports field against the human rights of athletes like Semenya, a national hero in South Africa. Many sports will likely now look to the International Olympic Committee for leadership and a pathway through what is already a legal and ethical quagmire. However, there is no guarantee they will get that, given the I.O.C.’s penchant for deferring to sports federations in the most controversial matters.
The I.O.C. demurred when the Russian doping scandal threatened to overwhelm the 2016 Summer Olympics, telling international federations to decide their own participation guidelines for Russian athletes.
“There’s no political benefit for the I.O.C. to weigh in at this point,” said Roger Pielke Jr., the director of the Sports Governance Center at the University of Colorado, a member of Semenya’s legal team.
In a statement, the I.O.C. said it was working with a group of experts to create guidelines that would assist international federations to shape specific policies for their own sports “in relation to fairness, safety, inclusivity and nondiscrimination on the basis of gender identity and sex characteristics.”
Ahead of the ruling, Paula Radcliffe, a retired British athlete who holds the women’s marathon record, said failure to introduce testosterone limits risked creating a situation in which young athletes were specifically selected to train for certain sports because of their ability to produce elevated levels of testosterone.
“It would be naïve to think if this rule didn’t go through that there aren’t some people out there, managers or federations, who would actively seek out girls with this condition and say, ‘You are going to do this sport and this event so that we can win,’” Radcliffe said on the sidelines of an antidoping conference in London last month.
The court judgment, according to Pielke Jr., essentially gives sports federations the green light to act however they want over the issue. He noted that the I.A.A.F. President Sebastien Coe ignored a suggestion in the ruling that restrictions to 1500-meter and mile races be delayed “until more evidence is available.”
“The CAS decision gives the I.A.A.F. the ability do whatever the hell they want, and if that’s the message then other sports and federations can feel comfortable they can act,” Pielke said. They don’t necessarily need a strong evidence base to act.”
Still, given the sensitivities related to the matter, many federations remain reluctant to discuss it in detail publicly. For example, there’s little known about the findings made so far by a working group set up to examine the issue last year by volleyball’s governing body, the F.I.V.B. A spokeswoman said it was waiting to study the full details of the ruling in Semenya’s case.
The organization responsible for cycling, said it had not yet considered specific eligibility rules for female athletes with elevated testosterone levels. Some organizations referred to policies in place for athletes who have transitioned from male to female, showing that in certain cases even a basic understanding of the intersex athlete remains elusive.
Virgets, the boxing leader, said he is unsure of what the changes could mean for women’s boxing, adding that only one thing is certain — continuing debate and litigation.
“I think there are a bunch of lawyers who are going to become specialist litigators in this area and are going to make a lot of money,” he said.