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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.

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.

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Mary Kom aims to win a gold medal at the 2020 Olympics

Mary Kom stated that she is aiming to win a god medal in the 2020 Olympics.

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Mary Kom's goal to win the gold medal in the 2020 Olympics
Mary Kom's goal to win the gold medal in the 2020 Olympics. IANS

She has achieved almost everything that women’s boxing can offer, but five-time World Champion M.C. Mary Kom is still yearning for the greatest accolade in the world of sports — winning gold at the Olympics.

Mary’s only appearance at the Olympics came at the London Games in 2012 when women’s boxing was introduced for the first time at the quadrennial sports spectacle. Having moved up to the 51 kg category, she had ended up with a bronze medal.

She had admitted later that it was difficult to move out of her favourite 48 kg category — in which she had won her five world titles — but the change had to be made as it was not included at the Olympics or the Asian Games.

However, with the International Boxing Association (AIBA) debating over the prospect of including the 48 kilogram division at next year’s Asian Games and probably the 2020 Olympics, Mary is filled with renewed hope.

“I still have not won an Olympic gold. That is my ultimate target. I am working very hard with the 2020 Olympics in mind. I am trying my best. The rest is up to God,” the Manipur icon told IANS.

“As long as I am alive, winning gold at the Olympics will always be my greatest dream. That will remain a target till the end of my career,” she added.

Mary added another title to her already overflowing trophy cabinet recently by winning gold at the Asian Women’s Boxing Championship — her fifth title at the continental level — and has now set her sights on defending her Asian Games title next year.

That may prove to be a tall task for the average athlete, specially at 35, an age widely considered old and over the hill for a physically demanding sport like boxing.

Mary, however, does not let such mundane details distract her from her goal. She is determined to overcome the problem of advancing age just as she has defeated every other obstacle that has come her way since childhood.

“My real strength is my will power. An athlete needs to be mentally strong. This is more so in my case as I have had to prove myself to people right from the beginning.

“I have had to face a lot of obstacles. First of all I am a girl, and as a result I had to fight initial disaproval from my family and society in general when I took up boxing. Then I got married which meant I had to adjust my schedule and lifestyle. Then I became a mother which meant more adjustment,” Mary said.

“Now I am fighting against age. At my age, it is a challenge to maintain fitness and compete against younger opponents. Now I have grown old for this sport. I have achieved a lot in my career. I have nothing left to prove. But I will keep on competing as long as my passion is alive. I want to wear the India jersey and contribute towards my country. I want to win medals for the country,” she added.

With India winning five gold and two bronze medals at the AIBA Women’s Youth World Championships last month, Mary is confident that changing social attitudes will see the country achieving even more glory in women’s boxing in future.

“Social attitudes towards female participation in sports is changing slowly. Earlier girls from the north, specially Haryana and even those from the south, used to face a lot problems from their families while taking up boxing. This is true even now to some extent. But attitudes have changed,” she asserted.

“People should let their daughters play sports. Only then we will win medals at the Olympics.” (IANS)