A thorny path ahead

Spotlight : The Dutee Chand verdict has put officials in a fix as they struggle to draw a line separating genders
Last Updated 01 August 2015, 18:43 IST

Good for Dutee Chand, the teenage sprinter with courage and resolve who vowed not to change her body to suit someone else’s idea of a woman. She challenged a rule made by track’s international governing body that barred her from competing against other women because her natural level of testosterone was too high.

She said no way would she take hormone-suppressing drugs to lower that testosterone level. No chance that she — a healthy, strong 18-year-old — would have surgery to limit how much testosterone her body produced.

On Monday, the Court of Arbitration for Sport, sport’s highest court, announced it had ruled in her favour. It was hard not to celebrate Chand’s victory, given that all she wanted to do was compete with the body she was born with.

But now what?

Chand’s cause is righteous, but her ruling is not a permanent triumph for her and women like her who have naturally high levels of testosterone, a condition called hyperandrogenism. The complexity of a sports world divided into just two categories — one for women, the other for men — makes it so.

In its ruling, the arbitration panel said that the International Association of Athletics Federations, track and field’s global governing body, did not outright lose its battle against Chand.

Instead, the panel said, the IAAF has up to two years to present a stronger case for upholding its eligibility rule for women with levels of testosterone it considers to be within the male range. Before the decision in Chand’s case forced this issue into limbo, that rule was what divided male competitors from female ones.

The IAAF would have to prove — with hard facts and numbers — that female athletes with hyperandrogenism enjoy a marked advantage over athletes with levels within the normal range. If it fails to do so, its rule barring athletes like Chand will be void. Until then, Chand and other athletes like her can compete.

The track organisation may never be able to prove its case. What is lasting, though, is the tangled fabric of this issue, which presents one of the most perplexing questions in all of sports. Where do we — or should we — draw a line between male and female competitions?

If we agree that some people carry biological characteristics that are both male and female — one study showed that there was an overrepresentation of athletes at the 2011 world track and field championships who fit that bill — then should we just give up trying to separate sexes in sports?

Would it be fair for all competitors if high school boys and girls ran against one another in the 100 metres? Or for Michael Phelps to compete in the same swimming event as Natalie Coughlin? Or for LeBron James to go up against Brittney Griner?

Just thinking about what should happen can make you dizzy. After all, not every athlete’s anatomy and physiology fits society’s simplistic definition of man and woman.

The first time I considered the challenge that sports officials faced regarding this issue was in 2009, when Caster Semenya of South Africa emerged as a world-class 800M runner. When her competitors questioned if she was a woman, she was forced to undergo humiliating sex testing, drawing widespread outrage. Her case compelled track’s governing body to devise new rules that would seek to treat athletes with dignity and care.

Last year I spoke with Chand, as well as several independent experts. To me, it was clear that Chand should not have been subjected to invasive probing, especially without her knowledge of what exactly was going on, and should not be forced into medically changing her body forever, just to compete.

Dr Eric Vilain, a medical geneticist at UCLA, provided one of the more thoughtful voices on the issue, and I reached out to him again on Monday.

“For me, this is a victory of identity politics and activism,” he said, adding that he was happy that Chand had won her case. “Now I’m really worried about the future of women in sports because if we push this argument, anyone declaring a female gender can compete as a woman. We’re moving toward one big competition and the very predictable result of that competition is that there will be no women winners.”

He brought up the possibility that the ruling could affect transgender athletes because the rules governing their eligibility were based on their level of androgens (like testosterone), too. He wondered whether someone like Caitlyn Jenner, who won Olympic gold medal in the decathlon as Bruce Jenner, could now lace up her sneakers to compete as a woman. It would not be an easy case to settle. Reasonable people would disagree.

I pity the IAAF, which has to come up with guidelines that prompt so much debate. Athletes, scientists, medical officials, sports officials — there’s no consensus. Already, the high-testosterone rule was considered only the best available method, and only after decades of trial and error.

There was a time when female athletes had to submit to medical tests that were aimed to determine their sex, and then were given gender identity cards they had to carry with them to events. Women with male chromosomes would fail that test. Yet some of them were insensitive to androgens, which meant high levels of testosterone wouldn’t help them. No solution seemed fair. It was a messy situation that grew messier over the years.

The arbitration panel in the Chand case is at least trying to inch closer to a solution. But, as Vilain suggested, there might be no solution. He believes that track’s governing body won’t be able to prove that women with hyperandrogenism have a great advantage over other women because it is impossible to determine that high testosterone equals a big advantage. Too many other factors go into an athlete’s success, like nutrition and training, he said. Yet the court seems to require a clear cause and effect to consider the IAAF’s rule fair.

“Looking at this does not compute for me,” said Vilain, who is an expert on the biology of intersexuality and helped formulate the International Olympic Committee’s rules on hyperandrogenism.

And that leads us back to something the arbitration panel said in its decision: “Nature is not neat.”

So the way sports officials handle this issue won’t be neat, either, because maybe it can’t be neat. But, to protect the athletes, it can certainly be better.

In Chand’s testimony, she said a doctor had told her that she needed to be given a “high-performance profile test” when, as it turned out, he was actually trying to determine her sex. (The doctor rebutted that claim, but I don’t know what high-performance profile test includes an ultrasound of an athlete’s abdomen.)

Four athletes from the 2012 London Olympics were evaluated after test results revealed high testosterone levels. They were found to have a mix of male and female anatomical features and had surgery to remove their testes, a procedure that they were told would allow them to continue competing.

Chand said that she had felt pressured to go through with the operation and with hormone-suppressants, but that she had felt powerful enough to speak up for herself. She won her case, for now. There’s no telling what will happen with this issue later.

(Published 01 August 2015, 17:10 IST)

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