Early on Tuesday morning Saraswathi Chand went around her village, Chaka Gopalpur, to share the good news she had heard last night. She wanted to convey a simple thing to everybody she met. Something that her sister, Dutee, had called to tell her the previous day. Saraswathi had a message for those who had supported the family during the dark days: Dutee could be herself.
“When the news first broke in July last year that Dutee was ineligible to compete, the villagers started asking ‘is Dutee a boy or girl?’ Gradually, they understood that it was not Dutee’s fault and that she had challenged the Athletics Federation of India in court. Soon, the villagers came around and started supporting us,” said a relieved Saraswathi on Tuesday. “There is no sweet shop in our village, so I will be going to the nearest town. Everyone is celebrating Dutee’s victory.”
Around the world those supporting female athletes with hyperandrogenism — excess but naturally occurring testosterone levels — too were raising a toast to the Lausanne-based Court of Arbitration of Sport. Activists, lawyers and feminists used heavy jargon as they tried to understand the new gender guidelines. But their message was not very different from the one Saraswathi was spreading at Chaka Gopalpur. Now, athletes like Dutee could be themselves, something that was difficult till very recently. Athletes with hyperandrogenism were advised surgery or therapy to qualify to women’s event.
This IAAF regulations came into force in 2011 after South African 800m world champion Caster Semenya was diagnosed with a similar condition and was forced to undergo what was controversially called a ‘gender test’. It has since continued to be a hot topic of debate. There are also those who say that athletes with naturally high testosterone levels have an unfair advantage over other competitors. Like any sporting body, the IAAF, wanting to provide a level-playing field, looked at those with hyperandrogenism suspiciously.
But the CAS Interim Award on Monday stated that there was not enough evidence to link hyperandrogenism leading to enhanced performance. “The CAS Panel was unable to conclude that hyperandrogenic female athletes may benefit from such a significant performance advantage that it is necessary to exclude them from competing in the female category,” the statement said. This means women athletes won’t have to undergo therapy or surgical procedures to reduce the naturally-occurring (endogenous) testosterone levels in order to be eligible to compete under the IAAF regulations.
This was a landmark ruling since as recent as the London Games, four women athletes were declared ineligible to compete after being detected with higher than permissible levels of testosterone, in these cases naturally occurring.
The New York Times reported: “At the London Olympics, four female athletes, all 18 to 21 years old and from rural areas of developing countries, were flagged for high levels of natural testosterone. Each of them subsequently had surgery to remove internal testes, which produce testosterone, as well as procedures that were not required for resuming competition: feminizing vaginoplasty, estrogen replacement therapy and a reduction in the size of the clitoris.”
Developing world, a target?
The country of origin of most athletes under the hyperandrogenism scanner is one of the points that Katrina Karkazis of the Centre for Biomedical Ethics at Standford University alerted CAS to during the hearing. “Poor women from the global south appear to be the population most affected by hyperandrogenism regulations,” argued Karkazis. “The disproportionate impact on women from certain regions and ethnic groups increases the concerns about lack of informed consent particularly as women from poorer socio-economic backgrounds may be affected by additional pressures which arise from the fact that their families, teams and nations may be particularly reliant on them competing,” Karkazis said.
Dutee, a medal hopeful at the Commonwealth Games and the Asiad, is from the aforementioned background — a daughter of weavers — refused to take hormone-suppressing drugs or go under the knife and instead challenged the IAAF regulations based on which the Athletics Federation of India had banned her from participating in July last year. She could not participate in the Glasgow Games or in Incheon but can now participate at the Rio Olympics if she meets qualifying standards in the sprint events.
One of the strongest voices supporting the implementation of IAAF’s hyperandrogenism regulations at the CAS hearing was current world record holder in marathon Paula Radcliffe (by video). Radcliffe had ‘genuine concerns about the fairness’ of having to compete against females with testosterone levels in the male range. She explained that elevated testosterone levels ‘make the competition unequal in a way greater than simple natural talent and dedication.’
Radcliffe also said that many other athletes shared her views. She cited the reaction to the case of Semenya, in respect of whom ‘may athletes’ were ‘extremely concerned that she had an unfair advantage and that as a result she was able to compete at a level that they simply were not’.
Radcliffe’s statement was in line with IAAF’s stand that the clear difference in sports performance is mainly due to the marked difference in male and female testosterone levels. By setting aside the hyperandrogenism regulations CAS has only confirmed that nothing is clearly black and white when it comes to gender and sport.
Dutee vs Radcliffe
At Lausanne, World marathon record holder Paula Radcliffe argued on behalf of the IAAF. Excerpts from the hearing.
* The Athlete (Dutee) submits that the Hyperandrogenism Regulations discriminate against certain athletes based on a natural and essentially immutable physical characteristic, namely the quantity of testosterone their bodies produce without any artificial intervention. Any performance advantage that those athletes enjoy is the product of a natural genetic gift, which should not be viewed differently from other natural advantages derived from exceptional biological variation. Athletes are not prohibited from competing in sport because they possess other natural genetic advantages – for example height, lung capacity, foot size or visual acuity above a certain limit. On the contrary, athletes who achieve sporting success are usually those who fall outside normal parameters. There is therefore no principled or permissible reason for prohibiting a female athlete from competing because of an unusual natural genetic trait, even if that trait confers an advantage over fellow female competitors who lack that trait.
* Radcliffe had ‘genuine concerns about the fairness’ of having to compete against females with testosterone levels in the male range. She explained that elevated testosterone levels ‘make the competition unequal in a way greater than simple natural talent and dedication.’
* Radcliffe also said that many other athletes shared her views. She cited the reaction to the case of Semenya, in respect of whom ‘may athletes’ were ‘extremely concerned that she had an unfair advantage and that as a result she was able to compete at a level that they simply were not’.
* Radcliffe’s statement was in line with IAAF’s stand that the clear difference in sports performance is mainly due to the marked difference in male and female testosterone levels.