One day in June 2014, Dutee Chand was cooling down after a 200m sprint when she got a call from the director of the Athletics Federation of India, asking her to meet him. Chand, then 18 and one of India’s fastest runners, was preparing for the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, her first big event. Earlier that month, she won gold in the 200m sprint and the 400m relay at the Asian Junior Championships in Taiwan, so her hopes for Scotland were high.
Chand, now 20, was raised in Gopalpur in eastern India. The family home was a mud hut, with no running water or toilet. Her parents, weavers who earned less than 0600 a week, were illiterate. They had not imagined a different life for their seven children, but Chand had other ideas.
As she took the five-hour bus ride to Delhi, she thought about her impending move to Bengaluru for a new training programme, and wondered how she’d manage there without her beloved coach. She thought little of the meeting in Delhi, because she assumed it was for a doping test.
But when Chand arrived in Delhi, she says, she was sent to a clinic to meet a doctor from the Athletics Federation of India. He told her he would forgo the usual urine and blood tests because no nurse was available, and would order an ultrasound instead. That confused Chand, but the doctor said it was routine.
Chand had no idea that her extraordinary showing in Taipei had prompted coaches to tell the federation that her physique seemed suspiciously masculine. Her muscles were too pronounced, her stride was too impressive for someone who was only 5ft tall. The doctor would later deny that the ultrasound was a response to those reports, saying he ordered the scan only because Chand had previously complained of chronic abdominal pain. She says she never had any such pain.
Three days after the ultrasound, the federation sent a letter headed “Subject: gender verification issue” to the government’s sports authority. “There are definite doubts regarding the gender of an athlete, Ms Dutee Chand,” the letter read. It requested the authorities perform a “gender verification test” on Chand.
Shortly after, Chand says, she was sent to a private hospital in Bengaluru, where a nurse drew her blood to measure her level of natural testosterone, although Chand had no idea of this. She also underwent a chromosome analysis, an MRI and a gynaecological examination, which she found mortifying. To evaluate the effects of high testosterone, the International Association of Athletics Federations’ (IAAF) protocol involves measuring and palpating the clitoris, vagina and labia, as well as evaluating breast size and pubic hair, and scoring them based on an illustrated five-grade scale.
The tests were meant to identify competitors whose chromosomes, hormones, genitalia, reproductive organs or secondary sex characteristics don’t develop or align in the typical way. The word “hermaphrodite” is considered stigmatising, so doctors use the term “intersex” or refer to the condition as DSD (difference of sex development). Estimates of the number of intersex people vary widely, ranging from one in 5,000 to one in 60, because experts dispute which of the myriad conditions to include. Some intersex women, for instance, have XX chromosomes and ovaries, but because of a genetic quirk are born with ambiguous genitalia that are neither male nor female. Others have XY chromosomes and undescended testes, but a mutation affecting a key enzyme makes them appear female at birth; they’re raised as girls, although, at puberty, rising testosterone levels increase muscle mass. Other intersex women have XY chromosomes and internal testes, but appear female their whole lives. They may never know unless they’re tested for infertility—or they compete in world-class sports.
When Chand’s results came through, the doctor said her “male hormone” levels were too high, meaning she produced more testosterone than most women did. The typical female range is 1.0 to 3.3, one-tenth that of males. Chand’s level was above the 10.0 threshold that the IAAF set for women because that level is within the “male range”. As a result, officials said she could no longer race.
In the two years since, Chand has been at the centre of a legal case that contests not only her disqualification, but also the international policy her lawyers say discriminates against athletes with atypical sex development. For Chand, who had never heard the words “testosterone” or “intersex”, it has been a painful education. When she was first told she was being barred from competition, she didn’t understand. “I said, ‘What have I done that is wrong?’” she told me. “Then the media started calling me and asking, ‘Did you have a gender test?’And I said, ‘What is a gender test?’”
No governing bodies have so tenaciously tried to determine who counts as a woman for the purpose of sports as the IAAF and the International Olympic Committee (IOC). These two organisations have spent 50 years vigorously policing gender boundaries. Their rationale for decades was to catch male athletes masquerading as women, although they never once discovered an imposter. Instead, the athletes snagged in those efforts have been intersex women—scores of them.
The treatment of female athletes, and intersex women in particular, has a sordid history. For centuries, sport was the exclusive province of men.
As women athletes’ strength grew, critics asked if fast, powerful athletes could even be women. In the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the runners Stella Walsh of Poland and Helen Stephens of the USA were rumoured to be male imposters because of their athleticism and “male-like” muscles. After Stephens narrowly beat Walsh in the 100m and posted a world record, she was publicly accused of being a man.
By the mid 40s, female competitors had to produce medical “femininity certificates” to verify their sex. When, at the 1952 Olympic Games, women won 23 of the Soviet Union’s 71 medals, compared with 8 of the US’s 76, rumours spread that Eastern bloc female athletes were men who bound their genitals to rake in more wins.
In 1966, international sports officials decided they shouldn’t trust nations to certify femininity, and implemented a genital check of every woman competing at international games. In some cases, this involved the “nude parade”, where each woman appeared, knickers down, before a panel of doctors. In others, it involved women lying on their backs and pulling their knees to their chest for closer inspection.
Amid complaints about the genital checks, the IAAF and the IOC introduced a new “gender verification” strategy in the late 60s: a chromosome test. Officials considered that a more objective way to root out not only imposters, but also intersex athletes, who, Olympic officials said, needed to be barred to ensure fair play. An editorial in the IOC magazine in 1968 insisted the chromosome test “indicates quite definitely the sex of a person”, but many geneticists and endocrinologists disagreed, pointing out that sex was determined by a confluence of genetic, hormonal and physiological factors, not any one alone. Relying on science to arbitrate the male-female divide in sports is fruitless, they said, because science could not draw a line that nature itself refused to draw. They also argued that the tests discriminated against those whose anomalies provided little or no competitive edge and traumatised women who had spent their lives certain they were female, only to be told they were not female enough to participate.
One of those competitors was Maria José Martínez-Patiño, a Spanish hurdler. The night before a big race in 1985, a team official told her that her chromosome results were abnormal: although the outside of her body was fully female, she had XY chromosomes and internal testes. But because of a genetic mutation, her cells completely resisted the testosterone she produced, so her body actually had access to less testosterone than a typical woman. Spanish athletics officials told her she should feign an injury and withdraw from athletics permanently and without fuss. She refused. Instead, she ran the 60m hurdles and won, at which point someone leaked her test results. Her boyfriend and friends abandoned her. Her medals were revoked.
Martínez-Patiño became the first athlete formally to argue that disqualification was unjustified. After three years, the IAAF agreed that without being able to use testosterone, her body had no advantage, and it reinstated her. By then, her hopes of making the Olympics were dashed.
Dutee Chand was four when she began running with her sister, Saraswati, a competitive runner, along the Brahmani river. She ran barefoot because she had to protect the only shoes she owned: rubber flip-flops that she could not afford to replace.
When Chand was about seven, her parents pressed her to stop running and learn to weave instead. But Saraswati argued that with Dutee’s speed, she could earn more as a sprinter. Saraswati, who has since become a police officer, reminded her parents of the benefits her own running had brought to the family. She, like other athletes, was given meat and chicken and eggs, food her family could not afford. And she reminded them of the prize money when she did well in marathons.
At ten, Chand was accepted on a state sports programme two hours from home. She liked the dormitory’s electricity, running water and indoor toilets. And she could send prize money home.
That same year, a catastrophe was unfolding for another Indian sprinter. Santhi Soundarajan, 25, finished second in the 800m at the Asian Games in Qatar. The previous decade, the IOC and IAAF stopped sex-testing every female athlete. But they retained the right to test an athlete’s chromosomes if questions about her sex arose and to follow that with a gynaecological examination and a psychological test.
Soundarajan saw a news report on TV about her “failed” sex test. Rejected by the local sports federations, stripped of her silver medal and unbearably embarrassed, she attempted suicide.
As Chand began competing at national level, another runner from a poor village, this time in South Africa, burst onto the international stage. When Caster Semenya blew by her opponents in the 800m race at the 2009 African Junior Championships, her performance raised suspicions. Sports officials tested her as she prepared for the World Athletics Championships. She assumed the test was for doping. Semenya won gold again. The fact that she had been sex-tested was leaked to the press. She went into hiding. IAAF spokesman Nick Davies announced that if Semenya was an imposter, she could be stripped of her medal. “However, if it’s a natural thing,” he added, “and the athlete has always thought she’s a woman or been a woman, it’s not exactly cheating.”
The world scrutinised Semenya’s body and made much of her muscular physique, her deep voice, her extraordinary speed. Time magazine ran a story headlined, “Could this women’s world champ be a man?” One of Semenya’s competitors, Elisa Cusma of Italy, said, “These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she is not a woman. She is a man.” IAAF general secretary Pierre Weiss said of Semenya, “She is a woman, but maybe not 100 per cent.” Unlike India, South Africa filed a human rights complaint, arguing that the IAAF’s testing of Semenya was “both sexist and racist”. Semenya herself would later write in a statement, “I have been subjected to invasive scrutiny of the most intimate and private details of my being.”
After nearly a year of negotiations, the IAAF cleared Semenya to run, and she went on to win the silver medal in the 2012 Olympics. She will be running in Rio. But the federation still faced condemnation over leaks, public smears and the very idea of a sex test. The IAAF maintained it was obliged to protect female athletes from having “to compete against athletes with hormone-related performance advantages commonly associated with men”. In 2011, it announced that it would abandon all references to “gender verification”. Instead, it would institute a test for high testosterone. Women whose testosterone level was “within the male range” would be barred. There were two exceptions: if a woman such as Maria José Martínez-Patiño were resistant to testosterone’s effects, or if a woman reduced her testosterone. This entails having her undescended testes surgically removed or taking hormone-suppressing drugs.
Chand was unaware of the controversy surrounding Semenya or other intersex athletes. Her gender concerns were much more immediate. She saw other 15-year-old girls becoming curvier and heard them talk about getting their periods. Her mother said her body would change when it was ready.
At 16, Chand became a national champion in the under-18 category, winning the 100m in 11.8 seconds. The next year, she won gold in the 100m and the 200m. In June 2014, she won two gold medals in Taipei.
Then she received the call to go to Delhi. After her results came in, officials told her she could return to the national team only if she reduced her testosterone level, and that she wouldn’t be allowed to compete for a year. It was announced that Chand had “failed” a “gender test” and wasn’t a “normal” woman. For days, she cried inconsolably and refused to eat or drink. “Some in the news were saying I was a boy, and some said that maybe I was a transsexual,” Chand told me. “I felt naked. I am a human being, but I felt I was an animal.”
Payoshni Mitra, an Indian researcher with a doctorate in gender issues in sport, told Chand to send a letter to the Athletics Federation of India, asking for her disqualification to be reversed. “I have not doped or cheated,” Chand said. “I was born a woman, brought up as a woman, and I believe I should be allowed to compete with other women, many of whom either are taller than me or come from more privileged backgrounds, things that most certainly give them an edge over me.”
Chand took her case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, arguing that the testosterone policy was discriminatory. In March 2015, a three-judge panel heard her appeal, as 16 witnesses, including scientists, officials and athletes, testified.
At the hearing, English marathoner Paula Radcliffe testified for the IAAF, saying elevated testosterone levels “make the competition unequal ...and that this renders the competition fundamentally unfair”.
Just what role testosterone plays in performance is still being debated. At the hearing, both sides agreed that synthetic testosterone (doping with anabolic steroids) does ramp up performance, helping male and female athletes jump higher and run faster. But they disagreed about whether the body’s own testosterone has the same effect.
IAAF witnesses testified that logic suggests that natural testosterone is likely to work the way its synthetic twin does. They pointed to decades of IAAF and IOC testing showing that a disproportionate number of elite female athletes, particularly in track and field, have XY chromosomes. By their estimates, the presence of the Y chromosome in this group is more than 140 times higher than it is among the general female population. Surely, the IAAF argued, that over-representation indicated that natural testosterone has an influence on athletes.
Chand’s witnesses countered that even if natural testosterone turns out to play a role in improving performance, testosterone alone can't explain the over-representation of intersex elite athletes. After all, many of those XY female athletes had low testosterone or had cells that lacked androgen receptors. At the Atlanta Games in 1996, seven of the eight women who had Y chromosomes turned out to be androgen insensitive; their bodies couldn’t use the testosterone they made.
In court, the IAAF acknowledged that men’s natural testosterone levels, no matter how high, were not regulated. The rationale, it said, was that there was no evidence that men with exceptionally high testosterone levels have a competitive advantage. Pressed by Chand’s lawyer, the IAAF also conceded that no research had proved that unusually high levels of natural testosterone lead to unusually impressive sports performance in women. Nor has any study proved that natural testosterone in the “male range” provides women with a competitive boost commensurate with the 10 to 12 per cent advantage that elite male athletes typically have over elite female athletes in comparable events.
Chand’s witnesses also pointed out that researchers had identified more than 200 biological abnormalities that offer specific competitive advantages, among them increased aerobic capacity, long limbs, flexible joints, large hands and feet—all of which make the idea of a level playing field illusory.
But the IAAF argued that testosterone is different from other factors, because it is responsible for the performance gap between the sexes. That gap is the very reason sport is divided by sex, the IAAF says, so regulating testosterone is justified.
Chand’s hearing, though, was about more than just testosterone. Implicitly, it questioned the decades of relentless scrutiny of female athletes, especially the most successful ones.
Last July, the Court of Arbitration for Sport issued its ruling in Dutee Chand’s case. The panel concluded that, although natural testosterone may play some role in athleticism, just what that role is remains unknown. As a result, the judges said that the IAAF’s policy was not justified by current scientific research.
The judges concluded that requiring women such as Chand to change their bodies in order to compete was discriminatory. The panel suspended the policy until July 2017 to give the IAAF time to prove that the degree of competitive advantage in women was comparable to that of men. If the IAAF doesn’t supply that evidence, the court said, the regulation “shall be declared void”. It was the first time the court had overruled a sport governing body’s entire policy.
Chand was thrilled. “This wasn’t just about me,” she said, “but about all women like me. It is mostly poor people who come into running, people who know they will get food, housing, a job, if they run well. Richer people can pay their way to become doctors, engineers. Poor people don’t even know about their own medical challenges.”
In November 2015, the IOC established new parameters for dealing with gender. But it didn’t address whether it would suspend its testosterone policy, as the IAAF was forced to do. Finally, in late February, the IOC said it would not regulate women’s natural testosterone levels “until the issues of the case are resolved”.
On June 25, Dutee Chand qualified for the Rio Olympics, running the 100m in 11.30 seconds in Kazakhstan. Later that day, she posted an even faster time of 11.24 seconds. She will be the first Indian woman to run the 100m in the Olympics since 1980. Her focus now is on making the most of the opportunity.
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