Gender Testing: Tracing sexism, racism and discrimination in sports


By Gaurav Sharma

Following her coronation as national champion, an Asian Games bronze medallist and becoming the first Indian sprinter to reach the finals of a global athletics event at the tender age of 18 years, Dutee Chand was riding the wave of success with much elation.

Less than a fortnight before the start of the Glasgow games, the tiding wave quickly whip-lashed the Odisha-born athlete’s dream run and landed her as a forlorn figure caught in the mire of gender discrimination.

Humiliation & Passive Discrimination

Dutee Chand, like the South African sprinting sensation Caster Semenya, was heartbroken at the shocking news of her natural levels of testosterone, a natural growth hormone found in the bodies of all humans, matching levels of those found in males.

What followed was humiliation at the hands of reporters, fellow athletes and international sporting officialdom. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the world governing body for track and field events, banned the emerging athlete for failing the hormone test.

After her career was put on a hold for almost an year, the Court of Arbitration for Sports (CAS) revoked IAAF’s findings and gave a fresh lease of life to her stifled young career, though not before side-lining her for almost an year-a considerable period in the short-spanning career of track and field athletes.

During the cataclysmic period, Dutee Chand missed both the Asian and the Commonwealth games and was advised to undergo a ‘corrective’ treatment, a reference to hormone suppression and genital surgery.

Alluding to the devastating impact the ruling had on her mental equilibrium and athletic performance, Dutee Chand told BBC, “I was completely shattered when I was banned. My performance deteriorated steadily. I was pushed to third position in the national athletics meet in Bangalore.”

History of Gender Testing

The decision by CAS to suspend IAAF’s “hyperandrogenism” rules (a case of excessive production of testosterone) for 2 years came in the backdrop of the organization of “Let Dutee Run” campaign by 5,646 signatories in tandem with media support.

However, the contentious issue of gender testing has been challenged by gender activists, biologists and researchers alike since the last decade. In Dutee Chanda’s case, Dr Payoshni Mitra was the vanguard who galvanized mass sympathy for the athlete, whose family belongs to a weaving background.

Gender activist Piyoshni Mitra with Dutee Chandra (right)

Historically, gender testing arose in the wake of men masquerading as women in international sporting events (the earlier known case of which was German high jumper Dora/Heinrich Ratjen in 1936 Olympics).

To prevent circumvention of men faking as women, the International Olympic Committee(IOC) initiated ‘gender verification’ in 1968. What began as an embarrassing dropping of underwears transmuted into a sophisticated checking of X and Y chromosomes.

As per the genetic system, XX stand for women and XY for men. However, classifying sex into two categories based on the combination of chromosomes means a denial or alienation of the “hermaphrodite” or the intersex people as part of the natural order of being.

Moreover, cases of genetic syndromes or mutations are not unheard of. In 1985, Spanish hurdler Maria Jose Martinez-Patino had to fight a three-year pitched battle for her right to compete as a female after she was told that she was an ‘XY’ male.

By the time Patino convinced the world that her Y chromosome was due to the insensitivity of her blood towards testosterone, her glory days were behind her. Between 1972 and 1984, 13 women failed the gender tests at Olympics, tests which were suspended by the time the 90’s era started except in cases of extreme suspicion.

Spanish hurdler Maria Jose Martinez-Patino

In the 2006 Asian games, Indian middle distance runner Santhi Soundarajan failed the gender verification test and was subsequently stripped of her medal.

Unanswered questions

After Caster Semenya burst onto the sporting arena and won the 800 meters final at the World Athletics Championships in 2009 with a record margin, the IAFF gave in to public perception regarding her masculine looks and subjected her to gender tests (a move which drew much criticism from former athletes).

In 2011, the IAAF went a step further and asked an expert working committee to frame a plan for women with excess androgenic hormones, substances which generally define the gap between males and females.

However, what fails to meet the eye is the ambiguity surrounding what defines the ‘normal’ levels for men and women.

South African middle-distance runner Caster Semenya

The IAAF, in conjunction with IOC, defined the upper limit of testosterone for females as 10 nanomoles per litre blood, based on which investigations could be launched into such allegations.

Here again, the IAAF failed to miss the crucial point that such a complaint could be launched by rivals with vested interest or an anomaly could erupt in the test itself. The question of whether the athlete is benefitted from elevated levels testosterone can be beguiling because, as seen in the case of Maria Jose Martinez-Patino, the high levels can act like a mirage, giving a false perception of reality. And meanwhile, the athletes become ineligible to compete.

Katrina Karkazis, a Stanford University bioethicist who has been tracking the cases of testosterone testing, smells a deeper rot of sexism and racism behind the incrementing cases of gender discrimination in sports.

“The Indian and black African women are often suspected of simply not conforming to white western standards of what a woman should look like. Think Serena Williams and the execrable talks surrounding her ‘masculinity’”, Karkazis says.

Increasingly, young women travel from the developing part of the world to the western shores in order to comply with the sport’s rules on what “normal” female genitalia should looks like. That women should be subjected to genital surgery and hormone therapy is discriminatory, keeping in mind that men athletes are never subjected to such intense gender scrutiny.

Moreover, institutionalised genital mutilation is a scary concept, something that Dr Payoshni Mitra affirms with.

As far as notions of possessing unfair advantages goes, professional sport has been inherently dominated by those wielding such natural gifts. From the eagle-like wingspan of Michael Phelps to the cheetah-like fast legs of Usain Bolt, sport has never been fair. It is a mix of both natural talent and physique and hard-work and effort that define a champion.

Michael Phelps, the US swimmer
Swimming legend Michael Phelps’ eagle wingspan

In this regard, the policy adopted by IAAF is not based on scientific evidence, but rather on “scientific consensus” that testosterone levels determine athleticism.

Although questions relating to the effect of testosterone persist, what cannot be denied is that the disqualification on such grounds encompasses broader issues of sexism, racism and discrimination.