Indian sprinter dropped from squad
Problematic hormone test for female athletes threatens to affect rising star Dutee Chand’s career
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Mumbai/New Delhi: Sprinter Dutee Chand, 18, who has been compared to star athlete P.T. Usha on more than one occasion, has been barred from competing in the women’s category due to excess androgen in her body. The Sports authority of India (SAI) had subjected Chand to a controversial test to determine the level of androgen in her body on 27 June in New Delhi, and then again over a week later in Bangalore, where the athlete is based. Chand, who was a top pick for the World Junior Championships in Athletics to be held in Oregon from 22 to 27 July, will now not be part of the team. In fact, her future as an athlete is in jeopardy.
“Preliminary investigations indicate that the athlete is not fit for participation in a female event due to female hyperandrogenism,” SAI said in a press release.
SAI also made it clear in the statement that the test “does not determine the athlete’s gender.”
“The test simply tells us that she has excess androgen in her body,” the statement said.
According to the Standard Operative Procedure that came into effect last year, a female athlete needs to undergo the test only when there is reasonable doubt about Hyperandrogenism, a medical condition where the body produces excessively high levels of androgens, a group of masculinizing hormones including testosterone. The doubt can be raised by a medical officer, the player herself, or fellow players through a written complaint.
“Sometimes, when the player’s performance exceeds expected results, or if something is amiss in her menstrual cycle, or physical appearance, a medical examination is carried out,” said an SAI official, who didn’t wish to be named as they are not authorized to speak to the media.
Chand, who hails from Odisha, is one of India’s most promising sprinters in a while, and this has been her breakthrough year: She set the national junior record in 100m in May, erasing a 14-year-old record by a large margin, before winning the 200m and the 4X100m events at the 16th Asian Junior Athletics Championship in Taipei City last month. She was also the first Indian junior to have made it to the 100m final, when she competed at the Junior World Athletics Championships held in Ukraine last year.
All these medals as well as her record will now stand cancelled.
“We’ve been speaking to her every day. She is very distraught and confused. She is feeling trapped inside the SAI complex in Bangalore. Her parents are worried, because the Odisha press have started carrying stories as well. These things become such stigmas. But we told her that we will back her all the way,” said Maneesh Bahuguna, CEO of Anglian Medal Hunt Co., which helps Olympic athletes with funds and expertise, and represents Chand.
The ministry of youth affairs and sports released an SOP last March to determine the eligibility of female athletes participating in competitive sporting events. It made Hyperandrogenism the basis of eligibility. High level of testosterone is considered by sports regulatory bodies globally to give an unfair advantage to female athletes. “Androgenic hormones have performance enhancing effects, particularly on strength, power and speed, which may provide a competitive advantage in sports,” the SOP stated.
The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) regulations, which forms the basis of the SOP, empowers an expert medical panel to determine if the athlete is eligible to compete in women’s competitions if she has androgen levels below the normal male range (i.e total testosterone in serum, where the normal male range is ≥10 nmol/L or a little over 3 ng/ml). The SOP however is stricter—it states that the serum testosterone level of the female athlete should be less than 2 ng/ml. This basis of testing has come under criticism from several quarters. “We don’t question natural advantage based on height or weight in other sports categories, so why do so on the basis of hormone levels?” asked Payoshni Mitra, a researcher in the field of gender in sports, who was consulted in the preparation of the SOP.
Mitra, who made a documentary in 2010 on athlete Santhi Soundarajan who was stripped off her silver at the Asian Games in Doha in 2006 after failing a gender test, said her recommendations to understand the issue of intersexuality from a cultural, ethical and personal point of view, instead of just a medical one were not heeded.
There are several ethical problems with such regulations, said Mitra. The test results have a confidentiality clause which is important, as it protects the athlete’s privacy, but it also masks all forms of potential malpractice. This was borne out in the case of athlete Pinki Pramanik, a gold winner at the 2006 Asian Games at Qatar, who was charged with rape by her roommate, and underwent the humiliating ordeal of imprisonment in the male ward of the jail. An MMS video of Pramanik undergoing the medical test went viral. The tests however confirmed that she is intersex.
The SOP also allow for female athletes to compete again, as long as their androgenic hormone levels are brought down to a stipulated level. This could be achieved through gonadectomy, the surgical removal of gonads, or prolonged hormone therapy. “This medical intervention has little to do with the health of the athlete, and more to do with her participation in competition. That is ethically problematic, as they don’t take into account the welfare of the athlete,” said Mitra. Hormone therapy also goes against sporting strictures against doping and use of steroids, or synthetically created hormones, she added. Given that most athletes belong to a lower socio-economic class—Chand is one of six siblings and her family is part of the weaver community in Gopalpur village in Odisha’s Jajpur district—there is little choice left to them when it comes to being treated medically for their condition.
The problem with gender verification tests also lies in their inconclusiveness. High level of testosterone in the body is not a sufficient indicator of masculinity. Contrary to popular understanding, there is no easy way to determine sex, and although different testing methods have been used—hair patterns, chromosome testing, and individual gene testing—none is perfect, Alice Dreger wrote in a newspaper article last year. Dreger is the author of Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex (1998).