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Sex testing for female Olympic athletes is a thing of the past (at least for now)

Chand Dutee Mitra Payoshni Pramanik Pinki

Women with perceived “masculine qualities” have been under scrutiny by sports governing organizations for decades. The Olympic Games have subjected female athletes to various humiliating tests to measure natural testosterone levels, identify hormones, and see if they have the “right” set of chromosomes or the “right” genitalia and reproductive organs. The first set of gender tests were put in place by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in the 1960s with “nude parades”—female athletes forced to appear naked in groups before judging panels. The committee later moved on to chromosome testing and then SRY gene detection (the gene that triggers male sex determination). Athletes who failed the tests were subject to disqualification. It wasn’t until 1999 that routine testing was ended, but the committee continued to allow for tests in cases in which someone called an athlete’s gender into question.

But at the 2016 Rio Olympics, for the first time in more than half a century, female competitors are not subject to any form of sex testing, thanks to one Indian athlete who successfully fought her ban.

In 2014, Dutee Chand, a 20-year-old runner hailing from a weaver’s family in the eastern Indian state of Odisha, was banned from competing in the female category and dropped from the Commonwealth Games under the International Association of Athletics Federations’ (IAAF) guidelines that disqulify athletes with hyperandrogenism—excessive but naturally occurring testosterone.

Chand could have stepped down, like many before her. But she was encouraged to challenge the decision in court by Payoshni Mitra, an Indian researcher with a doctorate in gender issues in sport who has advocated on behalf of intersex athletes. (Intersex is an umbrella term for people who are born with sex characteristics “that do not fit typical binary notions of male or female bodies,” according to a definition by the human rights arm of the United Nations.) Mitra, along with a few other advocates, suggested that Chand appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (a kind of international Supreme Court of sports), asking for IAAF’s testosterone policy to be rescinded. In July, a panel of the CAS ruled in favor of Chand—the ban was lifted and she was allowed to compete.

The panel gave IAAF until July 2017 to prove that high testosterone in women can give them a competitive edge that could be comparable to men. If evidence is not found, the regulations will be declared fully invalid.

On Friday, Chand finished seventh in the 100-meter heat, resulting in elimination, but she said her efforts were well worth it.

Many female athletes are not happy with the CAS ruling, saying women with high levels of testosterone will certainly have an unfair advantage on the track. They argue that there are separate competitions for women to provide a fair field. But, as was made clear in the CAS hearing, it’s not clear what role naturally occurring testosterone plays in performance advantage. Some advocates ask: If intersex athletes produce testosterone naturally, how is that different from other genetic advantages in sports—height in basketball, for instance, or long arms in swimming?

We recently talked with Mitra, the gender and sport researcher and athletes’ rights activist, who was Chand’s Indian government–appointed advisor at the CAS hearing, about her research on and advocacy for female athletes. Mitra says it was her own experience as a badminton player, and encounters with an abusive coach as a young player, that made her aware of the pervasive sexism in sports and led her to the field of sport as a researcher and later as an activist. She has worked with several athletes who had to undergo gender verification tests.

Q: What is your research about?
PM: While working on my Ph.D., I looked at issues concerning women athletes in India. I studied how a female athletic body is perceived in the media and how any suspected deviation is scrutinized. After my Ph.D., due my activism and advocacy work with some women athletes in India, I was gradually drawn to the issue of gender verification testing and later the policies on hyperandrogenism. In sports, where we would think that there is more scope to celebrate women’s physical potential, we notice how there is a tendency to emphasize sexual difference and subject the woman’s body or a woman athlete’s performance to scrutiny. In the last seven or eight years, I have tried to address this, not only through research but through lobbying and advocacy work with policy-making bodies like the government as well as sport governing bodies, both national and international.

Q: Can you explain what the word “intersex” means vis-a-vis your work?
PM: 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-pathologization of intersexuality. In the context of sport, we are not dealing with intersexuality, though. We have been debating “hyperandrogenism” and whether it gives an unfair advantage to some women athletes, as was claimed by some medical commissions of international sport governing bodies.

Q: 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?
PM: The court, after a detailed hearing last year, 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 and the regulations were unfair—they did not take into account the multiplicity of bodies, and the regulations are applied only to female athletes. Men are not subject to any tests of their bodies or naturally occurring hormones. Such regulations have created and promoted a culture of suspicion and surveillance in women’s sport. They were discriminatory and should have been abolished.

Q: 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—someone more like them.
PM: 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—for example, longer limbs among sprinters, acromegaly [a hormonal disorder that results in enlarged bones] among basketball players—but we are not bothered about them. Naturally high testosterone among women, on the other hand, was being singled out. Women athletes were scrutinized for ages. If we educate our athletes and inform them about scientific research that says, for example, that endogenous T behaves differently [from synthetic testosterone], I am sure they will understand why we are pushing for a total abolition of these regulations.

Q: 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?
PM: Medical science is often biased. Many feminist scientists have worked on this area. Also, exogenous testosterone and endogenous testosterone behave differently. The athletes I work with were not banned for doping but for something they were born with. All these women are perfectly healthy. I don’t see why they were forced to take medical steps [to lower their testosterone levels] even though they had no health complaints.

Q: The IOC asked for interventions (like surgery, hormone tablets, etc.) before women like Dutee can compete. What do the treatments involve?
PM: I don’t call these treatments. These are discriminatory, as the regulations were asking athletes to take medical steps to be able to participate in sport. They were not for health reasons. Moreover, such medical interventions often were invasive and had long-term harmful effects.

Q: They have stopped the gender tests. Is the hyperandrogenism policy better? What is the process for the test?
PM: As of now, both gender testing and hyperandrogegism regulations are things of the past. Both these policies and practices were unscientific, unfair, and discriminatory. I am extremely pleased with the CAS decision in the Dutee Chand case, and I hope the regulations are declared null and void soon.

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