Maximila Imali, a top Kenyan sprinter, did not lose her eligibility to compete in the Paris Olympics because she cheated. She did not fail a doping test. She broke no rules.
Instead, she is set to miss this year’s Summer Games because she was born with a rare genetic variant that results in naturally elevated levels of testosterone. And last March, track and field’s global governing body ruled that Ms. Imali’s biology gave her an unfair advantage in all events against other women, effectively barring her from international competition.
As a result, Ms. Imali, 27, finds her Olympic dream in peril and her career and her livelihood in limbo.
Unless she is willing to suppress her testosterone levels through medication — which she is not — or she prevails in an appeal she has filed challenging the new regulations, she and other intersex athletes will be barred from competing in all running, jumping and throwing events under the increasingly restrictive and contentious rules that govern women’s track and field.
The legality of those rules has been disputed as they have evolved, and as sports governing bodies attempt to balance fair play in women’s sports with the complicated issues of biological sex and gender identity. But the application of the regulations continues to cause confusion for those affected: rule changes sometimes made with little or no warning; careers forcibly switched abruptly or ended at their peak; and embarrassment, humiliation and fears about personal safety.
“They are destroying our talent, and our dignity,” Ms. Imali said in a recent video interview about her appeal. She said she should not be punished for the way she was born because she had done nothing wrong.
“I was given this talent by God,” she added, “and I’m using it the way it is.”
The precise impact of muscle-building testosterone on elite athletic performance remains unsettled. World Athletics, track and field’s governing body, has argued that intersex athletes exist in elite sports at a level exponentially higher than they do in the general female population. But the organization’s top medical officials acknowledged in 2021 that they can show an associated but not a causal relationship between testosterone levels and athletic performance in top female athletes.
Despite uncertainty, track and field has imposed increasingly rigid restrictions that have interrupted or altered the careers of not only Ms. Imali but also bigger stars such as Caster Semenya of South Africa, a two-time Olympic champion, and Francine Niyonsaba, a 2016 Olympic silver medalist from Burundi.
To continue her elite career, Ms. Imali could modify her body through medication or attempt to compete against men — another prospect she flatly refuses. (“I am a woman,” she said.) Instead, she is appealing to the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport, the final arbiter on global sports disputes. A hearing is scheduled for the spring, her lawyers said.
Ms. Imali has received legal aid from the court to help defray the costs of arbitration, and her lawyers are working pro bono. But the appeals process still figures to cost tens of thousands of dollars — money that she says she does not have, which is why she is seeking to crowd-fund her challenge.
“Access to justice is a serious concern,” said James Bunting, one of Ms. Imali’s Toronto-based lawyers.
Without a ruling in her favor, Ms. Imali is not eligible to compete in national or international events, which might yield prize money or sponsorship contracts. At the same time, she and her partner are struggling to provide for their 4-year-old son, care for her grandmother and pay the rent and the school fees for her two younger sisters.
The case involves athletes born with a genetic condition known as 46, XY DSD. Athletes with the 46, XY DSD trait have genitalia that is not typically male or female; an X and a Y chromosome in each cell, the typical male pattern; and levels of testosterone in the male range.
Ms. Imali grew up in the village of Moiben, Kenya, raised in a family — mother, grandmother, two sisters and a cousin she considered a brother — that sometimes could not provide enough food for everyone every day. She said running was her opportunity for hope.
In 2014, at 18, she qualified for the 800 meters at the world junior athletics championships. She strained a hamstring during the final and withdrew, but was encouraged by the fact that she was among the world’s fastest runners in her age group.
Several months later, though, her optimism was shattered. Ms. Imali said that doctors and officials affiliated with Athletics Kenya, the governing body for track and field in her country, told her that she was ineligible to keep competing. At a hospital in Nairobi, the capital, she said, she had to remove her clothes and undergo an examination — a familiar story among intersex athletes — and then was told by a doctor that she could pay to have surgery to make her a “pure girl.”
Ms. Imali said that she had been confused. She said that she had never received any documents or test results and that, in the hospital, she had been told only that she had high levels of testosterone. Her mother assured her that she was a girl, and until then no one, including her, had ever questioned that. She declined the surgery.
“I cannot just destroy my body,” she said.
In 2015, the Court of Arbitration for Sport suspended track and field’s restrictions at the time regarding female competitors with naturally high levels of testosterone, a condition known as hyperandrogenism. The court, in a case involving an Indian sprinter, found insufficient evidence that hyperandrogenic athletes gained a performance advantage so great that they should be banned from competing against women.
The ruling meant Ms. Imali was free to run again, but she soon encountered a personal hurdle: She gave up the sport for a period to care for her mother, who had become sick and later died in August 2016. The cause was a brain tumor, Ms. Imali said, but she blamed herself for causing her mother so much stress.
In 2017, she resumed her career and qualified for the World Athletics Championships in the 400 meters. But her career lurched to a halt again in 2019 after track and field sought to impose new eligibility restrictions, and Ms. Semenya lost a landmark decision in her own case.
In that case, the arbitration court, by a 2-to-1 vote, upheld a ban on intersex athletes in events from 400 meters to the mile — where their advantage in strength, muscle mass and oxygen-carrying capacity was considered most pronounced — unless they lowered their testosterone levels to the female range. The decision kept Ms. Semenya from defending her 800-meter title at the Tokyo Olympics.
The court acknowledged at the time that the ruling was discriminatory but said that it was “necessary, reasonable and proportionate” to ensure a “level playing field” in women’s events.
Blocked from her most familiar events, Ms. Imali switched to shorter races. In 2022, she set Kenyan records at 100 meters and 200 meters and won a silver medal in the 200 at the African championships. In March 2023, however, her career was halted again, perhaps permanently.
Expanding its existing restrictions, World Athletics announced that intersex athletes were ineligible to compete in all women’s events unless they lowered their testosterone levels to 2.5 nanomoles per liter, half as much as previously allowed.
The tighter constraints came after two intersex athletes performed impressively in previously unrestricted events at the 2021 Tokyo Games: Christine Mboma of Namibia, who won a silver medal in the 200 meters at age 18, and Ms. Niyonsaba, who finished fifth in the 10,000.
Sebastian Coe, the president of World Athletics, said that no single athlete had prompted the stiffer eligibility rules. But without them, he said, “no woman’s ever going to win another sporting event.”
Ms. Imali said that the rule change had left her shocked but also feeling unsafe. People taunt her, call her a man, she said. She fears losing her job in the Kenyan police service, a perk of her running career that, without athletics, is her only means of supporting herself and her family.
“They are not destroying me alone,” she said. “They are destroying the people who are depending on me.”
In her appeal, her attorneys are expected to argue that insufficient evidence exists to show that intersex athletes have an unfair advantage in every track and field event. Until then, Ms. Imali and other affected athletes face what they say is an impossible choice: undergo treatments to sustain lower testosterone levels, which they contend are unnecessary and potentially harmful, or give up their livelihoods.
“They need to understand that we are human,” Ms. Imali said, “and they need to respect human rights.”