Rafiq Maqbool / AP

Sex hormone testing sets back female athletes

Ruling on Dutee Chand appeal could hurt openness and accessibility of sports

November 23, 2014 2:30AM ET

In July, Olympic hopeful Dutee Chand, 18, was abruptly pulled from the track and field roster of India’s national team after successfully training for the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland. The champion sprinter was then tested for hyperandrogenism, a condition that the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) describes as “the excessive production of androgens (testosterone).” The Athletics Federation of India (AFI) banned Chand from the competition when the results confirmed she had high levels of naturally occurring testosterone.

Her hormonal profile was completely natural; she had not been doping. Yet Chand was told that she could not compete until her testosterone levels were reduced to a level less than 10 nanomoles of testosterone per liter of blood, or below what the IAAF considers the male range. Apparently, this is higher than the range exhibited by most women and lower than that of most men. This could be achieved with hormone suppression therapy or with surgical intervention. But Chand has refused medical interference and is now appealing her ban, insisting there is nothing wrong with her body.

Last month Chand, India's 100-meter champion in the 18-and-under category, filed an appeal with the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), which acts as a Supreme Court in the sports world. Regardless of the outcome, the court’s decision will shape the future of elite sports for some time to come. In addition to overturning the AFI’s decision, Chand seeks to have the hyperadrogenism rules invalidated. If the CAS upholds the appeal, the fledgling conversation about sex and science in sport will continue among consultants and governing bodies. However, if her appeal is denied, female athletes will have to perform under artificial restrictions, reducing women’s sports from legitimate competitions to mere exhibitions.

Mapping the male range

The IAAF suspended Chand by acting on a set of eligibility guidelines adopted by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 2012. The rules were formulated in consultation with researchers and sports organizers to replace the sex-verification test to which some athletes — such as South Africa’s Caster Semenya — were previously subjected.

There are two core problems with barring female athletes from competition for a naturally occurring condition. First, the ban is based on the notion that testosterone gives athletes a significant competitive advantage. But as a team of researchers who advised the IOC and the IAAF on the issue noted in a recent study in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, “there is no clear scientific evidence proving that a high level of [testosterone] is a significant determinant of performance in female sports.”

Second, the guidelines rely on the mapping of a male range. But research and experts say there are no scientific bases for the arbitrarily chosen limit. “The feared concern cannot be supported scientifically,” said Bruce Kidd, a professor of kinesiology and physical education at the University of Toronto. “Even if naturally occurring [testosterone] did give her an advantage, such advantages are a regular part of sport and have never previously been considered unfair.” Kidd, who is also an expert adviser to the Sport Authority of India, is supporting Chand’s case.

‘The hyperandrogenism test contradicts the spirit of openness and accessibility that is one of the most cherished values of contemporary sport.’

Bruce Kidd

professor, University of Toronto

Fairness is one of the most closely held values in sports. It is why we have referees and instant replays as well as sex segregated elite-level sports. The structure is based on the idea that, generally speaking, men are bigger, faster and stronger than women. Thus separate competitions are deemed equitable. Proponents of this model suggest that if elite sports were mixed, women would not have a fair chance to qualify. But far from being fair, the model is blatantly discriminatory.

For male athletes, there is no upper limit to their achievements. They can use whatever means is at their disposal — advanced training, habitual self-care, impeccable nutrition, or a natural-born disposition — to gain competitive advantage. Making and breaking records is all part of the job. For example, consider Chinese athlete Yao Ming. At 7 feet 6 inches, basketball was an ideal career choice. He was not banned for having an unfair advantage; instead he retired at 29, a millionaire and superstar. Or what about the 1962 boxing heavyweight champion of the world Charles “Sonny” Liston? Though he stood just over 6 feet tall, his reach was a disproportionate 84 inches — a swing not typically seen on fighters under 6 foot 4.

So why should Chand, whose body naturally produces a high level of testosterone (and who became involved in her sport as a child, trained in a national program and has years of successful competition behind her), be banned? As with Ming’s height and Liston’s reach, Chand’s hyperandrogenism is her natural state.

The adherence to limits that measure female performance against their male counterparts’ is also problematic. It suggests a hierarchy of potential, which Chand’s existence proves false. To hold her to this standard is discriminatory.

Consequences for athletes

If Chand’s ban is upheld, there may be serious consequences for all female athletes — and for all of sport. It will set a precedent that is not supported by the science and justify the imposition of artificial limits on female bodies. Handicapping female athletes could render women’s sports much less of a true competition than an exhibition, and a neutered version of women’s athletics could justify reduced funding, publicity and programming. A rejection of Chand’s appeal would mean that more weight could be placed on women’s limitations.

While is the science is still young here, there are better alternatives. The same researchers who rejected the veracity of the hyperandrogenism test suggest developing an athlete biological passport (ABP), a model built to test for doping. Rather than measure against arbitrarily set limits of a greater population, ABP offers “a standardized approach to the profiling of individual athlete haematological variables.” Put simply, ABP measures an athlete’s biological profile against him or herself over time.

It is time for the sporting authorities to let go of antiquated notions that place male and female on opposite ends of a binary. The advancement of science, the growing number of trans athletes and the existence of people such as Chand all indicate that this model is neither accurate nor practical. Besides, as Kidd rightly noted, “the hyperandrogenism test contradicts the spirit of openness and accessibility that is one of the most cherished values of contemporary sport.” The CAS must uphold basic sporting principles and reject the ban.

Keph Senett is a Canadian writer and activist whose passion for travel and soccer have led her to play the beautiful game on four continents. When she is not writing about LGBT issues or sports, she spends her time trying to find a soccer squad in Australia, Antarctica or Asia.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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