Dutee Chand is an 18-year-old sprinter from India. She was on the roster for July’s Commonwealth Games until somebody at June’s Asian Junior Athletics Championship requested that she be tested for hyperandrogenism. Those tests revealed Chand to have a naturally occurring high testosterone level and she has been banned from competition.
BL: What has Chand been told she needs to do to return to competition and why has she said she will not do it?
JM: Basically, by the rules of the International [Association of] Athletics Federations (IAAF), which is under the umbrella of the International Olympic Committee, they say that her testosterone levels have to be just below, or way below, what they call the “male level.” And to do that, she has to take either hormone-suppressing drugs or have surgery to have her body stop producing the testosterone.
BL: And she has said she will not do that.
JM: She was basically shocked that anyone would ask her to change for sports, that people would actually say the body that you were born with is not enough, we need you to change this and that. And what she considers her natural advantage, perhaps, is something that needs to be changed. So even as an 18-year-old, she’s pretty confident that she won’t change for anybody, and that’s why she’s taking this case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), which is basically the Supreme Court in the sports world.
BL: Athletes such as South Africa’s Caster Semenya have reportedly undergone treatment to fit the international standard. Chand might have made the same choice if not for Payoshni Mitra, a researcher and activist on gender and sports. What did Mitra do when she learned of Chand’s case?
JM: Payoshni Mitra took a train and a bus and anything she could to get to Dutee Chand’s side and say, “Listen, you don’t have to go through this surgery or you don’t have to take these drugs. You can fight this.” And in many cases, the athlete hasn’t had these advocates. That’s why we haven’t heard about them in the news, they haven’t complained about it.
BL: The IAAF, which is track and field’s governing body, uses testosterone levels to determine whether an athlete is considered a female. What are the limits of that rule?
JM: I just want to make sure that this is said correctly. It’s not actually a gender test; they’re not saying that you’re a female or you’re a male. Those tests, because of what happened to Caster Semenya, were thrown out because the Caster Semenya case was a disaster. It embarrassed her, it really embarrassed the IAAF. They actually have done away with it and went to this testosterone testing. And basically they’re saying, “You have too much testosterone to compete as a woman.”
This is really one of the most complicated issues I’ve ever written about. There’s so many nuances to it, they’re not saying that she’s not a woman, but she can’t compete with other women, which sounds actually quite nonsensical when you think about it.
BL: Hyperandrogenism is relatively rare in the general population. But it’s found in seven out of every 1000 female elite track athletes, most of whom quietly have surgery or leave sports altogether. But a study released last year found that those who chose surgery are also undergoing treatment which has nothing to do with their testosterone levels. What’s that all about?
JM: Exactly — actually a lot of people involved in this case, whether it’s the sports world or the advocates for people like Dutee Chand were shocked when they saw this study that came out about four athletes who were identified at the 2012 London Olympics for having hyperandrogenism. Basically they were whisked away to one of these clinics in France. And not only did they end up getting surgery, but they also got basically plastic surgery of their genital area to make them look more like women. And of course that had nothing to do with their high testosterone levels at all.
People are saying this has gone way too far. Dutee Chand is certainly proud of how she was born, and they might be able to make her lower her testosterone level but they don’t have to suggest plastic surgery to make her look more like a stereotypical woman.
BL: Chand has asked the CAS to review her case, and in your story for the New York Times, you question whether the body can come to a fair decision. So I’m going to put you on the spot: Is there any solution that could be considered fair to all involved and by all involved?
JM: [Laughing] Thanks a lot. I’m really, really interested in following this case because I don’t know what the answer is. And in fact some of these scientists don’t know what the answer is. Who is a woman and who is a man isn’t as easy as we think it is, especially when it comes to sports. And I’m glad it’s the CAS and not me deciding where to make that line. I’m not even sure if it’s possible to make that line.