Being woman enough: How two Indian athletes have been marked by sex testing
Who is a woman and why she should be tested are among the oldest and the prickliest, questions in athletics
“There is a saying in my village, ‘Khana khao khud ke mann se, aur kapda pehno doosre ke mann se’ (Eat what you like, wear what others like). No one can force you to eat, but if you don’t want to feel bad about what others say, wear what they want you to wear,” 22-year-old Odia sprinter Dutee Chand says.
She has been up since 5.3 0am, training at the mud tracks at the Sports Authority of India’s (SAI) facility in Hyderabad’s Gachibowli. When asked if Chand herself follows this dictum, she smiles. “Not really,” she replies.
Chand shot into limelight between 2012 and 2014, when at just 18, she became India’s best bet for an Olympics medal. But hours before the Indian contingent was to leave for the Glasgow Commonwealth Games in 2014, she was dropped, because a complex maze of medical tests found high levels of testosterone in her body, referred to then as hyperandrogenism.
“I was not told by anyone, not even the doctor from SAI who conducted several tests on me, what they were for. I was confused. The papers were calling me a man. How does one turn into a man overnight?” says Chand.
A controversial yet obscure rule of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the governing body for world athletics, capped naturally occurring free testosterone level at 10 nanomoles per litre, about three times the typical female range, according to the body. Anything above that gave the athlete an unfair advantage, the IAAF reasoned, and offered two options: Retirement, or medical intervention.
Chand stunned the sporting world by doing neither. Instead, she challenged the rules at the Centre for Arbitration of Sport (CAS), an international tribunal in Lausanne, Switzerland.
In 2015, CAS suspended the rule for two years and asked the IAAF to commission studies proving a causal link between higher testosterone level and increased performance on track. In April this year, based on a study funded by the IAAF and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), the Federation clamped testosterone quotas, which now stand at five nanomoles per litre, for events from 400 metres to the mile. The new IAAF rules titled, “Eligibility Regulations for the Female Classification (Athletes with Differences of Sex Development)” will come into effect in November 2018.
Chand competes in the 100m and 200m categories, and just like that, she had won. But the impact of her harrowing experience lingers, one that is echoed by countless women athletes across the world who struggle against arbitrary testing shrouded in secrecy.
“I felt like an alien. Everyone disliked me: some called me a girl, some called me a man, some called me both. Other than my family, I felt that no one liked me. Even in my village, people would stop on the road and point at me. They’d ask me, is it true what we heard in the news? I’d tell them believe what you see with your own eyes,” says Chand of the time when news of her high levels of testosterone broke.
Chand isn’t the only athlete to feel this alienation. A decade before her case grabbed international headlines, a promising athlete from Tamil Nadu suffered the same fate – her gold medal dreams turned into dust as a testimony to the dangers of asking women to prove if they are women enough.
‘I DESERVE RESPECT’
Santhi Soundarajan’s life began at a brick kiln, and had it not been for a stroke of luck and her extraordinary grit, it would have ended at one too. The 37-year-old was born into a poor Dalit family in Kathakurichi in Tamil Nadu’s Pudukkottai district. Her father eked out a living in conditions starkly resemblant to bonded labour.
“Brick-kiln work is like bonded work because there is little or no food. It is back-breaking. One gets trapped from day to night, and wages are uncertain and mostly exploitative. The reason Dalits get into this is because of the way caste is organised in India,” says Kathir, who runs an NGO called Evidence in Tamil Nadu.
Soundarajan’s first glimpse of escape was at 14, when she won the annual sports meet at her school, and her grandfather, a small-time athlete himself, pushed her to participate in state meets by training her on a dirt track. “We never had any money and food was so scarce that some nights we would starve,” she says, describing the hut she grew up in, which had neither running water nor electricity.
Her grandfather and teachers pooled in money to buy her a pair of shoes, which she wore on her way to 11 straight victories in the next few years. “For the first time, I felt happy and proud. Plus I started getting prizes.”
But Soundarajan’s troubles with gender perception had already begun. In her village, people didn’t approve of women running, and many mocked her for her shorts and shirt. “They would make fun of me. They’d say that a boy is walking by. I had no support, only discouragement,” she says.
Her caste ensured she had little network of support and resources to act as a crutch once she burst into the national-level championships. For the first international meet she went to, in south Korea in 2003, she had to depend on someone to sponsor her passport. At the airport while her peers changed wads of cash into foreign currency, she had just ₹2,000. “I felt helpless, disgusted,” she recalls.
“Whenever we travelled abroad, everyone was well dressed. I didn’t even know what good clothes were. I wasn’t the one who enjoyed the journey, or went to places. But when we returned, I would make sure I was the happiest, by winning the most medals,” she says.
But her happiness was soon to be shattered. Soundarajan ran the race of her life at the Doha Asian Games in 2006, winning the silver medal in the 800m category in a photo finish. Less than 48 hours after the biggest night of her life, she was unceremoniously dumped from the national contingent, bundled on a flight after a harrowing evening of tests, during which, she alleges, she was made to stand naked for half a day.
When she landed in Chennai, television anchors screamed that she had “failed a gender test” – using photographs and derision to point at her deep voice, her muscular frame and her chest.
To this day, Soundarajan claims she doesn’t know why she was tested, or what she was tested for. All she knows is that her friends withdrew, her medal was rescinded, she was forced to go back to the kiln for a living for several years, before finally finding a government job as a coach. “They destroyed my life. I have a deep pain within me. I have lived my life as a woman and I deserve to be respected,” says Soundarajan.
NEW RULES, OLD PROBLEMS
Who is a woman and why she should be tested is among the oldest, and the prickliest, question in athletics. Biological sex remains a means to distinguish between sportsmen and sportswomen but the seemingly obvious distinction is a messy minefield of biology, determinism and fast-changing notions of what it means to test gender. The most notorious example of this is the South African middle-distance runner Caster Semenya, who was tested without her knowledge before she participated, and won, the 800m race at the 2009 IAAF World Championships; but even as her ran the race, the results of her test were leaked to the press and the next day, Time.com ran a report with the headline: ‘Could this woman’s world champ be a man?’
Chand, who grew up in a small village in Odisha’s Jajpur district and started to run at the age of four on dirt tracks running along the local Brahmani river, says that the gender testing experience devastated her.
Chand says that the scrutiny about her gender also came at a time when she a teenager. “At the age when you mature, start feeling love and attraction, that’s the time when the whole issue broke out. The whole world began to question who I am. Which boy will approach me after all this?” She has a special friend, she admits. But she’s also cautious about saying more. “He’s told me that he’ll stay with for the rest of my life,” she says, breaking into a smile.
Payoshni Mitra, an athletes’ rights activist and Research Consultant, reached out to Chand soon after she was disqualified. It was vital, Mitra felt, that Chand did not feel compelled to quit or take medical steps. There was a third option and this was to appeal to the CAS. Mitra, who has also researched sexual harassment in sports with a grant offered by the ministry of youth affairs and sports, was eventually appointed by the SAI as Chand’s mediator-cum-advisor.
Although she is glad that Chand has won her case at the CAS, the new regulations bring up the same concerns as before. “Because of confidentiality reasons, we don’t know where who is being affected.”
The new rules have tried to address some of the concerns that Chand’s case brought up. They’ve stipulated that no surgical intervention will be conducted on the athlete. Instead, the athlete has been asked to take hormonal pills to decrease the level of naturally occurring free testosterone levels. Significantly, the rules have also stipulated that national federations will not deal with these athletes, only the international body will.
“All I can ensure is that the athlete is getting enough information of the side effects and the lifetime of medical support requirement: Who will pay for this? Will the sports management company or the government pay? There are severe side effects to many of these medications, plus the surgery requires prolonged hormonal treatment. They shouldn’t be forced to undergo medical intervention just for the sake of competing. It is unethical,” says Mitra.
The standard operating procedure, which the SAI had come out with in 2013 regarding the implementation of IAAF’s rules has now been withdrawn, and Mitra is keen that if another one is to be made, it should protect the athlete from complaints. “If anything, it should say don’t discriminate on basis of appearance deleted a part here or sexual orientation.”
“The culture of surveillance and suspicion is very much part of our competitive sports today that it encourages people to complain against some athletes. While doping is the only thing that can be used in men’s sports, in women’s sports, it is doping and levels of testosterone that is naturally occurring,” Mitra says.
On the other side of the debate is the Indian Athletics Federation (IAF) which needs to implement the rules of the international body.
Adille Sumariwalla, a council member of the IAAF and the president of the Athletics Federation of India, says the new regulations are based purely on data and proof. He asks how an athlete would feel if she finished outside the top three, and one of the medal winners had hyperandrogenism.
“Now, if there is something within your system which is there by nature, why should it be a disadvantage for a majority of the people who are within the limit?” he asks.
Jyotirmoyee Sikdar, one of India’s most-successful women athletes who is now a part of the national athletics selection team, is less sure. “I don’t know whether there should be gender testing. But athletes should have a level playing field while competing.”
Her dilemma is the central question in athletics today: Whose bodies should be controlled to build a level playing field for all athletes? And, at what cost?
LEVEL PLAYING FIELD
What impact the new guidelines will have on a new generation of women athletes in India is unclear, especially in the absence of an national institutionalised grievance redress system.
But Ashok Ahuja, a former head of sports medicine at SAI, underlines that confusion abounds. The SAI has never done a study and so doesn’t know how many athletes have this condition. Moreover, officials are not clear about when, and how many, tests will be performed – on the day of competition, randomly, monthly?
“Plus, the tests currently are only on anonymous complaint, and not random. But there should not be any witch hunt,” he says.
Bruce Kidd, vice-president of the University of Toronto and a long-time advocate for equality in sports, says the guidelines are sure to be challenged in court. “The new IAAF regulations are discriminatory, based on faulty, unproven scientific evidence and they have tremendous potential for harm in the way that the previous policy caused incalculable stress and harm,” he says.
The new IAAF regulations will induce fear among women in middle-distance athletics, avers Kidds. “Nor am I convinced that such regulations are necessary to ‘ensure a level playing field’. Of all the differences among top athletes—height, weight, physiology, biochemistry, personal and national income, etc., etc.--why single out just one factor for policing?” he asks.
Earlier this month, Semenya challenged the new rules and called them “discriminatory, irrational, unjustifiable”, thereby shining light onto how difficult the journey of athletic success can be for women who do not conform to what the society thinks women should look like or behave.
Chand’s physiotherapist, Navneeta, who goes by only one name and has worked with SAI for 11 years, has had first-hand experience of seeing the anxiety that women athletes and their parents face. “During a training session, a mother came up to me and requested that her child not do too many bench presses because it might impede the growth of her breasts. When I was working with the women’s boxing team, some of them would ask me how could they increase their bust size. Recently, a teenage sprinter asked me if she was normal, because she has not got her period yet. No matter what sport or body type, everyone feels judged. Question is, if someone has a smaller chest why does that make them manly? If a woman does not get her period, does that make her less womanly?”
The roots of this lie in the anxiety around maintaining western femininity in sports, and this is what drives the hype around “gender testing” and the continued dominance of privileged white notions of what it is to be a woman, argued a 2014 paper by Lynchburg college researcher Lindsay Parks Pieper.
For Chand, who is currently training at the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy in Hyderabad to make a comeback and has already won the 100m gold in national championships in March, the experience has left her quite cynical.
“The public only looks for problems. They don’t see the extensive work that goes into winning that medal. Every day I train: On the track, in the gym, thrice a day. I left my house at a young age, and haven’t lived with my family since then. When I lose, they’ll say, Dutee has grown old. When I win a medal, then they think it’s ‘hyperandrogenism’.”
But Soundarajan, who was forced to give up her career and is now a coach, is more hopeful.
Back at the Nehru Stadium in Chennai, she now trains batches of young women, who she says have finally given her the respect she has always craved. Her friends and activists are planning to move the Supreme Court to demand compensation for what they describe as a human rights violation.
In her village, the 37-year-old has created facilities for young girls – most of them Dalit – to start running for their dreams. Dressed in a black t-shirt and jeans, she points at a young woman crouching at the starting block. “I know they will fulfill my dream. They will bring the medals I was not given a chance to,” she says, breaking into a radiant smile.
In the distance, her student’s lithe body is taught moments before Soundarajan blows a shrill whistle. “On your marks, get set, go”. The girl starts running.