The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) has been accused of sexism and racism for its new regulations applicable to female athletes. According to the new rules, female athletes will be allowed to participate in women's athletic events, from 400m to the mile, only if they meet certain criteria.
The IAAF classifies female athletes who are "androgen-sensitive" and have circulating testosterone levels above five (5) nmol/L (nanomole/litre) as "DSD", which stands for "Difference of Sexual Development". Athletes who fall in this category will be deemed eligible to participate in Restricted Events in an International Competition (or set a World Record in a Restricted event at a competition that is not an International Competition) only if they meet the following conditions:
(a) she must be recognised by law either as female or as intersex (or equivalent);
(b) she must reduce her blood testosterone level to below five (5) nmol/L for a continuous period of at least six months (e.g., by use of hormonal contraceptives); and
(c) thereafter she must maintain her blood testosterone level below five (5) nmol/L continuously (ie: whether she is in competition or out of competition) for so long as she wishes to remain eligible.
It is widely believed that the new rules have been formulated specifically to target South African athlete Caster Semenya, the current 800m Olympic champion. Caster has been subjected to unfair scrutiny ever since 2009, when she dominated the track and field events for that distance and won by more than 2 seconds.
'Too much' testosterone?
This is not for the first time that female athletes with naturally occurring hyperandrogenism, a condition in which they have higher testosterone levels than the average woman, have been targeted.
In 2014, India's Dutee Chand was dropped from the 2014 Commonwealth Games after the Athletics Federation of India stated that she couldn't participate in women's events because of her hyperandrogenism.
Commenting on the IAAF's new regulations, Dutee tells TNM, "The rule is very wrong. Hyperandrogenism is natural, god-given. We were born this way, we have not done anything to our body to change it. So what can we do about it? How can we change it?"
Dutee fought back in 2014 and the Indian government went to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) on her behalf. In 2015, the CAS suspended the hyperandrogenism regulation for two years, stating that there was insufficient evidence to support the assertion that female athletes with the condition enjoyed a special advantage.
"The new rule is for the 400m and 800m events, and my events are 100m and 200m, so I will not be affected by the rule, but there are others like Caster Semenya who will be affected. I am very saddened by this," she says.
Even though the new rules are not applicable to her, Dutee has already reached out to Caster.
"Yes, I have written to Caster Semenya on email and offered her my support. I have told her that I had some of the best legal minds on this issue in my team, and that they can help her," she adds.
Questioning the IAAF's decision to deem hyperandrogenism alone as an unfair advantage, Dutee says, "It is true that several players from certain countries also grow naturally to be much taller and stronger than we are. We have worked as hard as they have, but they might win because of the way their bodies are. Can we ask them to control that? Don't we compete with them?"
Noris Pritam, a senior journalist who has covered athletics for several decades and followed the Dutee Chand case closely, said, "Without going into the medical jargon and technicalities of this issue, the basic tenet of sport is that you offer an even platform for everyone to compete. No one should get an undue advantage."
Noris goes on to explain why hyperandrogenism has led to so much controversy in recent years: "The problem with cases like Dutee Chand - and hers is not the first case, there were several cases earlier but we did not have the technology to look into this - is that on one hand, an athlete can ask why should she be penalised for being born a certain way, and on the other hand, her competitor can ask why should I compete with someone who is not equal to me. This conflict is not going to end anytime soon, and we will have to figure out a way to resolve it."
What about the men?
Addressing the outrage over its new regulations, the IAAF put out a series of tweets clarifying their stance.
â€œHistorically, the reason we have separate male and female categories is that otherwise females wouldn't win medals. Testosterone is the most important factor in explaining the difference. Some females compete with levels similar to males - 20 or 25nmol/L - so very high," the IAAF said.
However, the IAAF does not have any such conditions for testosterone levels in men. This means that men with low testosterone levels and men with elevated levels of the same hormone can compete in the same events.
Female athletes, on the other hand, have to take medication to reduce their testosterone levels.
Asked if this was fair, Noris says, "No, it is not. That way, one can also say that countries like the US and Germany have far better living standards. Their athletes get the best training and food. Can poor countries and their athletes say that they won't compete with them?"
He goes on to assert that any kind of intervention or action should happen only if the testosterone levels have been manipulated, and not if it is a natural occurrence.
However, the IAAF justified allegations of sexism by stating that there are many athletes with DSD and that the number of 'intersex athletes' is 140 times more than what is found in the "normal" female population.
Historically the reason we have separate male and female categories is that otherwise females wouldn't win medals. Testosterone is the most important factor in explaining the difference. Some females compete with levels similar to males - 20 or 25nmol/L - so very high.â€” IAAF (@iaaforg) April 26, 2018
The rule is neither racist nor sexist. The sport has a lot of athletes with DSD. It is not just the one or two females you hear about in the media. In elite female athletics, the number of intersex athletes is 140 times more than you might find in the normal female population.â€” IAAF (@iaaforg) April 26, 2018
Though there were social media users who questioned why athletes like Michael Phelps, who also enjoy biological advantages, were not similarly targeted, the IAAF did not respond. The focus remains on female athletes who, they feel, are too much "like men" to contest in women's events but "not men" to participate in men's events.
Allegations of racism
Several people have accused the IAAF of racism because the new rules appear to be targeting Caster. While Dutee does not believe that the IAAF is racist, she is unhappy with the new rules.
"I don't think the IAAF is targeting a few countries only by this action, there is hyperandrogenism in all countries of the world," she points out.
However, she's unsure about why this debate has started once again.
"They have already tried to implement this rule once in the 100m, 200m events, and failed because I fought back. I don't know why they are trying this again in the other events. Only they can explain why they are trying again," she says.
Noris, too, does not believe the IAAF is a racist body. However, he feels the new regulations are unfair.
"I am sure there is no racism in this, I have known officials of IAAF for several years. But yes, there is a better way of doing this," he acknowledges.
(With inputs from Ramanathan Subramanian)