Last year Dutee Chand, the Indian under-18 100m champion, was barred from competing in women’s races. Nobody imagines that, biologically or socially, Chand is not a woman. But she has a condition called hyperandrogenism, in which her body naturally produces high levels of testosterone. High enough to place her in the ‘male’ range in the eyes of International Association of Athletics Federations, the IAAF, the governing body of international track and field. The IAAF insists that Chand can only compete in women’s races if she takes hormone-suppressing drugs or has surgery to limit her body’s production of testosterone. Unsurprisingly, Dutee is challenging the ruling.
The writer and philosopher Alva Noë, who blogs at Cosmos & Culture, explores the implications of the IAAF decision and what it says about the way in which international athletics views a ‘woman’. This essay was originally published on Cosmos & Culture, and my thanks to both for allowing me to publish it on Pandaemonium.
Why can’t Dutee run?
The case of Dutee Chand — the Indian sprinter who has been banned from competing as a woman because she has naturally high levels of androgen — casts international sport in a bad light.
Great athletes always have an unfair advantage, at least over the rest of us. Life isn’t a level playing field. Sure, training, education, opportunity, make a big difference. But if you think you could be in the NBA, but for a lack of opportunity, chances are pretty good you’re kidding yourself.
So the claim that it’s not fair that Dutee Chand should be allowed to compete with other women just because she’s got naturally occurring high levels of hormones associated with improved performance is like saying that taller than normal basketball players should not be allowed to play because they enjoy a competitive advantage.
Doping is banned by and large because it’s dangerous and because it gives an unfair advantage. But the Athletics Federation of India, acting in conformity to the rules of track’s governing bodies, is telling Dutee Chand that she can compete only if she undergoes potentially harmful surgeries or hormonal therapies that might diminish her performance. Why?
When pressed, regulators insist that the problem is a large one in the sport. The rate of this sort of elevated hormone profile is much higher among elite athletes than it is among the general population. As quoted in the New York Times, Arne Ljungqvist, chairman of the International Olympic Committee’s medical commission, says, ‘People who say, “This is nothing; we don’t need this rule”, don’t know sports or are at some distance from sport’. He adds, ‘This is not an easy matter. It’s an evolving matter. We just can’t bury our heads in the sand and pretend these conditions do not exist’.
But this gets things backwards. Sport selects for better, faster, stronger athletes. In the case of female athletes, this means that it will tend to select for those with hyperandrogenism. It shouldn’t be any more surprising that elite athletes will tend to have high levels of the relevant hormones than it is that basketball players will tend to be tall. That’s a not a bad thing. That’s a good thing. That’s not an uneven playing field. It’s what we call competition.
So what is the problem, finally?
Dutee Chand’s fault, it seems, is that she isn’t sufficiently deficient — lacking in androgen — to count as female for the purposes of competition. And this, in turn, suggests a conception of the female, as, in effect, the deficient male.
This is why the rules say that anyone found to have failed ‘the gender test’ as a women is free to compete as a man. If (s)he can qualify that is.
Isn’t there something seriously wrong here?
The painting is Pablo Picasso’s ‘Two women running on the beach’