After spending a year on the fringes of the game, challenging her ban based on “sex verification tests”, Dutee Chand is at Rio, on her terms. Author Roopa Pai chronicles her journey.
(Published with permission from Roopa Pai, who first wrote this post on her Facebook wall. Photos courtesy Dutee’s Facebook page)
Hyperandrogenism is a big, powerful word. Big because of its six and a half syllables, powerful because of its ability to start heated and emotional debates about sex, gender, sports, identity, fairness and equality. But you wouldn’t guess at its power from its dictionary definition, which merely states that it is a medical condition characterised by excessive levels of androgen, indicated most clearly by the amount of testosterone in a woman’s body. It is one of the primary symptoms of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), and 1 in every 7 women between the ages of 15 and 30 suffers from it. In other words, hyperandrogenism is pretty common.
Except on the sports field.
In the summer of 2009, at the world championships in Berlin, an 18-year-old athlete from South Africa called Caster Semenya burst into the limelight, winning gold in the 800 m against a far more experienced field. Murmurs began immediately after about her muscled build and deep voice, and the unfairness of allowing her to compete against other women. Bowing to the pressure, the IAAF (International Associations of Athletic Federations) ran a series of ‘sex verification tests’ on Caster, before they cleared her for competition several months later. In 2011, the IAAF, contending that high levels of testosterone conferred a biological advantage on female athletes – it is believed to help build muscle and make athletes faster – ruled that a female athlete would be eligible to compete against other women “provided that she has androgen levels below the male range.”
In London 2012, her country gave Caster, whose testosterone levels were within the required limit, the honour of leading the South African contingent in the opening parade of the Games. She won silver at the 800 m. This year, at Rio, Caster is expected to bring home the gold.
But let’s stay in 2012 for a bit. A few thousand kilometres away from London, a few days before the Olympics opened, history of a different kind was being made at the National Youth Junior Athletics Championships in Bangalore. 16-year-old Dutee Chand from Odisha broke the junior national record in the 100 m with a timing of 11.8 seconds, becoming India’s new sprint star. Other successes followed quickly – she became the first Indian sprinter to reach the finals of the World Youth Championships, and the senior national champion in both the 100m and the 200m. In June 2014, she won gold in both her favourite events at the Asian Junior Championships – again a first for an Indian athlete. Then, just when it seemed that nothing could go wrong for her, disaster struck. In early July, two weeks before the Commonwealth Games were due to begin, Dutee was informed that she would not be going. She was also banned from competing for an indefinite period of time. Based on blood tests conducted by the Athletics Federation of India, Dutee had been found to be afflicted with hyperandrogenism – and as such, was not eligible to participate in the Games.
Completely shattered, not to mention depressed and humiliated, the 18-year-old national sprint champion considered her options. She could either quit sport, or submit to surgery and / or medication that would bring her testosterone levels down. Neither appealed to Dutee. In fact, both options made her mad. Unlike athletes disqualified for doping, which was illegal, she had done nothing wrong. What she had was a completely natural condition, and no one had the right to stop her from doing what she loved best – running for her country. On behalf of every woman athlete with her condition, she decided to challenge the IAAF’s ceiling on the permissible amounts of testosterone in the Court of Arbitration for Sport, in Switzerland.
India’s legal eagles, social activists, gender activists, the sports ministry, and various sports authorities, including the very Athletics Federation of India who had handed her the ban, rallied around Dutee. Gender and athlete-rights activist Dr Payoshni Mitra took on the job of Dutee’s mentor. International experts were brought in, and a Canadian law firm took up the case, pro bono. Their lawyers challenged the ‘bad science’ and the biological racism inherent in the IAAF ruling. Why was it okay, they argued, to penalise this particular kind of biological advantage, while others, like 22-times- Olympic-gold winner Michael Phelps’ extraordinary wingspan or Usain Bolt’s unusually long legs, both of which gave them an equally ‘unfair’ advantage, were celebrated? What proof existed that testosterone levels alone conferred an advantage, and how much of an advantage was it? How come male athletes were never tested for their testosterone levels?
On 25th July 2015, in a landmark judgment, the court overturned Dutee’s ban and ruled that the ceiling on testosterone levels would be suspended for two years, while the IAAF gathered proof to support their claims of testosterone-linked biological advantage. Dutee had lost a year of competing internationally, but the Rio Olympics lay tantalisingly in the centre of the two-year window. All she had to do now was qualify for it. It was a tough ask – no other Indian woman had qualified for the 100 m sprint before or after PT Usha in 1980, 16 years before Dutee was born – but she was going to give it everything she had.
In February this year, at the National Athletics Championships, Dutee clocked 11.33 seconds in the 100m, beating a 16-year-old national record. But it was one-hundredth of a second behind the qualifying time for Rio – 11.32. She had one last chance to make it before qualifications closed – at an international sports meet in Kazakhstan in late June. On 25th June, Dutee ran the races of her life, breaking her own national record not once but twice, ending up with a never-before timing of 11.24. She had made it through, and in style.
At 7 am IST today, Dutee Chand will run the 100 m heats at the Olympic stadium in Rio. She may never make it to the final eight, but it will not matter. Just the knowledge that it was this 20-year-old valiant who forced the world to reflect on its biases, challenged the notion of who we really are as humans, and refused to take no for an answer, will be enough.
(About the author: History buff, computer engineer and writer, Roopa Pai has lived, worked, and travelled in three continents, writing for some of India’s best known publications. She has written over 20 books, which include the 8-part fantasy-adventure series Taranauts for kids, bestseller The Gita for Children and a biography of Chanakya—The Master Statesman for adults. She also has an alternate career as a tour guide with BangaloreWalks, a heritage walks and tours company.)