Evolution has not acted equally on men and women. This is most clear when it comes to the allocation of genes that control power and strength. The reason for this is not as obvious as it might seem. It is unlikely to be a product of differential hunting requirements. Indeed, in many mammals, it is the females that do the hunting. There seems no reason, apart from cultural, why a woman could not hunt as effectively as a man, whether over a short period or persistently for two days – and of course great apes that only hunt vegetables (gorillas and orangutans) still have males that are considerably more powerful than females. Instead, the selection for strength is most likely a product of males fighting other males in competition for mates.
Run, Swim, Throw, Cheat: The science behind drugs in sport
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It seems likely that males and female hominids have become similar in size with the passage of evolutionary time. But they are not there yet. Except in those rare events where strength is not a factor at all, we still have distinct male and female sporting categories. What this means is that evolution has allowed a large scope for improvement to any female who can increase their male physical characteristics.
Victor Conte founded the infamous Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (Balco) that was accused by the US Anti-Doping Agency of supplying anabolic steroids to a wide variety of athletes, including Great Britain’s Dwain Chambers; in 2005, Conte pleaded guilty in a US court to conspiracy to distribute steroids. This is what Conte said about doping female athletes: “Steroids can help a female sprinter to lower her 100m time by about four-tenths of a second or four metres faster. The effects of steroids upon male 100m sprinters are about two-tenths of a second or two metres faster.”
While not necessarily agreeing with this statement quantitatively, qualitatively it is sound. Female world and Olympic records set prior to random drug testing have been much harder to break. For example, while there is a steady progression in the male Olympic athletic records, there are as many female Olympic records still standing that were set prior to 1990 as those that were set in the last decade. It is hard not to argue with the implication that the steroid doping that was widespread in the 1980s has had a more dramatic effect in female sport than male sport.
But the male/female issue has other implications. There are methods other than steroids to close the gulf in performance that exists between male and female sports. The simplest is by direct subterfuge.
The 1938 European champion high jumper Dora Ratjen is perhaps the most famous example. Ratjen’s case featured in the film Berlin 36. In it, she was unmasked as a transvestite member of the Hitler Youth picked for Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Olympics in place of the genuinely female Jewish athlete Gretel Bergmann. However, on closer inspection, this case is more complex.
There is no evidence that there was a Nazi conspiracy to infiltrate a transvestite into the team. In fact, Dora Ratjen had somewhat ambiguous genitalia at birth, was registered as a woman and brought up as a girl. The Nazis were unaware that she was a man.
Given the nature of the times, it is unlikely the German authorities required such an elaborate subterfuge to discriminate against a Jewish athlete anyway. Upon being discovered in 1938 and being shown indeed to be genetically and physiologically male, Dora quit sport and changed her name to Heinrich.
Such direct subterfuge was very rare in the past and is probably nonexistent now. Yet there are more subtle grey areas between what constitutes a male and female athlete. Suspicion about the gender of supposedly female athletes led the International Olympic Committee to introduce gender tests at the 1968 Olympics. These degrading and simple physical examinations were later replaced with a scientific chromosome test for the presence of the male Y chromosome. But even this is not foolproof. At the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, eight of 3,387 female athletes were found to possess a Y chromosome.
How could a person have female characteristics, despite the presence of a Y chromosome? In seven of the cases, the cause was androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS), a condition where the body does not respond to the male hormone testosterone; in one case, the problem was a deficiency in the enzyme that activates testosterone. The lack of response to testosterone during foetal development in these conditions generally results in external genitalia that are mostly female. So although these women may have had the same testosterone levels as men, it was assumed that this testosterone could not lead to a performance enhancement and the athletes were allowed to compete.
However, while the prevalence of AIS in the general population is 0.002%, in women competing in the Olympic Games it is 0.2%. This 100-fold increase suggests the possibility of some performance enhancement due to this syndrome.
Most people with AIS syndrome have XY sex chromosomes, but still consider themselves female. The International Olympic Committee now thinks the same – it abandoned compulsory gender testing after Atlanta. But it retained the right to test for gender if necessary and the suspicion existed that if a genuine world beater emerged with ambiguous sexuality the story might be different. And this was precisely what happened with the recent cases of Santhi Soundarajan and Caster Semenya.
Soundarajan failed a gender test at the Asian Games in 2006 after winning the silver medal in the 800m race. Caster Semenya was a convincing winner in the Berlin 2009 World Championships in the same event. She was subsequently withdrawn from international competition pending an investigation. Eleven months later, the International Association of Athletics Federations cleared her to compete. It has been suggested that as part of this process she is required to undertake therapy to reduce her testosterone levels.
The clear male/female differences in sport performance do raise interesting questions about athletes who are genetically rather than pharmacologically enhanced. If a genetic mutation that makes a female athlete more “male” makes that competitor ineligible, what about another that makes a male athlete run faster or jump higher? After all, elite athletes are all genetic anomalies – it is just a question of how extreme the anomaly. Will there soon be DNA testing to accompany drug testing?
Sport has so far avoided this problem by assuming that performance is multifactorial. To be an elite athlete, it is wise to choose the right parents, but no one has previously thought that this is due to inheritance of a single gene modification.
Unlike in TV shows, you cannot inherit superhero abilities. Yet recent research has raised serious doubts about this cosy hypothesis. In many domestic and laboratory animals, it is indeed true that a single gene can make a dramatic difference in strength and endurance. And there is a precedent in elite sport.
Eero Mäntyranta, a Finnish cross-country skier who won gold medals in the 1960 and 1964 Winter Olympics, was found to have abnormally high levels of the protein haemoglobin in his red blood cells. High haemoglobin levels allow athletes to carry more oxygen and are a benefit in endurance sport. Mäntyranta, like all his family who were tested, achieved his high haemoglobin levels by having a genetic mutation in the protein in his body that responded to the hormone erythropoetin (EPO).
At normal levels of EPO, the effect on his body was as if he had much higher levels. A stronger EPO effect means more haemoglobin and therefore more oxygen to his cells. EPO is top of the list of performance-enhancing chemicals, yet here is someone who through an accident of birth behaves exactly as if he was doping with EPO.
Is this fair? How is it different from the cases of Santhi Soundarajan and Caster Semenya? The more we know about the genetic make-up of elite athletes, the harder our decisions about what is right and proper in sport will appear.
In 10 years’ time, full genetic profiling may be commonplace. We may also have knowledge of some rather specific genetic adaptations that improve sporting performance. What do we do to ensure fairness in competition in this case? Doping control will not be enough. The Paralympics currently have a wide range of classes that reflect the differing physical abilities of athletes. Will the same be true of the rest of the Olympics? Will there be different classes dependent on different genetic sequences in key molecules in the body? I once would have thought this a fantasy. Now I am not so sure.
Extracted from Run, Swim, Throw, Cheat: The Science Behind Drugs in Sport by Chris Cooper
THE LATEST DOPE: EXISTING WAYS TO CHEAT AT SPORT
HUMAN GROWTH HORMONE
This increases the levels of insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1), a natural substance that starts the muscle growth process.
Used in? Sports such as weightlifting, rugby and American football.
Side-effects? Abnormal growth of internal organs, change of facial shape, disturbed heart rhythm and increased risk of cancer.
Detection? The latest blood test can detect its use in the past 21 days
Guilty! US weightlifter Pat Mendes and the rugby-playing son of environment secretary Caroline Spelman.
Enhances performance through an increase in red blood cells, increasing the transport of oxygen in the body and making the conversion of food into energy at the cell level (aerobic respiration) more efficient.
Used in? Drug of choice for endurance athletes, especially distance runners and cyclists.
Side-effects? Increased risk of heart disease, stroke and cerebral or pulmonary embolism.
Detection? Not possible until 2000. Now urine tests are made in conjunction with blood tests.
This anti-asthmatic agent activates noradrenaline receptors in the lungs, heart and muscles, increasing heart rate and the blood flow to muscle. Despite suspicions that some diagnoses of asthma are fake, athletes with medical exemptions are allowed to take asthma medication. Clenbuterol, however, has been banned as it also stimulates muscle-building.
Used in? Bodybuilding, cycling and athletics.
Side-effects? Tremors, excessive sweating, cramps, nervousness, thickening of heart muscle and heart disease.
Detection? Combined test of a urine sample, which first separates elements and then identifies them.