Discrimination with a ‘medical’ front

Anuradha Sengupta | Updated on August 28, 2018

Payoshni Mitra, Pinki Pramanik and Dutee Chand (file photo)

A gender and sports researcher explains how the case against hyperandrogenic athletes like Dutee Chand was patently biased and without merit

Exactly a year and two days ago — on July 27, 2015 — a verdict pulled Dutee Chand, the young sprinter from Odisha, out of an emotional abyss. Chand was banned from competing in the female category and dropped from the Commonwealth Games in 2014 under the International Association of Athletics Federation’s (IAAF) guidelines that debar athletes with hyperandrogenism — excessive but naturally occurring testosterone.

The athlete took the matter to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) against the Athletics Federation of India and the IAAF. Last year, she argued successfully that women athletes should not be discriminated against based on their natural levels of testosterone. She is the first female athlete to take the IAAF to court. No one had challenged the hyperandrogenous regulations before.

It was a miracle that the same athlete, in less than a year from the CAS verdict, bagged two golds at the Taiwan Open Athletics Championships in May 2016. Her timing of 11.33 seconds in the 100m dash was just short of 11.32, the qualifying standard for the Rio Olympics. Nonetheless, Chand booked a Rio berth the very next month, after she clocked 11.3 seconds at the Kosanov Memorial Athletics in Almaty.

Dr Payoshni Mitra is a gender and sports researcher and an athletes’ rights activist who advised Chand and was nominated the mediator by the Sports Authority of India. It was Mitra’s own experience as a badminton player, and encounters with an abusive coach, that eventually helped her return to sports as a researcher. Excerpts from an interview:

Can you explain what the word ‘intersex’ means vis-a-vis your work? Is there a difference between how countries like India view intersexuality and the West?

You will mostly find medical definitions of ‘intersex’. However, I believe intersexuality is also about lived experiences, something that is often ignored due to over-pathologisation. There is no simple answer to whether India sees intersexuality differently from the West. There is no one India, first of all.

What one may say is that, traditionally, Indians may have been more ‘tolerant’ about intersexed people and their bodies. However, it is hard to say anything about how intersexed babies are treated in India: the silence that arises from the shame attached to being born intersex often makes it impossible to gather information.

In the context of sport, we have been debating ‘hyperandrogenism’ and whether it gave an ‘unfair’ advantage to some women athletes, as was claimed by some medical commissions of international sport governing bodies. In the Dutee Chand vs IAAF and AFI case, the CAS had suspended this policy in an interim award in July 2015.

What premises are the hyperandrogenism regulations and their predecessors based on? How do they screen athletes’ abilities? And why do they need to be changed?

The court, after a detailed hearing last year, had suspended the regulations because they were not able to find substantial scientific evidence to support them. Clearly, the premises these regulations were based upon were unscientific. This has created and promoted a culture of suspicion and surveillance in women’s sport. These regulations were discriminatory and should have been abolished. I am hopeful the regulations will be declared null and void soon.

Can a biological advantage such as high testosterone levels be unfair to others? There are women athletes who say they want a more level playing field.

For generations, sports governing bodies have encouraged a culture of suspicion based on a few physical traits. This is unfair. We must understand that high performance sports is all about unique bodies.

There are several other uncontested physical traits which may give an athlete advantage: longer limbs among sprinters, acromegaly (a condition in which there is excess growth of body tissues) among basketball players and so on, but we are not bothered about these. Naturally high testosterone among women, on the other hand, was being singled out. If we educate our athletes and inform them about scientific research that says endogenous T behaves differently and so on, I am sure they will understand why we are pushing for an abolition of these regulations.

What is the science behind this rule that says testosterone impacts performance and ability? I heard an IOC official on TV use the phrase “normal healthy women” to say who can compete as women? Is it a flawed argument? How?

Medical science is often biased; many feminist scientists have worked on this area. The athletes I work with were not banned for doping but for something they were born with. Also, all these women are healthy. I don’t see why they were forced to take medical steps.

IOC asked for interventions (like surgery, hormone tablets and so on) before women like Dutee Chand can compete. What do the treatments involve?

I don’t call these treatments. These are discriminatory as the regulations were asking athletes to take medical steps to be able to participate. They were not for health reasons. Moreover, such interventions were often invasive and had harmful effects.

What is the informed consent process like? Is it different for athletes in developing countries?

I can’t say if it’s different for athletes in developing countries. There have been cases where complete information has not been shared. There is often an element of coercion here, as athletes are asked to either quit or take medical steps. We must understand that most of these athletes are young individuals.

Anuradha Sengupta is a Kolkata-based freelance journalist

Published on July 29, 2016

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