My commentary on Dutee Chand’s case: When is it fair to be a woman in athletic competition?

The hearing of Dutee Chand is currently underway at the Court for Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne.

Dutee Chand

Dutee Chand

Dutee Chand (19 yo) was disqualified just days before the beginning of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in July 2014 after a medical test determined that her androgen level was above the “normal” limit set by IAAF and IOC policies of 10 nmol/lit. According to the IAAF Regulations (May 2011, link) if Chand is able to reduce her androgen levels to fall within the normal testing range, she will be allowed to resume international competition. She refused to do so and appeal.

The assumption of the IAAF regulations is that hyperandrogenism/testosterone confers an unfair advantage and disrupts the level playing field.

I provided some commentary on Dutee Chand’s appeal for BBC World News Hour on Monday, March 23rd. You can listen to the clip here.

I also participated in a debate on BBC World Service Have Your Say last night. The podcast is available here.

Here’s in brief what I think about the case:

Even if it were case proven (and it is not) that higher levels of androgens provided an advantage, that would not imply that it were unfair. In other words, we do not care whether testosterone provides an advantage or not, we care whether that advantage is unfair. And to demonstrate that it is not we reflect on bigger questions, such as the meaning of athletic excellence, and gender and performing feminity in sport.

We think that exceptional biological and genetic variations are considered part of what the elite athlete is, and of what makes sports completion valuable and admirable: achieving excellence through the combination of talent – the natural endowment of the athlete- and dedication – the efforts in training and preparation that the athlete put forth to maximize what her talent offers. That is we, together with the governing bodies of athletics, do not consider unfair many other genetic variation many other biological and genetic variations which confer an advantage in sport. For example, endurance athletes have mitochondrial vairations that increase aerobic capacity and endurance. More genetic variations and polymorphisms in the genetic basis of sport performance are unravelled as we speak. Why aren’t such genetic and biological variations consider unfair? Because it is part of what we think elite athletes are. The level playing field in competition, which is one of the arguments that is going to be used to upheld the IAAF regulations in the courtoom, does not exist. It is a myth.

 Why is hyperandrogenism singled out? It is only one of these variations. I argue that it is singled out as it challenges deeply entrenched social beliefs of women in sport in a way that other variations do not.

I argue that the IAAF/IOC are now faced with a disruptive dilemma: Either ban from competition all athletes who derive an advantage from biological variations, or let everybody who is “out of the ordinary,” compete, athletes with hyperandrogenism included.

If they do not do so and uphold their regulations, they will stand to create many levels of unfairness while upholding the very opposite fairness ideal.

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