After being banned as a female competitor for the past year, Indian sprinter Dutee Chand, who has atypically high levels of testosterone, was handed a major victory on Monday when the Court of Arbitration for Sport cleared her to compete.
The landmark case called into question the International Association of Athletics Federations’ (IAAF) gender rules, which classified Chand’s natural hormone levels as an “unfair advantage” over other women. The 19-year-old refused surgery and supplements that would suppress her natural testosterone after being barred from competition. The IAAF follows an old practice of verifying gender through medical examinations and hormone testing often targeted at female athletes and without scientific evidence that proves such an advantage.
One year later, sport’s highest court upheld Chand’s appeal, and while the athlete was grateful for the final ruling, the ordeal has taken a toll on her life and her career.
“I can’t say that I am really really happy because I have lost a crucial one year of my career,” she told Indian press. “It was heartbreaking at times and I cried many times. But now I am free to pursue my passion for athletics.”
Chand isn’t the only athlete whose career has been disrupted by a test that measures a single factor to determine eligibility to compete as a woman. After ending a 25-year practice of gender verification testing on female athletes in 1991, the IAAF retained the right to test levels of androgen (hormones, including testosterone, that control development of male sex traits).
In 1986, Spanish athlete Maria Patino lost a scholarship and the chance to compete in the 1988 Olympics when gender testing showed she had an androgen disorder. In 2005, Santhi Soundarajan was disqualified from the Asian Athletics Championships after medical examiners found she had the same disorder. And in 2009, the IAAF raised questions about world-champion runner Caster Semenya’s gender. Unlike the previous two athletes, Semenya’s home country, South Africa, supported her by filing a complaint with the association and providing lawyers. She was cleared to run the year after, and gender testing was replaced by hormone testing.
“It is gender policing of women, plain and simple, and has previously ended with an unsuspecting young woman, often from a country in the Global South, undergoing a harmful medical procedure that many would call female genital mutilation,” sports reporter Kate Fagan wrote recently.
All of this is to say that gender verification has been a point of contention for sports associations, and Dutee Chand isn’t the first woman to be subject to its effects. The line of biological difference between genders shifts and is hard to boil down to one determinant for athletic purposes. Chand has high levels of testosterone, but that doesn’t mean those hormones are giving her a competitive edge. “There’s much more to athletic prowess than testosterone — training, focus, body mechanics, determination, nutrition,” said one New York Times reader.
The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that because no evidence had been found that Chand’s naturally occurring levels of testosterone gave her an unfair advantage over other competitors, she would be allowed to run. The decision stated that the IAAF has until 2017 to prove otherwise.
Many, however, find fault in the policy of policing naturally occurring traits in female athletes to begin with. “For example,” writes Fagan, “take Jamaican superstar sprinter Usain Bolt. Why aren’t we outraged at his ridiculously long legs, which allow him to gobble up the track faster than his competitors?”
New York Times readers also compared Chand’s natural hormones to traits of other athletes that may give them a leg up on the competition. “Consider Michael Phelps for example. His hand and foot size is disproportionately large for a man of his height: this gives him an advantage that normal size people would achieve only with the aid of swim fins and hand paddles,” commented Pat of Oregon. “How is a naturally-occurring elevated testosterone-level any different? Sure it’s on the extreme end of normal, but so is Michael Phelps’s body form.”
Now, the IAAF will have two years to prove that elevated testosterone levels really do give female athletes an unfair advantage. But in the meantime, Chand and athletes like her can run. “I will try to do my best now,” Chand said. “I will now train hard to be able to bring laurels for the country.”
Rupali Srivastava is an intern with ThinkProgress.