What the case of Dutte Chand says about women in sports

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Dutte Chand is an 18-year-old sprinter from India. She was banned from a women’s competition in last July’s Commonwealth Games. Why? Somebody at June’s Asian Junior Athletics Championship requested that she be tested for hyperandrogenism. It turns out that Chand has naturally occurring high testosterone, which disqualifies her from competing against other women since this is deemed an unfair advantage.

Hyperandrogenism occurs in seven out of 1,000 female athletes. The International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) says that a female’s testosterone level has to be below what they call the “male level.” 

In order to fall below the male level, female athletes must either take hormone suppressing drugs or have surgery to physically stop producing testosterone. 

But why would an athlete undergo surgery to rectify something that is naturally occurring and is neither flawed nor threatening to the athlete’s health? 

Chand is asking that very question of the CAS, or Court of Arbitration for Sport (known as the Supreme Court in the sports world).

Chand is not the first athlete to have questioned the ethics of the IAAF’s testing. Following the 2009 controversy over Caster Semenyana’s gold medal win—in which her gender was questioned and the IAFF’s handling of the case was widely criticized—the IAFF finally released formal guidelines in 2011. The president of South African athletics, Leonard Chuene, resigned from the IAFF, and Semenyana’s test results were eventually dismissed.

At the London Olympics in 2012, four female athletes were identified as having hyperandrogenism. The four women were sent to a clinic in France where they were all found to have male and female anatomical features. They were told that if they had surgery to remove their testes, their testosterone levels would drop. (A study published last year disproves that theory). While these surgeries are not required by the IAAF, many connected to Chand’s case suspect that the women were pressured into surgery to save their professional careers. 

Following such revelations, Chand’s reluctance to undergo surgery or take hormone suppressants is understandable. “I was made to understand that something wasn’t right in my body, and that it might keep me from playing sports,” she said. But people are stepping up to support Chand’s choice. Katrina Karkazis, a senior research scholar in bioethics at Stanford, has been working on Chand’s case. She and other supporters persuaded the sports authority of India to back Chand’s appeal. 

The biggest question, however, is how to address the notion of what qualifies one as an athlete. While hyperandrogenism isn’t unnatural, it is uncommon, which gives female athletes with hyperandrogenism a natural (yet rare) advantage that other female athletes do not have. But don’t athletes already have natural advantages over, say, you and me? 

There is a limit that testosterone can reach in a male. However, the IAAF is not trying to determine androgen levels for males but for individuals who want to compete in the female category. Testosterone levels are the defining distinction between male and female categories. Is this fair? Are men held to the same standards? If Chand is too elite for the female category, does she qualify for the male category? This also brings up the question of a male body’s physical superiority over the female body.

Needless to say, the CAS has its work cut out. When Juliet Macur, who profiled Chand for the New York Timeswas asked if there was a fair solution to this case, she responded, “I don’t know what the answer is. And in fact some of these scientists don’t know what the answer is. Who is a woman and who is a man isn’t as easy as we think it is, especially when it comes to sports. And I’m glad it’s the CAS and not me deciding where to make that line. I’m not even sure if it’s possible to make that line.” 

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