Data from the 2011 Daegu Athletics World Championships showed a hyperandrogenism incidence rate of 7.1 per 1,000 female athletes. Recently, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (Cas) issued an interim award in an arbitration procedure that went in favour of India’s precociously talented sprinter, Dutee Chand, who had not been allowed to compete last year under the IAAF’s hyperandrogenism regulations. It was a landmark legal pronouncement for Chand and the 0.71 per cent international runners like her who had been denied a chance to compete in the last few years.
But where does that interim order leave the remainder of women athletes for the next two years, if not longer? How does athletics, as a sport, respond to this tightrope, which determines the male-female sex divide necessary for competition to stay fair and meaningful?
Hyperandrogenism concerns female athletes who, due to a special condition, naturally have levels of testosterone that are usually seen in males. The Cas heard exhaustive arguments from both sides. The interim arbitral award has gone deep into the dilemmas that surround the issue before delivering an order that is just and fair to Chand: that she should be allowed to run. But it would be unfair to forget about the addendum and adjuncts of the order.
On the biggest count that matters, the sociological view, the order delivers justice to Chand, something that should be celebrated. On scientific counts, the order concludes that available studies are inconclusive. “No study has established to an appropriate level of certainty a scientific basis to come to a definitive conclusion one way or the other,” it notes. Both sides relied on different published papers to support their respective views, and competing evidence and hypotheses wrestled to arrive at a scientifically absolute conclusion. They couldn’t.
Both sides agreed that “lean body mass” (LBM) is a discriminatory factor between males and females. However, the onus is now on the IAAF to prove that testosterone is responsible for generating this LBM. The IAAF was also unable to demonstrate with scientific certainty that there is no difference between the effects of endogenous (naturally occurring) and exogenous (doping) testosterone on athletic performance. It remains an unresolved issue that will no doubt be further explored by scientists who seek to establish a link between testosterone and LBM.
The science, therefore, is complex and confusing. It will be particularly confounding to the majority of female athletes who do not come under the hyperandrogenism ambit. While there is no answer to Chand’s contention that it was unfair to bar her from running because the testosterone levels in her body were naturally occurring and no fault of her’s — hence also a god-given advantage — the corollary also rings true: The field now turns unfair for athletes who, for no fault of theirs, are at a disadvantage because they are not blessed with high levels of naturally occurring testosterone.
The debate is complex because, for at least half a century now, some female athletes have doped on illegal testosterone, making it the dirty byword of performance enhancement in athletics and a source of great frustration for those affected. The anti-doping body’s list of prohibited substances also bans administration of substances that promote production and release of endogenous hormones (including testosterone).
To now be told that testosterone is irrelevant to the debate will be a staggering departure. It will mean understanding the layered science, which itself is grappling with conflicting viewpoints. To remain in absolute denial of testosterone’s contribution to athletic performance wouldn’t be particularly helpful, either.
Though hyperandrogenism regulations are grossly discriminatory, has it been satisfactorily resolved if the women’s athletics field has now achieved complete fairness? It is not just that the majority’s recourse for absolute parity (in testosterone levels) can only be doping. It is also the challenge of dealing with the perception that a competitor enjoys a testosterone advantage, especially when science is not providing the answers.
The non-resolution of the hyperandrogenism issue in the long term will subtly chip away at the sense of a level playing field in athletics. Cynicism about an unfair advantage is extremely harmful to any competition. Chand’s representatives have contended that a level playing field is illusory. But if Chand deserves fairness, so do the women running in lanes parallel to her.