Dutee Chand. Photo: Manjunath Kiran/AFP
Dutee Chand. Photo: Manjunath Kiran/AFP

Dutee and a level playing field

Dutee Chand's case and how it was fought shows us more about international athletics than it would want to be revealed

When the awe-inspiring case of Dutee Chand reached its most significant moment through the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Lausanne, Switzerland, last week, a few thoughts took off on their own.

Who could have imagined in the past—hell, what past, as recently as about 10 years ago—an Indian woman athlete taking on the International Association of Athletics Federations (Iaaf) with the full backing of the government, an army of gender studies researchers and lawyers from several corners of the world on her side. In Indian sport, the very act of taking on officialdom at a formal level was considered heresy not so long ago.

Normally CAS disputes are of a “commercial" or “disciplinary" nature. So, usually they pertain to anti-doping decisions, prize money distribution or suspensions due to bad conduct and consequences thereof. Chand’s case is extraordinary because it questioned a controversial if established sporting regulation, pertaining to hypoandrogenism, which prevented her from competing.

The CAS’ interim award in this science-based dispute also threw light on another side of the hypoandrogenism debate. Iaaf’s expert witness, Stéphane Bermon, informed CAS that “undeveloped countries tended to have more elite athletes with certain DSDs (disorders of sex development) than developed countries". His reason was that “DSD conditions were less likely to be diagnosed at an early stage in undeveloped countries".

Bruce Kidd, a former athlete and vice-president of Canada’s University of Toronto, had earlier written to the Sports Authority of India (SAI) in support of Chand, saying the hypoandrogenism tests had “only been used against women from developing countries". A French endocrinological study, published in 2013 by Patrick Fenichel and colleagues, tested four female athletes, with rumoured but unverified associations with the London 2012 Olympics, for “unsuspected" DSD. These athletes belonged to “rural or mountainous regions of developing countries". The study, published in the Journal Of Clinical Endocrinology And Metabolism, stated that it was possible these “gender abnormalities" were neither “formally diagnosed nor given medical attention because they (the athletes) had been born in rural regions of countries with poor care."

These are startling admissions, given what Iaaf then suggests athletes with hypoandrogenism do: “corrective" surgery or hormone treatment, both of which have medical and psychological consequences.

It is what Chand refused to do.

Payoshni Mitra, an expert in gender issues in sport who testified for her in Lausanne, believes this “solution" for athletic hypoandrogenism is accompanied by “an element of coercion". Iaaf’s drive towards “corrective" measures against hypoandrogenism is based on neither science nor logic. Mitra, who currently heads a Union sports ministry-funded research project on gender-based discrimination in Indian sport, says: “You are asking athletes who never had any complaints or issues with their health to go to a doctor. The only time this is forced on them is if they want to participate in a sports event."

What the hypoandrogenism regulation appears to do is this: Female athletes from poorer nations are being singled out and pushed or “advised", on the basis of unscientific evidence, to undergo surgery or hormone treatment as their golden ticket to competition at the highest level. Differences in gender, class and race are played out in this single regulation. To think that it was even put into place in the 21st century is staggering.

A second thought vis-à-vis Chand’s case concerned the statement given by world women’s marathon champion Paula Radcliffe, one of those who testified on behalf of Iaaf. Radcliffe is a long-distance record holder of humongous range; she holds the women’s world record for the marathon and the 10k (road, not track), is a six-time world champion, and has won the London and New York marathons three times each, and the Chicago marathon once. She holds the record for the two fastest times in the women’s marathon, records which have stood for more than a decade.

I heard Radcliffe speak in November in New Delhi at an event called “Beyond The Finish Line", which chronicled the narratives of women in Indian sport. Radcliffe, an ambassador for the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon, talked about her experiences as a female athlete. She remembers winning the first 10-mile road race she competed in, at the age of 16. The male winner was given a wide-screen TV while she won a table lamp. Instantly, she thought, “That’s not fair". Radcliffe said it required athletes to challenge long-entrenched habits and “level the playing field".

This is exactly what Chand wants to do. To hear Radcliffe challenge that as Iaaf’s most celebrated witness at Lausanne was befuddling. I went back to the 161-page award to double-check what she had said. She appears on page 98, with references made to her witness statement of January and her oral evidence through video link.

She said it was important that a “line be drawn somewhere" and said that it was “not possible" for a person without DSD to have natural testosterone levels above the limit set in Iaaf’s hypoandrogenism regulations. All the while stating that she was not a scientist.

Radcliffe’s presence on the association’s side was laced with a healthy slathering of irony. In her own running career, which ended with the April London marathon, she has found herself at the pointy end of the one-rule-for-men, one-rule-for-women stick. In August 2011, Iaaf ruled that Radcliffe’s two fastest marathon times, set in Chicago in October 2002 and London in April 2003, could not be cited as “world records" because they were set as she ran alongside male “pacers".

A women’s record, Iaaf said, had to be set only in women’s-only events. Radcliffe’s argument was that she ran alongside the men, competing with them, and that it was she who clocked 2:15:25 in London and 2:17:18 in Chicago, not the men. Her sponsors Nike ran a campaign, History Stands, and in October, Radcliffe called the rule “unfair".

In November, Iaaf changed its mind. Radcliffe kept her records but in the much-confused future, road-racing records would only be recognized if they were set in all-women events.

It doesn’t add up: Radcliffe was in danger of having her best performances turned into ciphers on the grounds of the amorphous, unscientifically proven “unfair advantage" of running alongside men. Four years later, she was arguing in favour of an amorphous, unscientifically proven “unfair advantage" against another female athlete.

Keeping aside the level playing field, science and gender issues, maybe Chand’s case and how it was fought shows us more about international athletics than it would want to be revealed.

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at Espncricinfo.

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