Sport

Scientists call for IAAF to release performance data of testosterone study

By Antoinette Muller 11 May 2018
Caption
Sebastian Coe, President of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAFF), addresses a joint IAAF and IOC Council press conference in Docklands, Central London, Britain, 04 August 2017. EPA/WILL OLIVER

Scientists are asking questions about the data the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) used to implement its new testosterone policy – specifically at how some members arrived at their conclusions.

Pressure continues to build on the IAAF in the wake of its newly introduced policy which will force women with naturally higher levels of testosterone to reduce these by either taken medication, or worse, surgery. Alternatively, athletes will have to switch codes or stop competing all together.

But issues have been raised over how the study was conducted, not just from an ethical point of view, but how the data was analysed.

Three scientists, Roger Pielke Jr, from the University of Colorado, Erik Boye from Oslo University Hospital and South Africa’s Ross Tucker have all put their names to a list specifically raising questions about how the scientific data was used.

They have also called for additional signatories in the same field to add their names to the list.

In a blog, published on the British Journal of Sports Medicine, the scientists say that their repeated requests for the data have been ignored.

In 2018, it is generally expected that researchers make their data available to other researchers for the purposes of reanalysis, replication and further research,” they wrote.

Scientists are specifically requesting what they referred to as BG17’s performance data.

BG17 alleges a performance advantage based on testosterone levels for women in selected events. We are asking for their original data on performances so that we can reproduce what they have done,” Pielke told Daily Maverick.

The paper has been widely criticised, but to be fair, we need the data to see exactly what was done. It is absolutely normal and expected in 2018 that researchers will share their data. Science is made better for it,” he said.

Specifically, scientists note that they have been “unable to reconcile the reported methods and results of BG17 with publicly available performance data from IAAF.org”.

During this process, they have “arrived at some questions that can only be addressed with access to the original data”.

The letter specifically addresses one example, from the 800m, saying: “in Daegu 2011 and Moscow 2013 (where the data was gathered) there are only two such times and one of these has since been disqualified due to doping.”

There are many places in the data where we cannot reproduce the reported results based on official IAAF data. It is not clear how, for instance, Russian dopers were handled (included or excluded?) or why some dopers were included at all. The only way to truly understand the analysis is to reproduce their numbers from the original data,” Pielke added.

The scientists behind this letter do not believe there were any ethical violations in terms of gathering the data, though. But Pielke says it would be unethical to withhold the data when it is requested from fellow researchers.

The crux of the matter, as Pielke points out, is transparency.

In 2018, this is how science is done. Leading scientific organisations and journals have expectations of data sharing across most fields nowadays. This is doubly important in cases where the research is used as the basis for policy and regulation. It is curious that IAAF won’t release the data, as replication of their work would help to improve the credibility of their findings. Keeping the data hidden does the opposite,” Pielke added.

Tucker, meanwhile, Tweeted that while he is “sympathetic” to the IAAF’s “concept of defending a boundary between men’s and women’s sports”, the crux of the matter is transparency.

If research is done, and if that research is foundational to actions (in this case, a policy), then the data must be made available on request, so that anyone can arrive at the same position and understand why something is being enforced. It is right to be transparent,” Tucker said.

South African professor Steve Cornelius resigned from his role at the IAAF Disciplinary Tribunal last week, calling the policy a “warped ideology”. DM

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