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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

2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo to be Postponed Due to Coronavirus Pandemic

Coronavirus Forces Delay of 2020 Olympics

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A man wearing protective face mask, following the outbreak of the coronavirus, looks at his mobile phone next to The Olympic rings in front of the Japan Olympics Museum in Tokyo, Japan. VOA

The 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo will be postponed until next year because of the coronavirus pandemic, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced Tuesday.

Although the International Olympic Committee had said it would spend up to a month debating the matter, the decision to postpone became inevitable after several countries said they would not send athletes if the Games were held this summer.

“The IOC president and the prime minister of Japan have concluded that the Games must be rescheduled to a date beyond 2020, but not later that summer 2021 to safeguard the health of the athletes, everybody involved in the Olympic Games, and the international community,” the IOC and the Japanese organizing committee said in a joint statement Tuesday.

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Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe talks to the journalists in front of the prime minister’s residence in Tokyo. VOA

Both committees say they made their decision after consulting with the World Health Organization. Abe and the IOC had said that canceling the Games had always been out of the question.

“The Olympic Games in Tokyo could stand as a beacon of hope to the world during these troubled times that the Olympic flame could become the light at the end of the tunnel in which the world finds itself at present,” the IOC said.

Abe told reporters in Tokyo that when the Games finally gets under way, it will prove that “humanity had beat the coronavirus.”

The Summer Games were to have opened July 24.

Team USA, which represents triathlon and duathlon Olympic contenders, tweeted its thanks to the Tokyo organizers for what it says is “all you have done for a great Olympic and Paralympic Games. We wish you all the best as you keep your communities safe and offer our cooperation and support as you prepare to host the world.”

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A man takes pictures of the Olympic Flame during a ceremony in Fukushima City, Japan. VOA

The Olympics have been canceled three times since the modern Games began in 1896. They were scrapped in 1916 during World War I and in 1940 and 1944 during World War II.

The Games have been boycotted, propagandized by Nazi Germany, and attacked by terrorists, but have never before been postponed.

Japanese organizers said Tuesday they are also postponing the Olympic torch relay that was supposed to start Thursday.

Also Read- Tuberculosis: World’s Number 1 Infectious Killer

The flame arrived in Japan from its traditional lighting in Greece on March 12. It was supposed to have traveled around Japan, to be used to light the flame at the opening ceremonies in Tokyo.

The torch will remain in Fukushima until the Games are firmly rescheduled. (VOA)