How long will sportswomen have to keep proving their sexuality?

Though Dutee Chand, Odisha sprinter with hyperandrogenism, has won right to compete in world events, prejudices won't melt away.

 |  Angiography  |  5-minute read |   28-07-2015
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The body of the sportswoman, particularly the one from a “developing” nation, is usually under relentless scrutiny from the self-proclaimed national and international governing bodies, regulators and authorities that scan, check, arbitrate, rule, rule out, invade, inject into, make incisions, cut off, cut into, add, delete and perform numerous other acts of ordering and defining it. In other words, the sportswoman’s body is in a state of perpetual self-defence, as also self-defiance, because the “self” in question is, more often than not, at unfathomable odds with the set norms, notions and prescriptions of what are the limits of the woman in the sportswoman.

Dutee Chand, the 19-year-old female sprinter, formerly India’s under-18 100-metre champion and an Olympics aspirant from Odisha, has, however, steadfastly resisted such crude and restrictive definitions that the sportswoman has had to endure so far. Chand, who “suffers” from “hyperandrogenism” (HA) – that is her body produces natural levels of testosterone considerably higher than the average woman – has just won the right to compete on world stage after the Court for Arbitration in Sport upheld her appeal challenging the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) ruling which had barred her from taking part in the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Glasgow citing HA.

Chand’s victory, much like Castor Semeneya’s, the South African female athlete with supposed HA, who won gold in 800-metre race in 2009 World Championships, will go a long way in reconfiguring rigid gender norms in sporting activities, particularly on the track and field. Here are four takeaways that Chand’s intrepid struggle to self-style offers us.

Body is not a straitjacket

Dutee Chand’s body was accused of being more muscular, lean and mannish by IAAF, even though this weaver’s daughter has been raised, identified and trained as a woman athlete. When Chand was made to undergo tests in lieu of practising for the Glasgow Commonwealth, it was revealed that her body produces more testosterone than the average woman. Now, while there ought to be some yardstick to determine a sporting category and define its eligibility criteria, how can a simple deficiency of a so-called male hormone be the main driving factor? Human bodies are as variable as they can be, and fluctuations in visible characteristics – such as having more body hair, heavier voice, height, muscularity, etc – are as much influenced by rigours of training as they are adjusted by inherent/physiological traits. Why should one set of characteristics offset the hard work and sculpting put in by the other? Why should “nature” trump “culture” and pin down what’s womanly and what’s not?   

Gender is not sex is not just hormones

Chand’s blunt refusal to undergo hormone therapy and surgical procedures to alter her androgen makeup was a bold step in the direction of more women and sportswomen taking charge of their destinies, bodily and career-wise. It must be remembered that gender (a sum of how someone is brought up and self-identifies as a woman) is not sex (a limited biological understanding of the individual based solely of the morphology of the primary and secondary sex organs). And both are not hormonal equivalences that can be easily mapped and measured and neatly graded. Chand’s “hyperandrogenism” is purportedly a tactical advantage to her with respect to the “average woman”, but how do we determine how this averageness comes about? Why should a sporting talent suffer because we are still mired in our medical, legal and cultural prejudices?

Black and Asian sportswomen have it tougher

Every time a Venus or Serena Williams wins a Grand Slam, there are not-so-muted slurs directed at their “ape-like” appearances, as not-so-inaudible sighs escape for the fate of a Maria Sharapova. Such overt racism aside, domicile can be a key factor in determining how a sportswoman’s “image” is carefully conditioned and controlled by a hyperactive public relations team, if she has enough backing. Payoshini Mitra, the sports journalist-cum-activist who has been leading the case for Chand, has underlined how sportswomen from First World countries often resort to medical procedures and corrective/reconstructive surgeries to suitably “feminise” their external appearance even as their hormonal makeup can show high levels of androgens. On the other hand, black and Asian athletes, who have little else to fall back on other than their dauntless bodies and supportive coaches, are far less able to camouflage the visible effects of high testosterone even though that has negligible effect on actual performance on the track and field. Though not directly amounting to institutional racism, IAAF’s harsh ruling certainly seemed to be conveniently oblivious to the warp and the weft of the highly competitive as well as convoluted politics of the international sporting arena.  

What’s ‘fair’ is a dynamic thing

While artificially enhancing your sporting abilities through synthetic drugs and steroids is certainly unethical, bodies themselves often challenge the expectations of what is right and what is not. Fairness, ethics and equal opportunity are therefore not simple ideas when it comes to sports, particularly athletics. Often law and cultural bias towards what’s male and what’s female cook up ugly concoctions of utter disgrace and humiliation for the sportswoman, as evident in what Pinki Pramanik had to undergo two years back. While in Pramanik’s case, the sex itself became ambiguous and led to a ghastly saga of state-sponsored censure, in which her body was paraded, policed, subjected to extremely mortifying medical and media voyeurism, to “ascertain” her sex, in Chand’s case, mere elevated levels of a particular hormone was given preponderance over her tireless striving towards perfection on the track.

Fortunately, better sense prevailed with CAS on July 27 allowing Chand to compete at global fora. Whether it’s your skin tone or muscle tone, the physical woman just got a socially constructive nod in the right and sporting spirit. Let the games begin.


Angshukanta Chakraborty Angshukanta Chakraborty @angshukanta

Opinionator at DailyO. Because criticism is the opium of the classes.

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