Sprinter’s Arbitration Win Raises Big Questions About Gender in Sports
A controversial International Association of Athletics Federations test that determines if female athletes are eligible to compete was suspended this week by an arbitration body, which found that the test had insufficient scientific backing. The result is that an award-winning sprinter will be able to get back into the race.
How much testosterone can the human body have before it becomes a competitive advantage for an athlete?
It sounds like an unusual question, but it’s one the International Association of Athletics Federations had been answering for years, in an effort to keep women’s track and field competition fair. In 2011, the group announced regulations designed to cover “hyperandrogenism”—or the excessive production of testosterone in women.
It was a controversial rule when announced—introduced in the wake of South African runner Caster Semenya’s success at the 2009 World Championships, after which the runner’s gender came into question. Ultimately, a test found that Semenya had both male and female sexual organs.
Now the rule has been suspended as the result of an arbitration case involving Indian runner Dutee Chand. Chand was banned from competition after her testosterone levels were found to be comparable to a man’s. She fought IAAF’s push for corrective treatment and instead went to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, a third-party regulatory body.
CAS rejected IAAF’s stance that the hyperandrogenism was a competitive advantage for female athletes and says the suspension is meant to give IAAF additional time to produce scientific research to back up its stance.
“In the absence of such evidence, 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,” CAS said in a news release [PDF].
“All the Honor I Earned—I Lost”
In responding to the decision, IAAF noted that the panel “specifically found that the IAAF and its experts have ‘acted with conspicuous diligence and good faith’, seeking ‘to create a system of rules that are fair, objective and founded on the best available science’, and that those rules ‘have been administered in confidence and with care and compassion.'”
But Chand has expressed concern that the hyperandrogenism case unfairly put her in a situation where she was treated like an outsider.
“I know people started suspecting whether I was a woman or a man. All the honor I earned—I lost,” Chand told the BBC. “My friends used to start asking what’s wrong with me, and started to avoid me. In training centers, where girls used to share rooms, I was kept separately.”
Chand, who has been unable to compete since the IAAF test, will now be allowed to return to competition.
Commentators following the case noted that the rules seem to highlight a chasm between male and female athletes. ESPN’s Kate Fagan says, for example, that men can take advantage of differences such as height and size for a competitive advantage.
“For male athletes, excelling at sports and gaining societal approval actually dovetail. There’s no such thing as being too manly, or too strong, or too fast,” Fagan argues. “But the insidious secret within women’s sports is that naturally shaping your body to give you the best chance at winning is often rejected.”
And the New York Times editorial board suggested a change in mindset might be necessary.
“An obvious answer starts with realizing that science cannot provide answers in black and white when the world is colored in shades of gray,” the board wrote. “Instead, we should look at the male/female categorization in terms of gender rather than sex.”