The Athletics Federation of India’s incompetence in dealing with cases of gender ambiguity was exposed with the Santhi Soundarajan episode in 2006. The case was handled so abysmally that the sprinter was driven to attempting suicide. Pinki Pramanik, another athlete accused of lying about her gender, also went through the same humiliation. With Dutee Chand, the Sports Authority of India has stepped in. But it inspires little confidence and seems to have woefully inadequate expertise to deal with the case of the talented sprinter who was found to have hyperandrogenism. It is a condition that has got her barred from international meets, since she is believed to have more than the permissible level of naturally produced testosterone in her body.
India loves celebrating medals won by women at international contests, but it is incapable of protecting its girls, their privacy and their dignity, when they fail to conform to the gender template. This failure continues even after the SAI has ostensibly extended support to Dutee Chand. Does any medical expert have the answers to a fundamental question that will determine the 18-year-old’s future: are the high testosterone levels functional (which is believed to aid performance) or non-functional (which doesn’t)?
When an anonymous coach reported Dutee to the authorities, was the entire set of tests carried out precisely, according to the stipulations laid down by the International Association of Athletics Federations? Were the standard guidelines followed before she was declared positive for hyperandrogenism? Sadly, no one in the federation or the SAI is held responsible. So, it is very optimistic to expect these same officials to step forward and ensure that Dutee, who was raised as a girl, is allowed to compete again. This is especially true when opinions are divided internationally.
Indian officials plan to knock on the doors of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), and take the human and civil rights tack in arguing their case. They plan to argue that her high testosterone levels cannot be called an unfair advantage, just as Usain Bolt’s height or Michael Phelps’s massive wingspan cannot be dubbed unfair. Hence, she should not be made to undergo intervention, invasive or non-invasive, in order to be allowed to compete in the female category again. The after-effects of hormonal therapy or of a surgical intervention are not fully known, though international sporting bodies have allowed athletes to return after such interventions. Four athletes went through “a partial clitoridectomy with a bilateral gonadectomy, followed by a deferred feminising vaginoplasty and estrogen replacement therapy” and returned to the track, reported the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism in June 2013.
The doctors in these cases, who have been sworn to secrecy, cannot reveal much about the aftermath of such procedures on these nameless girls. But Dutee will need to be made aware of the exact consequences of the choices she makes. At 18, it can be a lot to deal with. Dutee will need to be counselled and, more importantly, heard out, because there are a multitude of agendas at play here.
The athlete, a determined and vivacious girl, is desperate to return to the track. This is the first time an athlete has tried to reject therapy while insisting that she be allowed to compete. Running is also her livelihood, and if the court case stretches for too long, Dutee could lose the best years of her career. Her family might have its own perspective on whether her career is more important than her health in the long run — this becomes relevant if there are risks to corrective therapy.
Also, if Indian rivals and their coaches instigated the tests on Dutee, what is the guarantee that they will not raise objections again when she is reinstated? Who will convince them to show empathy? And all this before she is even thrown into the international arena, which is merciless. Take the case of Caster Semenya, who faced immense hostility before South Africa rallied around its girl and defended her right to compete. Where professional sport is high commerce, competitors — women themselves — are loath to concede an advantage, especially since testosterone is widely believed to aid performance.
International guidelines stipulate that testosterone level is the decisive determinant of gender and suggested corrective action for athletes before they are allowed to compete again. This, after many decades of debate on the proper course of action. India will have an uphill climb if it decides to take Dutee’s case to the CAS and support her stand — that she be allowed to compete without corrective action. It must tread carefully. Dutee’s dream is at stake here.