Why hyperandrogenism shouldn’t end athletic careers

Indian athlete Dutee Chand poses for the camera in Mumbai, India (Rafiq Maqbool/AP)

Dutee Chand is a 19-year-old sprinter from Gopalpur, India. In 2012, she became the country’s fastest runner, finishing the 100-metre dash in 11.8 seconds. At the 2013 World Youth Championships she became the first Indian athlete to reach the finals at a global event, finishing sixth. That same year, she placed first again at nationals, this time for both the 100-metre and 200-metre sprint.

But her future as an athlete fell apart last July.

Chand was preparing to represent India at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland, when the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) suddenly declared her ineligible. She’d tested positive for hyperandrogenism (HA), meaning Chand’s body naturally produces “too much” testosterone. According to the AFI, this gives her an unfair advantage.

The AFI determined that Chand must have surgery or begin hormonal therapy if she hoped to compete again, a ruling that was backed by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), track and field’s governing body.

Understandably, most athletes labeled with HA leave sports entirely, but Chand decided to fight back. With the support of the Sport Authority of India and armed with a Canadian pro bono legal team, she appealed to the Court of Arbitration of Sports in March 2015. The results were announced today.

The CAS ruled in favour of Chand, temporarily suspending the IAAF’s gender testing practices. The IAAF has two years to gather more compelling evidence for banning women with HA from international sports.

Here are the top 10 reasons hyperandrogenism should never again prevent Chand, or any other athlete, from competing.

1) There is no advantage

High levels of testosterone (typically resulting from synthetic steroid use) can create competitive advantages like increased muscle development. But when it comes to naturally occurring testosterone, many scientists agree that it’s impossible to quantify the advantage. According to the American Journal of Bioethics, “The current scientific evidence […] does not support the notion that endogenous testosterone levels confer athletic advantage in any straightforward or predictable way.”

2) What’s good for the goose…

Adult male testosterone levels typically range from 6.9 to 34.7 nmol/L, meaning an athlete could have five times more testosterone than the guy next to him. There are no IAAF rules limiting male athletes with naturally high testosterone. However, according to the IAAF, a female athlete is ineligible if her testosterone measures more than 10 nmol/L, because she falls “within the male range.” The average range for women is 0.7 to 2.8 nmol/L, but levels can naturally increase/decrease for a variety of biological reasons. Since male athletes with naturally high testosterone aren’t barred from competing, female athletes shouldn’t be either.

3) HA athletes aren’t dominating

If naturally high testosterone really did create an advantage, people with HA would be more likely to become elite athletes and would be dominating sports across the board. Currently, Chand doesn’t break the top 1,000 in the women’s rankings, and studies suggest that among high-level track and field athletes, women with HA are not over-represented.

4) A level playing field doesn’t exist

LeBron James is six-foot-eight, has 9.25-inch hands, and averaged 25.3 points per game this season. Michael Phelps is double jointed in the ankles, shoulders and elbows, has a wingspan four inches longer than his body, and has 22 Olympic medals. Simone Biles is a four-foot-nine powerhouse who pulls off two backflips to a full twisting double back dismount on beam. Venus Williams is six-foot-one and holds the record for the fastest WTA serve at 207.6 km/h. Athletes are not created equal and natural advantages, pitted against each other, are the foundation of athletic competition.

5) The “treatments” are unnecessary

According to the IAAF, if “undiagnosed or neglected, [HA] can pose a risk to health” (it has been linked to certain types of heart disease). But for many women with HA, medical intervention is unnecessary, and forcing healthy athletes to have genital surgery or hormonal therapy just so they can compete is against their human rights. The IAAF isn’t looking out for women’s health. Their “prescribed medical treatments” simply reinforce the IAAF’s narrow idea of what it means to be female.

6) Biological sex is complicated

The IAAF insists that athletes with HA threaten “the very essence of the male and female classifications in Athletics.” Here’s the problem: biological sex isn’t binary. People are typically born with two sex chromosomes (XY for male, XX for female), but about one in a thousand babies is born with an additional chromosome, giving them a karyotype of XXX, XXY, or XYY. Some people have “mosaic genetics” wherein some cells are XX and others XY. Many people live their whole lives without ever knowing that their genetic makeup is atypical. Biological sex is a spectrum, but the IAAF is blind to this scientific reality.

7) The male imposter is a myth

The IAAF seems very concerned about male athletes disguising themselves as women. But throughout history, there has been only one example of a male imposter, and even that case wasn’t cut and dry. Heinrich “Dora” Ratjen competed for Germany as a woman in the 1930s. In 1938, Ratjan admitted publically to being male, despite having been raised as a girl. He was likely intersex, born in an era when there was no vocabulary to explain or understand it. In athletic history, every challenge of gender identity has involved an athlete with some form of biological variation and more often than not has uncovered a woman with a complicated genetic or hormonal makeup.

8) Lives are on the line

An Olympic gold medalist before WWII, Stella Walsh wasn’t determined to be intersex until an autopsy following her murder in 1980. Once a local Cleveland hero, Walsh’s reputation and legacy were destroyed by the scandal. Olympic gold medalist and former world-record holder Ewa Klobukowska failed a gender test in ’67, and her name was stricken from the record books. She reportedly struggled with serious depression following the decision and underwent surgeries with the hopes of one day being reinstated (she never was). In 2006, Santhi Soundarajan was stripped of her Asian Games silver medal when she was determined to have an extra Y-chromosome. She attempted suicide later that year. Women’s lives continue to be torn apart because of unethical, unnecessary, and ineffective gender testing practices.

9) It’s racist

Not all female athletes are tested for HA, but all it takes is someone to point a finger to put the wheels in motion. As Stanford University researcher Katrina Karkazis notes, all of the athletes previously subjected to HA testing have been women of colour who “don’t meet hegemonic standards of femininity.” Simply stated, non-white athletes are more likely to come under scrutiny because they don’t look like white athletes. Caster Semenya is a prime example. She was disqualified for HA in 2009, but the South African Ministry of Sport and Recreation rallied around her and fought the ruling, calling it racist and sexist. Semenya was reinstated in 2010 and went on to win an Olympic silver medal in the 800m in London.

10) It’s time to stop the nude parades

Gender testing has a long and sordid history. In the 1960s, women were expected to parade naked in front of a panel of International Olympic Committee experts and undergo gynecological examinations to prove their sex. Of course, these exams weren’t always conclusive. Then, in 1967, the IOC switched to chromosome testing, but they still ran into problems. Now, the IOC, the IAAF, and other governing bodies have moved on to hormonal testing. Having to prove their gender has always been an unfair burden placed upon female athletes. It’s time for organizations to abolish the rules against hyperandrogenism and let women like Chand get back to the business of kicking ass.

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