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Centre for Law, Medicine and Life Sciences

Faculty of Law


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The 2021 Baron de Lancey Lecture: Law, Hormones, and Sport: A level playing field?

How do we ensure a level playing field in sport given natural variations in human biology? When athletes’ biological levels differ from the norm set by their federation for a given sport, what is to be done? For example, is it fair to force female athletes to take testosterone-lowering drugs to be eligible to compete?

In 2018, the International Association for Athletic Federations (IAAF) enacted regulations that prevent female athletes with naturally high levels of testosterone from competing in some athletics events. The validity of these regulations was challenged by South African Olympian Caster Semenya and Athletics South Africa, however the Court of Arbitration for Sport upheld the rules in 2019. As a result, athletes like Semenya need to take testosterone lowering medication in order to compete. 

These decisions by the IAAF and the Court were highly controversial. The World Medical Association, for example, demanded the immediate withdrawal of the regulations, arguing that they discriminate based on the genetic variation of female athletes and that it violates the principles of medical ethics for physicians to prescribe a potentially harmful treatment if the purpose is not therapeutic.

On 25 February 2021, Semenya announced that she was taking her case to the European Court of Human Rights.

Is it justifiable for the IAAF to require that an athlete take testosterone-lowering drugs to alter a natural trait that does not pose a medical problem?  In what ways, if any, can high testosterone be considered different from other genetically-based traits that provide a performance advantage in sport, but that are not considered unfair and subject to regulation?

Dr Silvia Camporesi will explore these and related questions about the law and ethics of regulating and determining fairness in sport.

Dr Silvia Camposeri is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Global Health & Social Medicine at King's College London, where she is also the Director of the MSc in Bioethics & Society. She is a bioethicist with an interdisciplinary background in biotechnology, ethics and philosophy of medicine. Originally trained as a biotechnologist at the University of Bologna (Italy), Silvia spent a year at the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in Triest (Italy), where she worked in the Molecular Medicine/Gene Therapy laboratory led by Professor Mauro Giacca, before deciding to leave the 'bench' of the molecular biology lab to pursue a career in bioethics. Silvia was appointed to the World Anti-Doping Agency's Ethics Advisory Group in January 2021.

The Baron de Lancey Lecture series is kindly supported by the Ver Heyden de Lancey Fund.