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Gender Testing: Tracing sexism, racism and discrimination in sports

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Next Story

Swiss Court Orders IAAF to Suspend Testosterone Regulations

The suspension of the IAAF regulations is the latest in a line of legal disputes between the South African 800-meter runner and the governing body for track and field

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South Africa's Caster Semenya takes a selfie with fans after winning gold in the women's 1500m final at Carrara Stadium during the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, Australia, April 10, 2018. VOA

Two-time Olympic champion Caster Semenya is temporarily allowed to compete without lowering her testosterone levels, following a ruling by Switzerland’s supreme court.

The court ordered the International Association of Athletics Federations to temporarily suspend their regulations until the organization makes its arguments to the court. The suspension of the IAAF regulations is the latest in a line of legal disputes between the South African 800-meter runner and the governing body for track and field.

Hyperandrogenism

In April 2018, the IAAF put in places rules requiring women with higher-than-normal testosterone levels — known as hyperandrogenism — to artificially lower the hormone level in their bodies if they wanted to compete in distance races between 400 meters to a mile.

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South Africa’s Caster Semenya competes in the women’s 800-meter final during the Diamond League in Doha, Qatar, May 3, 2019. VOA

“This is an important case that will have fundamental implications for the human rights of female athletes,” Dorothee Schramm, the Swiss-based lawyer leading Semenya’s appeal, said after the ruling. Semenya challenged the regulation and ultimately lost her case in the Court of Arbitration for Sport last month.

ALSO READ: S. African Runner Caster Semenya Files an Appeal to Uphold Testosterone Regulations

“Necessary, reasonable, proportionate”

The court then acknowledged that the IAAF regulations were discriminatory, but that the regulations were “necessary, reasonable and proportionate means of achieving the IAAF’s aim of preserving the integrity of female athletics in the restricted events.”

Following the CAS ruling, Semenya appealed to the Switzerland supreme court. Semenya is still appealing the CAS ruling to get the IAAF testosterone rules permanently stricken. (VOA)