When Dutee Chand decided to challenge the International Association of Athletics Federations’ (Iaaf’s) hyperandrogenism (HA) rule a year ago, she found support in an international group of scientists, former athletes and bioethicists, many of whom have been working with various issues related to discrimination in sports. Canadian Olympian and author Bruce Kidd, also a leading activist for equality in sports, and medical anthropologist and author Katrina Karkazis, from the Center for Biomedical Ethics at Stanford University, US, were two of the most influential people to fight on behalf of Chand and testify at the Court of Arbitration for Sports (CAS) in Lausanne, Switzerland.
In an email interview, Kidd and Karkazis spoke about the CAS verdict, which was in favour of Chand. It suspended the HA rule for two years. The rule will be scrapped if Iaaf fails to submit clear scientific proof that over-average amounts of naturally produced androgen hormones (testosterone) can be linked to improved athletic performance. Edited excerpts:
What was your first reaction to the verdict?
Kidd: I heard it by email from Jim Bunting (Chand’s lawyer) on Friday (24 July), on a completely confidential basis. I was so moved that I started to cry. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but this was everything we wanted. I thought CAS made a brilliant decision.
Karkazis: I was thrilled with this decision, but also very surprised by it. I knew we had a strong case, but there are so many culturally entrenched ideas about testosterone—that it is a “male hormone”, that it doesn’t belong in women. I knew we were up against those ideas too, and I wasn’t sure that we could overcome them.
You have campaigned against androgen testing—in fact, any kind of “gender” testing—for some time now. How significant is this verdict?
Kidd: It’s huge, because it not only reinstates Dutee Chand, but it removes the chill/threat of the policy/test from all women, and especially those in the Global South who might look a little different from Western women and thus had a higher risk of being targeted. As I think you know, to the best of our knowledge, all the women suspended or forced to retire under this policy have been from Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
Karkazis: They’ve had some kind of policy along these lines for over four decades and this is the first time a body like CAS has suspended it. Dutee and our team did what felt like the impossible. But the Iaaf response indicates we’re not out of the woods.
Are there any statistics for how many international athletes are banned from competing under the HA rule? Can they all now come back into competition?
Kidd: Yes, they can all come into competition.
Karkazis: These are not public but Iaaf has shared some numbers in various publications and conferences (one research paper puts it at 18 since 2011, when the HA regulations were introduced). But we may never know the full extent, because you have to remember this is only track and field and these policies exist across a number of international federations and, of course, the IOC (International Olympic Committee) also had the policy.
After the verdict, Iaaf put out a statement which clearly says they still believe in the HA rule, and will try to prove that it works, in the next two years.
Kidd: They have a very high standard to meet: (quoting from the CAS verdict) “… it is not enough simply to establish that the characteristic has some performance-enhancing effect. Instead, the Iaaf needs to establish that the characteristic in question confers such a significant performance advantage over other members of the category that allowing individuals with that characteristic to compete would subvert the very basis for having the separate category and thereby prevent a level playing field. The degree or magnitude of the advantage is therefore critical.” In addition, they will have to address the ethical argument about the Olympic movement being open to all competitors, regardless of any form of discrimination. How can you justify discriminating in favour of women with “too much” T when other competitors have “too much” of other factors?
Karkazis: For now I want to celebrate, but the battle doesn’t end with this decision. They have two years to come up with evidence for a policy they claimed four years ago was based on evidence. The science should come before the policy, not the other way around, so the CAS ruling was generous to allow them to do this. Iaaf seems determined to try to push this thing through. The policy is not based on scientific evidence, but rather on the “strong scientific consensus” that testosterone levels determine athleticism. Essentially, they are turning to a consensus of their shared assumptions about testosterone and athleticism to disqualify an athlete.