The illusion of level playing field in athletics
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When I was watching Usain Bolt win the 100 meters gold at the IAAF World Championships in Beijing on 23 August where he was, for the first time since 2008, not the overwhelming favourite, the debate surrounding a so-called real superhero versus a drug cheat was at the back of my mind, as it may have been for many others watching the race. Interestingly, this is connected to the notion of natural in a sport like athletics that is tainted by constant doping-related controversies.
Bolt had suffered leg injuries and was reported to have made more nightclub than track appearances in the past year. Yet, in the run-up to the World Championships 100 metres final, the media worldwide had set him as the second favourite after US’s drug-tainted athlete Justin Gatlin. Bolt is the superhero of athletics, whom everyone wanted would win, because he has steered clear of all doping scandals and because he is a natural.
Sports Illustrated’s Tim Layden wrote: “Bolt has never tested dirty. There’s no reason to think he’s doped, except that he runs way faster than everybody else. But damning athletes for excellence sends us all down a bottomless rabbit hole….If you want to believe in track and field, it helps to start with Bolt. But please don’t say that Bolt’s greatness proves that greatness is possible without drugs. Bolt’s greatness proves that greatness is possible if you are built like a velociraptor and train your ass off.”
This brings us to the idea of the level-playing field and the notion of competitive advantage. For more than half a century, attempts have been made to level the playing field for women by employing policies that were called sex control or femininity control earlier and more recently with the help of the Hyperandrogenism Regulations. When my international colleagues Katrina Karkazis, Rebecca Jordan-Young, Bruce Kidd and I began to raise these question around the time of the London Olympics 2012 and more so when we worked with athlete Dutee Chand as she appealed against her ban at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), apart from challenging the discriminatory nature of the Hyperandrogenism Regulations, we were also trying to draw attention to the debatable idea of a level playing field.
In a presentation made in 2010 at the Congress of the European Academy of Pediatric Societies, scientists who have been part of the IOC Medical Commission, including Arne Ljungqvist, stated that the concept of the level playing field is illusory. The presentation indicated that fundamentally hyperandrogenic women have no more competitive advantage than other elite athletes with favourable genetic advantages.
The CAS judgment on Chand’s appeal also pointed out the inadequacy of the science on the basis of which the Hyperandrogenism Regulations and its predecessors were based. The anxiety about hyperandrogenic women having an unfair competitive advantage seems to be baseless since there is no solid scientific evidence to back it and support the idea that the advantage drawn from excess naturally-produced androgen, if at all, is any different from other phenotypic and genetic advantages enjoyed by athletes in high performance sports.
Such uncontested biological variations include, among others, acromegaly among basketball players, a hormonal condition that results in exceptionally large hands and feet or a rare mitochondrial variation among many runners and cyclists that give them exceptional aerobic capacity and a rare ability to resist fatigue. Such variations often make us refer to an athlete as exceptionally gifted or as a natural.
We have to remember that high performance sport is all about unique bodies. Yes, naturally unique bodies. Each athlete is distinct and brings to the track her individual characteristics and traits. Chand comes from humble beginnings. She has had to overcome the fact that advanced training facilities, nutritious food, and other infrastructure were not readily available to her when she began to train. On the other hand, many athletes benefit from advanced training resources from day one of their careers, if they live in countries with higher national incomes or have higher family incomes. Such athletes unquestionably derive a competitive advantage vis-à-vis athletes like Chand.
In my view, screening athletes’ eligibility based on these socioeconomic factors would have been as arbitrary as the regulations that Chand has successfully challenged.
Payoshni Mitra is a gender and sport researcher and an athletes’ rights activist who advised athlete Dutee Chand.
The Sex Talk is a blog on gender, sexuality and blind spots.