In the past week in the world of sport, all the rage has been over mid- to long-distance runner Caster Semenya. Semenya has won the 800 m in 1:56.72 and setting world records in the 400, 800, and 1500 m with times of 50.74, 1:58.45 and 4:10.93 respectively. In 2012 and 2016, Semenya won the gold for the 800 m with times of 1:57.23 and 1:55.28 respectively. I won’t really discuss the anatomic and physiologic advantages today. What I will discuss, though, is the fact that Semenya has been told that she has to take drugs to decrease her testosterone levels or she cannot compete anymore. Semenya was told to decrease her testosterone levels or she could face a ban in the 800 m. The new rules state that:
Female athletes affected must take medication for six months before they can compete, and then maintain a lower testosterone level.
If a female athlete does not want to take medication, then they can compete in:
- International competitions in any discipline other than track events between 400m and a mile
- Any competition that is not an international competition
- The male classification at any competition, at any level, in any discipline
- Any intersex, or similar, classification
But Semenya has declined taking these drugs—so her future is up in the air. So, if Semenya—or any other athlete—has to take drugs to decrease their levels since it gives an unfair advantage, then, in my opinion, this may lead to changes in other sports as well.
Look at Michael Phelps. Michael Phelps has won a record 28, winning 23 medals at Rio in 2016. Phelps has a long, thin torso which decreases drag in the water. Phelps’ wing span is 6’7” while he is 6’4”—which is disproportionate to his height. He has the torso of a 6’8” person, which gives him a greater reach per stroke. His lower body is 5’10” which lowers the resistance against the water. He has large hands and feet (with flexible ankles), which help with paddling capacity (size 14 shoe; yours truly wears a size 13).
There is one more incredible thing about Phelps: He produces around 50 percent lower lactic acid. Think of the last time that you have run for some distance. The burning you feel in your legs is a build up of lactic acid. Lactic acid causes fatigue and also slows muscle contractions—this occurs through lactic acid passing through the bloodstream, becoming lactate. (Note that it does not necessarily cause fatigue; Brooks, 2001.) Phelps does not produce normal levels of lactic acid, and so he is ready to go again shortly after a bout of swimming.
Phelps said “In between the 200m free and the fly heats I have probably had in total about 10 minutes to myself.” A normal person’s muscles would be too fatigued and cramped. I would also assume that Phelps has an abundance of type I muscle fibers as well.
Now take Usain Bolt. The 100 m dash is, mostly, an anaerobic race. What this means is that mitochondrial respiration has minimal effect on the type of energy used during the event (Majumdar and Robergs, 2011). So during anaerobic events, there is no free oxygen to drive energy—the energy stored in the muscle is used to perform movement through a process called glycolysis. Sprinting is an intense exercise—fuel choice during exercise is determined by the intensity of said exercise. “A 100-meter sprint is powered by stored ATP, creatine phosphate, and anaerobic glycolysis of muscle glycogen.”
Now we can look at the physical advantages they have. Swimmers and runners, on average, have different centers of mass (Bejan, Jones, and Charles, 2010). In all actuality, Phelps and Bolt are the perfect example of this phenomenon. Winning runners have a West-African origin and winning runners are more likely to be white. These somatotypic differences between the two races influence why they excel in these two different sports.
Usain Bolt is 6’5”. Since he is that height, and he has long legs, he necessarily has a longer stride—Bolt is the perfect example of Bejan, Jones, and Charles’ (2010) paper. So take the average white sprinter of the same height as Bolt. Ceteris paribus, Bolt will have a higher center of mass than the white athlete due to his longer limbs and and smaller circumference. Krogman (1970) found that, in black and white youths of the same height, blacks had shorter trunks and longer limbs, which lends credence to the hypothesis.
Phelps is 6’4”. As noted above, he has a long torso and long limbs. Long torsos are conducive to a lower center of mass—what whites and Asians have, on average. So long torsos mean that one will have taller sitting heights than those with short torsos. This means that whites and Asians have taller sitting heights than blacks, who have shorter torsos. This average taller sitting height is conducive to the longer torsos which is why whites excel in swimming. Bejan, Jones, and Charles (2010) also note that, if it were not for the short stature of Asians, they would be better swimmers than whites.
In any case, the different centers of mass on average between blacks and whites are conducive to faster times in the sports they excel at. For whites, the three percent increase in center of mass means that there would be a 1.5 percent increase in winning speed and a 1.5 percent decrease in winning time in the case of swimming. The same holds for blacks, but in the case of running: their higher center of mass is conducive to a 1.5 percent increase in winning speed and also a 1.5 percent decrease in winning time, which would be a .15 second decrease, or from 10 s to 9.85 s—which is a large differential when it comes to sprinting. (Note that this phenomenon also holds for black women and white women—black women are better sprinters and white women are better swimmers. Asian women excel in the 100 m freestyle, but not Asian men for reasons discussed above.)
Now put this all together. If Phelps and Bolt have such advantages over their competition and they—supposedly—win due to them, then if Semenya has to decrease her T levels, why shouldn’t Phelps and Bolt decrease X, Y, or Z since they have physiologic/anatomic advantages as well? Why does no one talk about Semenya’s anatomic advantages over, say, white women and why only bring up Semenya’s testosterone levels? Forcing Semenya to decrease T levels will set a bad precedent in sport. What would stop a losing competitor from complaining that the winner—who keeps winning—has an “unfair” physiologic/anatomic advantage and must do X to change it? (Or say that the anatomic advantage they possess is “unfair” and they should be barred from competition?)
Here’s the thing: Watching sport, we want to see the best-of-the-best compete. Wouldn’t that logically imply that we want to see Semenya compete and not rid herself of her advantage? If Semenya’s physiologic advantage(s) is being discussed, why not Semenya’s anatomic advantages? It does not make sense to focus on one variable—as all variables interact to produce the athletic phenotype (Louis, 2004). Phelps and Bolt perfectly embody the results of Bejan, Jones, and Charles (2010)—they have, what I hope are—well-known advantages, and these advantages, on average, are stratified between race due to anatomic differences (see Gerace et al, 1994; Wagner and Heyward, 2000).
Phelps and Bolt have anatomic and physiologic advantages over their competition, just as Semenya does, just like any elite athlete, especially the winners compared to their competition. If Semenya is forced to decrease her testosterone levels, then this will set a horrible precedent for sport, and people may then clamor for Phelps and Bolt to do X, Y, and Z due to their physical advantages. For this reason, Semenya should not decrease her testosterone levels and should be allowed to compete in mid-distance running.
She shouldn’t decrease her T levels if she’s worried about being less aggressive.
What’s interesting to know is that Phelps adavantage in lactic acid is probably genetic.
Semenya isn’t taking the drugs to decrease her testosterone levels—she already stated as much—and I don’t think she should as, I have argued, it would set a pretty bad precedent for sport as a whole.
Are you implying that testosterone explains why certain individuals are more aggressive than others? See Sapolsky (Behave and The Trouble with Testosterone); the claim is false.
Carriers of the minor T allele in the MCT1 gene have a 35 to 40 percent slower lactate acid transport (Kikuchi et al, 2016). Though recently, it has been shown that lactate is involved in many physiologic adaptations to exercise (see Nalbandian and Takeda, 2016). Further, intense training (which Phelps does, of course) can help decrease levels of lactic acid in the muscles and it can raise your threshold for lactate. Lactate produces ATP molecules quickly, and high-performance athletes like Phelps have lower blood-lactate levels since their bodies recycle the lactate into anaerobic metabolism more efficiently.
So his lower levels are obviously—like everything—a product of both G and E.