Time to End Sex-Testing of Female Athletes

When are we going to stop the nonsense of sex-testing female athletes?

Because of an International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and International Olympic Committee (IOC) policy, Dutee Chand, an 18-year-old Indian sprinter, was blocked from competing at the 2014 Commonwealth Games because her body makes too much testosterone. She has been prohibited from competing at all national and international sporting events on the grounds that she has an unfair advantage over her competitors. These actions left Chand feeling “completely shattered.”

Her situation might sound familiar, because it is.

In 2009, the IAAF banned Caster Semenya, a South African runner, from competition after she won the 800-meter race at the Berlin World Championships in Athletics. Competitors were complaining that Semenya might have had an unfair advantage in the race, complaints triggered by Semenya’s gender presentation. Eventually Semenya was allowed to return to competition, but only after a horrible media frenzy that took an emotional toll on the young athlete.

The IAAF and IOC created a policy in the wake of the Semenya debacle, but because this policy was flawed from the beginning, Chand is forced to face what Semenya had to deal with years earlier.

In the first in-depth critique of this policy [pdf], colleagues and I argued that among other problems there was no scientific basis for the policy that derived from illogical thinking about fairness for female athletes. The policy is filled with problematic assumptions about testosterone in women’s bodies, specifically around what an acceptable natural level is and the effect it has on athleticism. Even if we accept the assertion that testosterone is the primary component of athletic ability, why punish women for their natural bodies? Women with naturally high testosterone levels are not cheating, yet they are being treated as if they were doping.

The policy also targets gender nonconforming women. If a female athlete isn’t feminine enough, she might be unfairly singled out for sex testing. Why? Because people assume women’s clothing choices, hairstyle preferences, and the like are driven by biological predisposition. This means less feminine athletes will be suspiciously viewed and their ability to compete as women challenged. What message does this send our daughters? You can compete, but you better do so with a bow in your hair?

Because of this policy, Chand is barred from all competitions unless she undergoes invasive medical procedures [pdf], which could mean irreversible surgeries, in order to lower the natural testosterone level in her body. The procedures are unnecessary and are known to cause emotional and physical harm.

The Sports Authority of India is showing international leadership supporting Chand’s challenge of the discriminatory policy.

Chand is incredibly courageous and it shows in her determination to stand up for what’s right. We may never know where her courage comes from, but I bet it is related to the characteristics she’s cultivated on her way to competing at such an elite level of sport. It’s a damn shame that the world is forced to cheer her off the track and not on it where she belongs.

A petition is underway pressuring the IAAF to abolish this policy. We can let Dutee Chand know how many stand with her as she fights for the rights of all women to run.

Photo of Caster Semenya from Flickr user Atletica Live under license from Creative Commons 2.0



Georgiann Davis, PhD, is a scholar-activist whose research, teaching, and activism are at the intersection of medical violence and feminist theories.