Rio 2016 Olympics: Half of the 800m finalists in Rio might well be intersex, says Joanna Harper

Joanna Harper, a transgender athlete, suggests it isn't unlikely that three presumably intersex women will sweep the 800m podium.

Written by Shivani Naik | Updated: July 15, 2016 11:30:13 am
Rio 2016 Olympics, Rio Olympics 2016, Rio 2016, 2016 Rio Games, Rio Games 2016, Joanna Harper, Dutee Chand, Sports Joanna Harper believes Rio is hurtling towards its biggest controversy which will play out on the 800m track in the August 20 final at the João Havelange Stadium. (Illustration: CR Sasikumar)

We are all collateral damage for someone’s beautiful ideology, all of us inanimate in the face of onslaught.

– Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Legal solutions are not designed to make everyone happy. Consensus involves many pairs of listening ears sitting around a table, minus the sharpened knives. And so it goes with the scrapping of athletics’ Hyperandrogenism policy after a sensational legal victory, at the Court for Arbitration of Sport, for Indian sprinter Dutee Chand. In what is seen as a landmark ruling for female athletes who are naturally blessed with higher levels of testosterone after years of abominable practices to keep them away from the tracks, there is relief from being accosted to prove you are woman-enough.

Except, someone’s natural advantage is another’s natural disadvantage. And the scales of fairness are, again, not pointing straight north.

Joanna Harper’s bold assertion needs some stomaching, as she willfully sticks her neck out, predicting a storm.

“With the 2015 CAS ruling in Chand case, we now have a new playing field. I believe that it is not unreasonable to suggest that half of the eight-woman 800 meter final in Rio might well be intersex, and it is not unlikely that three presumably intersex women will sweep the podium.”

Harper is a transgender athlete – a distance runner. A medical physicist, she is the first to publish a scientific paper on transgender athletic performance and is part of the team to advise the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on gender-based issues. She underwent Hormone Replacement Therapy (that blocked testosterone) 12 years ago, and had noted a direct correlation: she simply couldn’t run as quickly as she had before.

When weighing in on the topic of HA and as full disclosure, Harper insists that she thinks foremost like a scientist, then an athlete and finally as a transgender, though all the identities (science-study of physiology, sport and gender) are dearly passionate to her.

She believes Rio is hurtling towards its biggest controversy which will play out on the 800m track in the August 20 final at the João Havelange Stadium. “The 800 meter race has long been a sweet spot for intersex runners – no one seems to know why – and it goes all the way back to the world record set by Zdenka Koubkova in 1934,” she states.

The chromosome-based testing that was undertaken from 1968 until 1988 by the IAAF eliminated any woman with an XY disorder of sex development (DSD) condition from competing. But after the IAAF dropped compulsory testing in the late 1980s, Harper recalls that intersex athletes were allowed to compete with certain vague restrictions.

“It is my belief that intersex athletes other than Caster Semenya have achieved Olympic success in the women’s 800 since 1990. However, Semenya is the one who has achieved the most notoriety. Had the IAAF testosterone-based rules not been allowed to stand, there would undoubtedly have been other intersex triumphs in the two-lap race,” she claims.

The CAS verdict wasn’t just a victory for Dutee – where she asserted her right to run without bringing down levels of testosterone in her body, but an opening for numerous athletes constrained by the Hyperandrogenism (HA) Regulations, who can now compete unhindered by eligibility rules after the delineation between male and female categories on the basis of testosterone levels in the body, was summarily scrapped.

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Harper has grappled with the entire gamut of truisms: that biology does not neatly demarcate humans into two sexes; that intersex and transgender persons don’t fall in straitjacket definitions, that there are morons who continue to insist Semenya is a man, that masculine features, by themselves, are a foolish way of determining eligibility of the man-woman divide, and that the gender verification testing process has had a scarring past with many a wrong step taken and are awfully cruel on several athletes. Also, while it would be inaccurate to suggest that surgery was forced as a corrective measure in the recent past, it would probably be true that an element of coercion existed as the athletes were left with no other option if they wished to compete.

The Daily Mail recently reported two British transgender athletes were set to compete in the women’s category at Rio. “The two Britons transitioned from men to women some years ago and have since ‘competed in their assigned gender’. Their recent performances ought to automatically guarantee them places on Team GB,” the paper stated of the unnamed sportspersons.

That said, Harper stresses that the real issue is not about stopping men masquerading as women in sport. Nor is anyone (who matters) passionately insistent on keeping out intersex athletes, at all costs.

It is about fundamentally protecting female athletes from “those who undergo male-type puberty” given that a distinction was made between men’s and women’s sport in order to ensure a level playing field. And for a bunch of people firmly rejecting binaries of sex divisions and addressing the greys, she is sorely disappointed at how the aftermath of the CAS verdict painted the two opposing camps into corners of heroes and villains – the IAAF obviously coming out worse off. She reckons both extreme positions can be passionately argued, dipping into the well of science and human rights, but a real resolution will only emerge from a middle ground that doesn’t live in denial of some eye popping realities of sport. Like testosterone.

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It is in the assertion that Testosterone (T) is completely irrelevant to the debate that will lead to future dissonance, Harper reckons. “T builds muscle mass, increases haematocrit levels, aids in recovery, and increases the lung capacity for hard training. More T won’t turn a bad athlete into a good athlete, however, if a good athlete is given more T, she will become a much better athlete,” is how she introduces the problem hormone – a god-given gift for some.

Logically, some transgender women would also feel entitled to compete without modification and reassignment next.

“This would be a very bad situation,” she adds.

While intersex athletes are naturally gifted, and contend that they deserve the advantage, Harper rejects that there should be any difference in the action of endogenous and exogenous T saying, “I strongly believe that the best way to decide who should compete in women’s sport should be based on functional testosterone levels.”

However, despite the theoretical and evidence-based claims that high T-levels help athletic performance, fact remains that there is lack of corroboration to prove definitively how intersex conditions affect performance.

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If the Dutee debate, breathing righteous fire into the darkness that is the IAAF’s gender policy, has raged and ended all perceived evilness, there’s another athlete – unrelated to this – who vexes Indians with how she runs on the track. Tintu Luka is a source of endless debates in newsrooms across India for her visibly painful inability to win the two-lap 800m race. Is it the bobbing head that decelerates her motion? Or is it the tactical blunder of a fool rushing in and then losing steam as her competitors leave her fading on the grand stages of international athletics?

Or, is the 800m a lost cause?

Alysia Johnson Montaño, the American middle-distance runner, can be said to have done a Tintu Luka in the 800m finals at the London Games. Leading for most part of the race, she would fade out so spectacularly that it took late-night TV great John Oliver to drag her out of this oblivion, when in a heart breaking testimonial, she told him “at that moment I realised I was racing against robots.” There was nothing sunny in the disposition of Montaño who runs with a trademark sunflower clipped to her hair, and who tearfully told the comic about losing out to an admitted doper, the Russian Mariya Savinova.

“I felt really failed and really betrayed and I actually felt like my career was a farce. Like, ‘What am I doing out here, what’s the point?”

While her lament was centred firmly against doping, it wouldn’t have missed anyone’s attention that the silver went to controversial South African runner Caster Semenya, who has nothing to do with doping, but is the most well-known case of hyperandrogenism. Savinova was 6th going into the second lap, Semenya was last. In what was a breathtaking swerve from the outer lane __ a display of stomping power and brilliant striding from the untiring Semenya, Montaño was overtaken and left far behind.

The women’s 800 of the 2016 Games promises to be stark and controversial again. And it has a lot to do with the visceral debate surrounding the deeply polarising HA policy that stands suspended going into Rio.

But what this absolute abnegation of HA rule has done is, it has thrown the women’s 800m into utter chaos. 800 boasts of the longest standing record on track – Jarmila Kratochvilova’s 1:53.28 at Helsinki in 1983 – and it is itching to be broken, though this time India will be acutely aware of the chain of events it would have set into motion through the CAS verdict should pre-Games favourite Caster Semenya shatter the mark.

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If you thought we’d heard the last word on the issue of athletes with high T-levels competing in the women’s category, you are living in a false lull.

For Semenya’s lead-up to Rio threw up some startling numbers. And a portent that the 33-year-old 800m mark is within striking distance for the talented and naturally gifted South African. Semenya won the Doha Diamond League trotting at 1:56.46, her first since 2011. She swept the South African nationals in 400m (50.7s), 800m (1.58 mins) at Stellenbosch. At Rio, she can go faster – and also throw in a blitzing relay leg to genuinely trouble the top teams.

When she ran 1:55.45 at Berlin as an 18-year-old, she was identified for HA and went through manic hell in what followed the ‘outing.’ She’d struggled to breach 2 minutes in the intervening years – just twice before 2012 Games – when the HA rules were enforced, though she claimed silver at the Olympics and the Worlds. Four years on, she is one of the strongest bets for the 800-gold, with scepticism renewed after the upper T limits were stopped.

The first murmurs of perplexity have started. Shannon Rowbury, the American 1500 record holder told the American media at the Olympic Track and Field Trials after advancing to Friday’s1500m semifinals, “It threatens the integrity of women’s sports to have intersex athletes competing against genetic women. Caster is a wonderful person, I have nothing against her, but I think we already have an established precedent of men’s sports and women’s sports. I think we need to honor that. Women have fought far too long to be able to even have the right to compete, and now it’s being challenged by intersex and trans athletes, and I don’t think that’s right,” she was quoted by nbcsports.com.

Semenya’s 4:10.93 over the 1500 was outside the Olympic qualifier, but her 400-800-1500 timings in a span of four hours of competition evoked plenty of awe.

Ross Tucker, a scientist with the Department of Human Biology, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Cape Town in South Africa was the first to launch this debate by engaging Joanna Harper in a detailed analysis. Tucker writing in sportsscientists.com earlier this year, had roared to the conclusion: “I cannot acknowledge the women’s 800m as a credible event as a result, but I hope that Semenya (and a few others) go out and run 1:52, and I wish she would run and win the 400m too. Sometimes people need to be struck between the eyes to see the obvious.”

The bigger picture is missed in India because Dutee’s was a stunning legal and human rights victory for the nation.

“The most immediate effect of the CAS decision beyond the IAAF, is the decision by the IOC to not defend a hyperandrogenism policy for the 2016 summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Thus, all of the sports of the summer games, not just athletics will be affected,” Harper says.

Fair competition stands to be seriously compromised though the perfect solution remains elusive.

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That HA lives under the shadow of IAAF’s biggest fight – sniffing out dope cheats, one third of whom were caught for testosterone violations, cannot be overstated.

Hypothetically, and legally, it might well be argued in the future that a female athlete with a typical female T level, could demand that she be allowed to artificially (and legally) boost her testosterone seeking a level playing field.

“That exact case is currently being argued in the Canadian courts, although I should point out that the appellant is a post-operative transgender woman ,” Harper says.

However, the bigger fears are the rampant doping that has swept athletics. “I can tell you that it is understood that hyperandrogenic athletes are expected to compete at their natural testosterone levels, but not above these levels. Hence, they will not be exempt from doping control. But I don’t know precisely how it will be determined that the high testosterone levels they will present with, represent their natural T levels,” she says.

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An illusionist – alternatively, an athlete who has been a victim of discrimination, can afford to call a level playing field illusory, a sports administrator cannot.

However the IAAF is confronted with the CAS verdict which in its conclusion accepts the submission: “The athlete submits that the Hyperandrogenism Regulations cannot be justified and that they should therefore be declared invalid. The athlete accepts that fair sport is a legitimate objective but says that the Regulations are not necessary to achieve that objective. Moreover, she says, the concept of the need to preserve a “level playing field”, as relied upon by the IAAF, is illusory.” (CAS 2014/A/3759 Dutee Chand v. AFI & IAAF – Page 145).

The division of competition into separate categories of males and females makes it mandatory to define the dividing line, because fairness is also demanded by the majority of athletes who will not enjoy a natural hyperandrogenic advantage.

A division cannot exist without a delineation, and Harper insists that the debate will hardly die down. Simply dismissing high T-levels as naturally occurring advantages in performance would cloud the integrity of this division. Starting with the 800m in a month’s time.

For a Montaño or Tintu Luka deserve as much fairness and a level playing field as a Semenya deserves her right to run.

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