Governing bodies do not draw boundaries around the physical gifts of extraordinary male athletes, excluding them from competition because they are somehow “more than male.” Yet the International Association of Athletics Federations does do this with female athletes. Eighteen-year-old sprinter Dutee Chand is the latest athlete to be barred due to the advantage she gains from naturally high androgen levels. Chand’s case – and her appeal of the ban – gets to the very nature of competition.
When Linda Hunt won the Oscar for best supporting actress in 1983, it was the first time anyone had taken home the trophy for portraying a character of the opposite sex. While the role of photographer Billy Kwan in The Year of Living Dangerously required Hunt to don a fake moustache, her height (she is well under five feet tall) enabled her to portray Kwan’s dwarfism without special effects. Thus, alongside her own raw talent and dedication to her craft, she took advantage of her natural physique to top the competitive field and do something no one had ever done before.
No one accused her of cheating.
Dutee Chand is experiencing something different. Last year, the International Association of Athletics Federations banned the champion Indian sprinter from competition because of high testosterone levels. Chand’s testosterone is not connected to illicit doping, but rather a natural biological phenomenon known as Hyperandrongenism. Controversially, the IAAF uses testosterone as its primary measure to ensure that athletes competing as women are, indeed, women, and therefore not competing with an unfair advantage over their counterparts. According to the IAAF, for Chand to re-enter competition against other female athletes, she must – either chemically or surgically – lower her testosterone levels.
Chand is not the first to receive such a sentence from the IAAF, but she is the first to publically refuse to alter her body in order to conform with the rules. Chand has been clear: she does not want to medically interfere with something that her body produces naturally, even though that may give her a competitive edge. Unlike the uncounted number of women who have received similar sentences from the IAAF before her, Chand has appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport to be reinstated in her sport.
Since the slow introduction of women into elite international competition, sport has operated on the presumption that athletes fall into two categories: male and female. In the Olympics, the highest profile event for any sprinter, women have had to endure accusations of “mannishness” since they first competed in 1900. In the United States, physicians worried for decades that a focus on sports depleted a woman’s ability to reproduce. However, as the role of sports — especially gold medals — began to take center stage in the Cold War, perspectives began to change. In 1964, a landmark study by the American Medical Association actually encouraged women to get involved in sports.
Yet despite this turn in attitude, women on the field continued to be understood within the confines of a biological determinism that solidified the notion of their physical incapacity when compared with men. In short, there was only so much that the male-dominated, male-defined, sports world expected of women, and if they performed beyond those expectations, they were suspected of being men. The British Commonwealth Games in 1966 saw the debut of gender verification testing, which further strengthened the idea that categories of male and female could be scientifically established, despite anecdotal evidence of “intersex” athletes. In 1932 and 1936, for example, Polish-American sprinter Stella Walsh (who competed for Poland under the name Stanislawa Walasiewicz) won gold and silver, respectively, in the 100-meters. After her death, she was found to have male genitalia. German high jumper Dora Ratjen was banned from international competition after her fourth place finish at the Berlin Olympics. Two years later, Ratjen was arrested at a German train station on the suspicion she was a man impersonating a woman. A medical examination revealed that she had intersex genitalia.
More recently, the case of South Africa’s middle distance phenom Caster Semenya forced the IAAF to rethink its enforcement policies regarding sex and gender. While both the IAAF and the International Olympic Committee dropped mandatory gender verification in the 1990s, it remains part of international competition on an “as needed” basis. To be sure, Chand’s case has created questions regarding the very categories – men’s and women’s – in which athletes compete.
But Chand’s stance complicates matters in a new way. First and foremost, she is, biologically, a woman; her high testosterone levels are not artificially produced by any kind of drug regimen. Regardless, the IAAF’s rules regarding hyperandrogenism, passed in 2011 after the Semenya turmoil, are clear, stating that “there is a difference in sporting performance between elite men and women” and, more importantly, a woman with hyperandrongenism who is recognized to be female must have “androgen levels below the male range (measured by reference to testosterone levels in serum).” Any woman who fails or refuses testing will be banned. The rules allow, though, that “undergoing treatment by her personal physician to normalize her androgen levels” can provide grounds for reinstatement.
With the backing of the Sports Authority of India, which is continuing to financially support her, Chand is refusing to undergo any kind of medical intervention. Her primary reason is that her testosterone levels are naturally a part of who she is. But she is also questioning why, if indeed testosterone leads to better competitive results, the IAAF would want her to squelch that. If she becomes, by IAAF guidelines, more female, would she then be making herself less of an athlete?
Chand’s appeal to CAS, then, goes far beyond the question of defining women competitors: she is questioning the very nature of how we conceive of competition. What does it mean to compete with the body that one is born with? Can we applaud strong women athletes if one is categorized as a man when she gets too strong? And, perhaps most importantly for sport writ large, what actually constitutes an unfair competitive advantage? If an advantage comes naturally, can it be deemed unfair? “Why are we bent on reducing or eliminating an inherent advantage that a woman is born with?” says SAI head Jiji Thomson about Chand’s situation. “Just because Usain Bolt’s height is to his advantage will the international authorities want his legs chopped off to ensure a level-playing field?”
Thomson’s point is key. Sports enthusiasts marvel over Michael Phelps’s disproportionate torso or the height of Yao Ming – there is no problem accepting the seemingly genetic freakiness of these male champions. Athletes with unusual training regimens, too, whether runners working at high altitude or someone like Shaun White pretty much buying his own mountain, are commended for their dedication, their effort. But, the natural make-up of Chand’s body is considered to be, for all intents and purposes, cheating because, according to the rules of the IAAF, it makes her less of a woman and, hence, too much of a potential athlete. Unlike the IAAF, Chand does not view Hyperandrongenism as a medical problem that needs treating. She sees it as a gift that might help her run faster than others, despite the fact that science has yet to definitively tie testosterone to strength and speed, and thus an asset.
International sporting federations launched gender verification to prevent cheating. Dutee Chand is not cheating. She is simply trying to be exactly who she is, and use it to her advantage on the track. And because of her resilience, as well as the support of her country, she has dragged into more mainstream conversation the contradictions of sport’s claims that it knows who women are and what they can do. Dutee Chand is making one thing very clear: when female athletes break through the artificial ceilings established for them (but largely not by them), they are neither cheating, nor are they men.
Amy Bass teaches history at The College of New Rochelle. She is author of Not the Triumph But the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete, and earned an Emmy Award in 2012 as supervisor of the Research Room for NBC’s Olympics coverage. Amy tweets at @bassab1.