Fair? The IOC's Gender Testing Policy Is the Exact Opposite

Dutee Chand of India was told that if she wanted to compete again, she would either need to go under the knife or reduce her testosterone levels with drug therapy. She rejected both options. Manjunath Kiran/AFP/Getty Images


That's the supposed reason that runner Dutee Chand of India was recently barred from participating in the Commonwealth Games. The 18-year-old sprinter, one of four daughters born to a family of weavers, is the country's national champion in the 100 meters.

But now it's unclear when, or if, she'll be allowed to compete again.

Here's the background: The Sports Authority of India, following the guidelines of the International Olympic Committee, has on its books a policy that female athletes with high levels of natural testosterone ("female hyperandrogenism") possess an unfair advantage over their competitors -- a "benefit" that must be regulated with medical intervention if that athlete wants to continue competing.

And so, in July, the Sports Authority of India conducted hyperandrogenism tests on Chand. When the results came in, she was told that if she wanted to compete again, she would either need to go under the knife or reduce her testosterone levels with drug therapy. Chand rejected both options. Instead, she will likely become the first female athlete to challenge this policy.

There is nothing "fair" about what's happening to Chand. The IOC's policy is discriminatory -- it is gender policing of women, plain and simple, and has previously ended with an unsuspecting young woman, often from a country in the Global South, undergoing a harmful medical procedure that many would call female genital mutilation. (See here and here.) And as Rebecca Jordan-Young, a professor at Columbia, and Katrina Karkazis, a professor at Stanford, wrote in The New York Times in 2012: "Scientifically, there is no clear or objective way to draw a bright line between male and female."

Still, of all the lines the IOC could use, measuring testosterone is likely the trickiest for many reasons, including that there is no evidence to date that higher natural testosterone impacts athletic success more than any other genetic variable.

The solution here seems pretty simple: Let all legally recognized women compete without persecution. Right now, the IOC seems to be regulating something -- a perceived advantage for some female athletes -- that doesn't actually exist. And in doing so, the IOC is actually discriminating against, and often sidelining, an entire group of athletes. (Should some female athletes, anyone who falls into the IOC's arbitrarily created abyss, just not be allowed to compete?)

Of course, nothing about this issue is simple. And, sadly, Chand's story is not a unique one.

In 2009, South African runner Caster Semenya made worldwide headlines when the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) -- also in lockstep with the IOC -- flagged the 800-meter world champ for gender testing. The way the organization handled Semenya's case drew criticism from around the globe, and in the aftermath, the IOC adjusted its policy in advance of the 2012 London Olympics.

Well, kind of adjusted it, anyway. More accurately, the IOC rearranged the language within the policy. But the result for female athletes affected by the guideline remains the same: devastating. Don't let the new fancy scientific language fool you; instead of calling it "sex determination," the IOC and IAAF are calling this new guideline "regulations on female hyperandrogenism."

See what the IOC did there? Pure semantics.

And Chand could be just another in a string of female athletes waylaid by a policy that has nothing to do with leveling the playing field and everything to do with policing what a woman should look like. Because here's the thing: Research shows that "there is no clear scientific evidence proving that a high level of testosterone is a significant determinant in female sports."

Even the policy makers who consult the IOC have published findings suggesting that women with some intersex traits "have no more competitive advantage than other elite athletes with favorable genetic characteristics."

Every elite athlete (actually, every human, for that matter) is born with certain genetic variations that either aid or hinder his or her potential for success on the playing field. An incomplete list: arm length, leg length, toe length, foot size, lung capacity. Each one of these characteristics, depending on the sport, could be the difference between first place and also-ran. For example, take Jamaican superstar sprinter Usain Bolt. Why aren't we outraged at his ridiculously long legs, which allow him to gobble up the track faster than his competitors?

For starters, we're not upset because we're aware that Bolt is great for reasons in addition to his long legs. He dominates because he has trained for thousands of hours, eaten healthy, sacrificed and focused for years. Those long legs, that supposed genetic advantage, are one small piece in the overall package.

So why isn't Bolt being forced to somehow shorten his legs so they're only as long as a "normal male leg" -- a range determined so arbitrarily as to be meaningless? (After all, what is "normal," anyway? And isn't the point of athletics to see remarkable humans doing the extraordinary?) Medically shortening Bolt's legs may seem like an abstract example. It's not. It's frighteningly applicable. Over the years, female athletes flagged as having "too much T" have undergone genital mutilation to try to make their bodies fit back into the "normal" range, a scope randomly determined by the IOC and IAAF.

Out of the thousands of genetic variants that athletes possess, the IOC has singled out just one for regulation, and it affects only female athletes. (To be clear: Male athletes are also tested for testosterone, but once it's deemed natural -- i.e., not a product of synthetic doping -- the case is closed.)

This is not a coincidence; it's a reflection of society.

In some very obvious ways, this policy amounts to a witch hunt, a persecution of women who do not fit our traditional Western notion of femininity. These governing bodies often actively investigate any female athlete whose hairstyle, clothing choices or body structure do not properly adhere to the traditional, mainstream idea of what it means to look like a woman.

Again, this is gender profiling. (Of course, the IOC can no longer just flag anyone for gender testing. But what they can do is randomly dope test, and once those results are in the system, if "too much T" is present, that athlete can then be flagged for female hyperandrogenism. So, essentially, it's a bait-and-switch.)

Bottom line: The IOC says it has adopted this policy in the name of fairness.

But it is not fair. It is both flawed and dangerous.