There is always someone — usually a man — trying to police women’s bodies, particularly in sports.
Nobody knows this as well as top Indian sprinter Dutee Chand, who is best known internationally for successfully getting the International Association of Athletics Federation’s (IAAF) to suspend its regulations on hyperandrogenism, a condition that refers to the overproduction of testosterone in female bodies.
It’s been two years since Chand’s victory in court. But last week, as the 21-year-old competed in the Asian Athletics Championships in front of her home crowd at the Kalinga Stadium, questions about Chand’s body and gender made headline news once again thanks to a new study — and coinciding publicity push — by the IAAF.
The study, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, boasted that it found that females with higher testosterone levels than their peers had a 1.8 to 4.5 percent performance advantage in athletics.
Chand, who had to undergo incredibly invasive sex testing without her consent when she was only 18 years old due to questions about her gender that arose after she became national champion in the 100 meters, was upset this issue had returned to haunt her before such an important competition.
“Dutee does not understand why the IAAF believes she should be subjected to medical review, testing or alteration,” a representative for Chand said in a statement provided to ThinkProgress. “She simply wishes to run just as she was born.”
But the timing is no coincidence. Later this month, the IAAF — which the New York Times Magazine reported has spent a “half-century vigorously policing gender boundaries” — will present this headline-generating report to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in hopes of reinstating the hyperandrogenism regulations.
The Guardian described the IAAF’s new report as “the most conclusive evidence yet that female athletes with very high levels of naturally occurring testosterone receive significant performance-enhancing benefits in competition.”
The results of the study were immediately linked not only to Chand, but also to Caster Semenya, the 26-year-old South African runner who won the gold medal in the 800 meters at the 2016 Rio Olympics, and who is widely speculated to be intersex. Headlines such as “Caster Semenya could be forced to undertake hormone therapy for future Olympics” and “Study finds women with more testosterone get large boost” made it seem like it was a foregone conclusion that athletes like Chand and Semenya could soon be forced to undergo invasive surgeries or suppress their naturally-occurring testosterone through medication in order to compete in the sports they love.
But there’s much more to this issue than the headlines about this study would have you believe.
First of all, the study — which, notably, was commissioned by the IAAF and co-authored by IAAF medical manager Pierre-Yves Garnier — does not come close to meeting the threshold required of the IAAF in order to overturn Chand’s court victory and reinstate the regulations.
“She simply wishes to run just as she was born.”
When CAS temporarily halted the IAAF’s hyperandrogenism regulations in 2015, it gave the IAAF two years to present evidence that women with higher testosterone than their peers have an advantage equivalent to the performance advantage that male athletes usually have over female athletes — which is approximately 10 percent. This study’s 1.8 percent to 4.5 percent findings are a long way off from that, as Katrina Karkazis, a senior research scholar at the Center for Biomedical Ethics at Stanford University, stressed.
“The media reaction was overblown. Even supporters of the regulation agree that this study does not help the IAAF’s case,” Karkazis told ThinkProgress in an email on Friday. “Most reporting missed that this study is exactly the evidence CAS rejected in 2015 as being insufficient.”
According to Karkazis, who was an expert witness for Chand in her case against the IAAF in 2015, there were also some problems with the way the study was conducted.
“They included women who had doped in their sample, once again conflating women with naturally high T and women who are cheating,” Karkazis said. “They took the athlete’s best time rather than taking taking into account all of their times for the competition. Their analysis is at the group level, but they make it sound as if they have done athlete-level analysis by calling it a dose-response relationship.”
Karkazis says that the sensational headlines and overreaching analysis about the study is overshadowing its most important statistical finding— that researchers did not find any correlation between testosterone and athleticism in men, calling into question the importance of the hormone.
“[That] completely undermines policymakers’ theory that testosterone is the primary driver of athleticism,” Karkazis said.
Zinger from IAAF study. No relationship between T & performance in MEN. Doesn't fit their theory T is decisive factor in athleticism pic.twitter.com/8Y6osTHbBe
— Katrina Karkazis (@Karkazis) July 4, 2017
But considering this report was commissioned by the IAAF, it’s not shocking that this fact was buried in the report, and not featured in headlines.
Throughout this whole ordeal, Sebastian Coe, the president of the IAAF, has stressed that the federation is merely trying to protect the fairness of women’s sports.
“[Our] responsibility, in female sport, is to protect, to defend, and to make sure that we all times promote our sport and we do it where we possibly can to make it a level-playing field,” Coe said.
But it seems that Coe’s protective instinct ends when it comes to women like Chand and other intersex athletes who don’t fit as neatly into the gender binary.
When Chand was only 18, she was subjected to an invasive gynecological exam, an M.R.I., and a chromosome analysis after officials became suspicious about her gender when she became national champion. Chand — who, like Semenya, is a woman of color from an extremely poor family — didn’t even know the purpose of the tests until they were reported in the media.
“To evaluate the effects of high testosterone, the international athletic association’s protocol involves measuring and palpating the clitoris, vagina and labia, as well as evaluating breast size and pubic hair scored on an illustrated five-grade scale,” the New York Times reported.
“[That] completely undermines policymakers’ theory that testosterone is the primary driver of athleticism.”
In fighting to so stringently regulate the naturally-occurring hormones, the IAAF is subjecting women to traumatic procedures and media speculation that only serve to publicly undermine, even humiliate, these elite athletes.
“I know people started suspecting whether I was a woman or a man. All the honor I earned — I lost,” Chand told the BBC in 2015. “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.”
The good news is that Coe has said that this IAAF study, and the CAS decision later this month, won’t impact eligibility for the upcoming world championships, where Semenya is the gold-medal favorite once again. And as long as CAS isn’t swayed as easily as the media, the IAAF doesn’t seem to have enough evidence to get the regulations reinstated.
But this week proves that Chand’s fight, both publicly and privately, is long from over. She earned two bronze medals at the Asian Championships last week, but ran well below her best time amid all the distractions. Her time of 11:52 seconds in the 100 meters was not good enough to qualify her for the wold championships. She will soldier on, trying to hit the qualifying time of 11.26 at the inter-state championships scheduled in Guntur later this week, as the July 27 CAS hearing on sex testing looms large.
“It’s my life, you know. I have once been unceremoniously thrown out of competition,” she said at the Asian Championships. “But I have a great legal team and also have the support of the state and central governments. So I am only going to concentrate on working hard to make my dreams come true and win laurels for India.”