The sporting world is roiled by yet another controversy. This time, it hinges on gender. The world athletics body has come up with a sensational announcement that bars women middle distance athletes with high testosterone levels from competing at official events. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) also said that those unwilling to adhere to the new rule, which comes into effect from November 1, can compete in the men’s or intersex category.
As per the new rule, women athletes whose levels of circulating testosterone (in serum) is up to five nanomoles per litre can compete in ‘international competitions’; anything above that mark would automatically disqualify them from events between 400m and 1,500m, including the hurdles and combined events. However, they can reduce their testosterone levels by taking pills or undergoing surgery to be able to compete. The Sebestian Coe-headed IAAF justifies its move by saying that it wants to provide a level playing field to all athletes. The new clause doesn’t affect sprinters (100m and 200m) and longer distance runners (beyond 1,500m).
It is widely believed, more so in South Africa, that the IAAF brought about the new rule with the single-point agenda to target multiple 800m Olympic and world champion, 27-year-old Mokgadi Caster Semenya. Soon after the IAAF announcement, the entire country—from Parliament to the African National Congress (ANC)—was burning with outrage. The South African sports minister described the ruling diabolical; the ANC called it “blatantly racist”.
The IAAF rule is being excoriated globally by athletes and experts. An IAAF official quit in protest.
Interestingly, an Indian, star sprinter Dutee Chand, is behind the promulgation of new rule, though completely inadvertently. In 2014, the IAAF barred Dutee for hyperandrogenism—a condition in which a woman produces excess male sex hormones like testosterone—and the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) promptly dropped her just before the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Frustrated, Dutee moved the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), the highest judicial forum in sports. In April 2015, the CAS ruled in favour of the pint-sized Orrisa athlete, suspending the IAAF’s regulations. The CAS also told the IAAF to do more research on hyperandrogenism and gave it two years to complete it. Now, IAAF has come up with the findings of a research and tweaked its rules for athletes with a Difference of Sexual Development (DSD), as it chose to define them. Significantly, IAAF has kept sprinters out of the regulations, thus making Dutee free to run in 100m and 200m, her pet events.
The issue has attracted little reaction in India, simply because no current athlete is apparently affected by the new development, and the AFI has accepted the ruling obediently. “We have to follow the IAAF rules as we [AFI] are a member of the world body. It’s our responsibility to obey IAAF rules. It’s a very sensitive issue and we can’t comment on it. We don’t have any problem with it [new stipulations],” AFI secretary Cuddi Kotta Valson tells Outlook.
But senior AFI coaches claim that there are a few athletes who might be having high testosterone levels and that they might be affected once the IAAF stipulation comes into effect. “There are a few girls suspected to be having high testosterone levels; you can make out from their faces. Particularly, there are two 400m athletes—one from the Northeast, the other from a western state—who seem to have this advantage. Both compete at the international level and have rapidly improved their timings. They would be able to compete at the Asian Games in August-September, but they may come under the scanner from November 1,” a senior coach tells Outlook. He said such athletes are at a distinct advantage when they compete with ‘normal’ girls, for whom this is an ‘injustice’.
There have been a few contentious gender cases in India as well. Shanti Soundarajan, who specialised in 800m and 1500m races, and the 400m and 800m exponent Pinki Pramanik, were two athletes caught up in this troubling issue. At the global level also, there have been a few, going back decades.
The IAAF pronouncement has faced global criticism, with even White athletes/gender experts protesting in unison. An IAAF disciplinary tribunal member has also quit over the ‘objectionable’ rule change as a mark of protest. “The adoption of the new eligibility regulations for female classification is based on the same kind of ideology that has led to some of the worst injustices and atrocities in history,” says law professor Steve Cornelius, a White South African.
The new stipulation has not included the sprints, probably to avoid another potential reversal at the hands of the CAS. Also, in a smart move, the IAAF has not used the word ‘ban’, saying disqualified athletes under the new rule can still compete in distances longer then 1500m, in intersex events or in men’s categories. If the disqualified women want to compete between 400m and 1500m races, they will have to reduce their blood testosterone level by use of hormonal contraceptives etc—and maintain that for a continuous period of at least six months, the IAAF has said.
Dutee is free, but she feels for athletes like her ‘friend’ Semenya, who would be impacted. “The new rule doesn’t affect me. But I feel sad for those who may find it difficult. I successfully moved CAS against IAAF/AFI and CAS allowed me to compete. Similarly, if tomorrow someone who runs any race between 400m and 1500m complains against the new rule [to CAS], they may change this new rule as well,” an optimistic Dutee tells Outlook from Hyderabad, where she is attending a preparatory camp.
Sprinter Pinki Pramanik, who was embroiled in a gender case in 2012, but made a comeback in 2016
However, Dutee doesn’t rule out switching to longer distances. “I’ve done 400m at the junior level, besides the 100m and 200m. Now I am focussing on 100m. But I am not saying I will always do 100m and 200m. If tomorrow my body tells me to go for 400m, I will do that, even if that means challenging this new IAAF rule—there would be no problem on that issue,” says the 22-year-old athlete. Dutee may be inspired by the legendary P.T. Usha. After making a mark in 100m races, Usha switched to 400m hurdles and performed better, narrowly missing an Olympic medal in 1984.
Ashok Ahuja, a former head of Sports Medicine and Sciences, National Institute of Sports, Patiala, is among the experts unconvinced with the study on which IAAF has based its new ruling. “I’ve gone through the whole thing, and am not very happy with the ruling because it was a very limited study, not a global one, and also because the new rule will be followed in some events only. It was done because IAAF was keen to put up whatever results they could get [from the research] to the CAS for the Dutee Chand case. Sports scientists in different countries are also unhappy with the ruling,” he says.
P.S.M. Chandran, a member of National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA), and resource person for NADA anti-doping education programme, raises pertinent questions. “It’s an absurd ruling. I am shocked. It will open a Pandora’s box. It is because hormone levels don’t remain the same everyday in a person, much like body temperature. To kill a rat, you don’t burn down the house,” he stresses.
Ahuja, who defended Shanti Sundarajan when she was thrown out of the Asian Games Village in Doha 2006 for failing a gender test, questions the very premise that testosterone alone helps an athlete’s performance. “We’ve to see this issue in a larger perspective. Such ad hoc decisions have been made earlier also, by the International Olympic Committee and by the IAAF, right from the time gender tests were started. We do not believe that testosterone alone helps athletes’ improve performance; there are so many other parameters and inputs...,” he argues.
Sports medicine experts question the premise that testosterone, which fluctuates in a person’s body, alone helps performance.
There are many other unanswered questions staring the IAAF in the face: How is the world body going to implement the new rule, as testosterone levels always fluctuate in a person’s body? Is the world body going to screen all athletes all the time to determine who has crossed the testosterone levels before a race? Will the IAAF make it mandatory for all participants to get their testosterone levels checked and produce certificates? If that is going to be so, will the athletes have to produce the certificates on the day of the race, or a day before that, or a week before that, or....?
Indubitably, many more questions would be thrown at the IAAF by Semenya and her legal team. Support for her is growing fast—not only in South Africa but in other parts of world. Even Dutee, in solidarity, has offered “legal assistance” to Semenya, who won the Olympic gold in 800m in 2012 and 2016, and another medal of the same hue in 800m and 1500m at the recently concluded Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia, besides numerous other accolades.
There is also a talk of approaching the human rights commission or even the United Nations over the IAAF rule, which questions the God-given physical make-up of a person. Of course, hormone-reducing pills and surgery are the options. But it’s also a matter of debate whether having naturally high testosterone can be compared to cheating.
So far, Semenya has not made any statement; but she has been writing telling tweets. One such loaded tweet read: “How beautiful it is to stay silent when someone expects you to be enraged.” Another sharp one said: “Opinions aren’t facts. Stop worrying about what people think about you.”
But sooner rather than later, either Semenya or her supporters—which include the South African athletics body and politicians—will surely make a move to address the thorny issue. Truth to tell, the real protests have already started, with Professor Cornelius’s stinging rebuke setting the ball rolling. Expect stronger cries of indignation in the days and months to come.