It's Time We Got Away From Determining Who Is 'Female Enough' To Compete
Dutee Chand can run again.
Wait, no -- that's not quite right.
Before we dive into what this means for women's sports, and what it doesn't mean -- and there's a whole lot of ground to cover there -- some quick background on the story.
On Monday, the Court of Arbitration for Sport suspended the "female hyperandrogenism" policy adopted in 2011 by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), which governs track and field. This decision also immediately reinstated Chand, an Indian runner who in September of 2014 was indefinitely banned from international competition after a test revealed her body produced "high" levels of natural testosterone -- aka, female hyperandrogenism.
Long acronyms and the phrase "female hyperandrogenism" don't exactly roll off the tongue, but stick with this: Because the IAAF's policy correlates "high" levels of natural testosterone (an arbitrary line set by IAAF doctors) with an "unfair competitive advantage," the 19-year-old sprinter was suspended from competing until she lowered her testosterone levels -- either through drug therapy, or surgery.
Chand rejected both options. Instead, she decided to challenge the fairness of the rule.
In other words: She believed the policy, ostensibly about fairness, was actually unfair.
And the court agreed.
The CAS said that the IAAF policy, which is identical to the Olympic version, would be suspended for two years. If during that time, the governing body cannot produce scientific evidence proving that "high" natural testosterone provides female athletes with an excessive competitive advantage, then the rule becomes permanently void.
To be clear, this policy essentially served the same purpose as archaic "sex testing," and it did the same work: policing female athletes. Not all athletes, just female athletes. Also, the suspension of the IAAF policy will almost certainly lead to the suspension of the Olympic policy, creating a domino effect that could eradicate sex tests from international sports entirely.
This seems like a resounding victory for female athletes. Historically, these policies -- in their various incarnations -- have been created by (mostly) men who run international sports organizations (think IOC, FIFA and IAAF), and they've been created under the auspices of "fairness." Of course, if these organizations truly embraced a fair playing field, then there would have been, for example, grass instead of turf at the 2015 World Cup, and there would be equal financial commitment to female athletes.
In other words: Sex testing of women seems to be the only dominion in which big sports bureaucracies are committed to the notion of "fairness" for female athletes. If an organization says it embodies fairness, and claims fairness as the reasoning behind a policy, it would help if the notion of "fairness" was reflected across the organization.
Also, think about what happens when a male athlete is a "freak of nature," or possesses some genetic deviation that gives him an advantage. (See: Phelps, Michael; O'Neal, Shaquille.) We celebrate him. He becomes a god. For male athletes, excelling at sports and gaining societal approval actually dovetail. There's no such thing as being too manly, or too strong, or too fast.
But the insidious secret within women's sports is that naturally shaping your body to give you the best chance at winning is often rejected. Yup. The golden chalice in women's sports is not winning; it's winning while embodying traditional notions of femininity. And a number of female athletes would actually sacrifice the former in favor of the latter.
For decades, these sex testing policies did the work of reinforcing traditional notions of femininity. A female athlete who pushes the boundaries of strength and speed -- two qualities we usually celebrate -- can, and has, had her sex questioned. Some have been sidelined, some have undergone therapy or surgery to "fix" the "problem." All have been publicly shamed.
So, yes, this verdict should be a victory for female athletes. But in the two days since the ruling, a lot of hand wringing has ensued, including misinterpretation of exactly what this means for the future of women's sports.
The New York Times printed a column that included the following two paragraphs:
"If we agree that some people carry biological characteristics that are both male and female -- one study showed that there was an overrepresentation of athletes at the 2011 world track and field championships who fit that bill -- then should we just give up trying to separate sexes in sports?
Would it be fair for all competitors if high school boys and girls ran against one another in the 100 meters? Or for Michael Phelps to compete in the same swimming event as Natalie Coughlin? Or for LeBron James to go up against Brittney Griner?"
This far-fetched hypothetical isn't completely out of left field. The court's decision essentially said no valid scientific measurement currently exists for fairly delineating male from female. But here's the thinking that's propping up the above hypothetical: In the absence of a formal sex testing policy, men's and women's sports would collapse into one another.
But ... would they?
It seems some people believe these policies -- old-fashioned naked parades, female hyperandrogenism, sex testing -- are serving the same purpose as a dam. And removing the policy is like the destruction of the dam wall -- two fluid entities will spill together. But that's actually flawed; that's not the proper metaphor. Picture instead two separate pools, side by side, except that within one of the pools, an entire lane has been cordoned off, and anyone who happens to swim inside that lane, or even knock against it, gets pulled from the pool and is made to stand on the sideline.
Translation: This policy isn't doing the "fair" work of separating men from women, it's creating a separate class within a class. Or, as the court wrote in its decision: This policy creates "a new category of ineligible female athletes within the female category."
That's called discrimination. And it's discrimination driven by sexism.
Another New York Times column arrived at the following conclusion: So a new eligibility policy is needed. What should it be?
But is a new policy needed? Isn't there already a system in place?
Men who legally identify as men are allowed to compete -- without any policing of their gender. Why should the rule be any different for female athletes?
(Hint: It shouldn't.)
As the court said, no evidence exists that "high" testosterone leads to a significant competitive advantage -- at least, no more than any other genetic difference. Also, no epidemic exists of men "posing" as women in order to play women's sports. And there is no conclusive scientific evidence that, after hormone therapy, trans women possess an advantage, either.
So exactly what are these policies about?
The day after the court decision, Chand said the following to the BBC: "I never thought I would lose, because I always knew I was not at fault. I am very thankful to the judges that they have taken a close look at my case and given the decision in my favor. I have got justice. I am a normal girl."
Of course, that's a loaded phrase, "normal girl."
What is normal, exactly?
But that's the key of this whole thing: Dutee Chand did not assimilate to what a policy -- a policy that's a reflection of society -- deemed "a normal girl."
She fought to expand the definition.