In the recently concluded Asian Athletics Championships, held at Doha, the Indian contingent won a total of 17 medals. Out of those, 10 of them were won by women. Saksi Malik, PV Sidhu, Dipa Karmakar, the list goes on. All these women have shown that India’s athletes have what it takes to compete successfully at the international level.
However, the country’s interest, or lack of, in any sport that is not cricket is well documented. Put into account the struggles faced by women athletes in the country, it makes becoming a successful athlete in India a near herculean task.
Several problems are faced by women athletes in the country. Inadequate funding and sponsorship, government attention, lack of training programs are some of those. However, one particular problem is faced by some female athletes. They have to prove that they’re women in order to participate. This process, called “Scientific Sex Testing” is regressive, discriminatory and downright incorrect.
What is Sex Testing?
Sex Testing was initially introduced in the 1930s to prevent male athletes posing as a female in international competition. While athletes could initially present an affidavit from their own doctors to show proof of their gender, this soon moved to gynaecological examinations and visual inspections.
In the 1960s, standardized ‘scientific’ sex testing was introduced as feminity confirmation procedures in the field of athletics were no longer conclusive. During the initial procedures, female athletes were asked to undergo a visual examination of the genitals and secondary sexual features, carried out by a panel of three female doctors. The procedures further evolved from physical examinations to chromosome testing and hormonal testing.
With the introduction of hormonal testing, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the International Association of Athletics Federation‘s (IAAF) suggested that female athletes who naturally produce androgen in the male range and do not have androgen resistance (a condition called hyperandrogenism) are not eligible to run.
Why Sex Testing Is Problematic
The problem not only involves the procedure but the understanding of sex and gender understanding in the field of athletics. Gender segregation in sports essentially involves disqualifying anyone who doesn’t fit the binary definition of male or female. It is based on the ideology that if a woman, has the strength, power, physical make up, or a chemical composition similar to that of a man, she is deemed unfit to participate with women, ruling that she possesses an unfair advantage as a result.
Now let’s come to another problematic rule of the IAAF as far as Sex Testing is concerned. 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. If a woman is found to exceed these levels, she has 2 options to choose from. Retirement, or medical intervention.
Another issue with sex testing is that it is not compulsory for every athlete. The IAAF reserves the right to perform the test in case questions about a particular athlete’s sex arise. Following this, a hormone test, a gynaecological exam and a psychological evaluation can also be performed by the necessary body.
This covenant in itself is extremely regressive as it involves asking a woman to prove that she is one if she is too quick on the track, or has features and physical characteristics that don’t fit into the traditional mould of how a woman should look.
The Horror Stories of Indian Athletes
Take the case of Santhi Soundarajan, a 25-year-old from southern India finished second in the 800 meters at the 2006 Asian Games in Doha, Qatar. Her impressive performances brought her into the limelight, but it did more harm for her than anything else. After reports from the media that she was too fast for a woman and had a flat chest and a deep voice, she was asked to come in for testing.
She allegedly had to go through a harrowing evening of tests, during which she was even asked to stand naked for as much as half a day. She wasn’t even told the purpose of the tests, and with her test results leaked to the media, she was banished, stripped of her medals and dumped from the national contingent. All this done on account of her failing the “gender test”, a test that she took without any knowledge or her consent.
After rising to fame by becoming the national champion and being asked to come to Delhi for what she thought of was a routine doping test, the story of Dutee Chand, one of India’s fastest sprinters, is similar.
The results of her test prompted authorities to tell her that she could only return to the national team only if she reduced her testosterone level — and that she wouldn’t be allowed to compete for a year. She even faced a lot of flak from the media for failing the test, with the media announcing that Chand wasn’t a “normal” woman. Dutee ultimately got justice after appealing to the Court of Arbitration for Sports (CAS) in 2015 after which the IAAF’s sex testing policy was suspended for two years, allowing Dutee to compete
Is Sex Testing Ethical?
Several views argue the entirety of the activity of Sex Testing athletes. If athletes with differing muscle strengths, bone densities, heights, weights and other characteristics can compete, then why not one with different hormone levels?
If Michael Phelps can reap the advantages of a wide wingspan, long torso, low amounts of lactic acid, and then why does the response have to be different for a female athlete that has higher levels of testosterone?
At a time when no causal link has been established between high testosterone levels and improved performance, the practice seems to be highly unnecessarily, only reinforcing gender stereotypes and ultimately ruining the careers of several promising women athletes.