by Arthur L. Caplan & Lee H. Igel
NYU Sports & Society Program
Dutee Chand can keep up with some of the fastest sprinters in the world of competitive track and field. Born in India to a family of poor weavers, the 18 year-old has already been a national champion in her home country and medaled in international events. But, as of now, she won’t be collecting any more medals. She won’t be given the opportunity to compete. Why? She has too much testosterone, the “male hormone,” in her system. But it’s not the type of testosterone you think.
The results of medical tests administered to Chand just prior to this summer’s 2014 Commonwealth Games led to her being ruled ineligible to compete. She was quickly dropped from the squad. Now, she has been disqualified from all international track and field competition under International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) medical policies, specifically those covering hyperandrogenism regulations for elite female athletes. Her disqualification ought to be reversed.
It is understandable that sports governing bodies want to ensure as level a playing field as is reasonably possible. Without striving to do so, competition becomes meaningless and the key point of sports disappears. But a female athlete who is born and lives with a naturally high testosterone level is not the same as one who is injecting herself full of the synthetic stuff to gain an edge.
The IAAF regulations are based on a confusion and a false assumption. If you are born a woman with high testosterone, you are not cheating; you have just been dealt a hand that you can play with. It is no different from being born with a genetic advantage in terms of eyesight or fast-twitch muscle fibers.
The false assumption is that the greater the amount of natural testosterone coursing through an athlete’s body, the greater the “unfair” advantage the high-testosterone athlete has over competitors with lower levels. But a panel of medical researchers from key organizations and institutions, including the IAAF Medical and Anti-Doping Department and Commission, published a report earlier this year that concluded “there is no clear scientific evidence proving that a high level of testosterone is a significant determinant of performance in female sports.” The study also found that policies such as the one the IAAF has in place are designed around “arbitrary definitions” of what it means to be “female.”
Chand is challenging the IAAF policy. Good for her—and all of us—because the option she is being offered to continue her ability to compete is unethical. She is being pressed to undergo medical intervention to reduce her testosterone level to an “allowable” amount.
According to the British Medical Journal, this type of medical intervention includes surgical procedures that have little to do with improving a woman’s health. Surgery to alter sexual organs may harm sexual function. And hormone-suppressive drugs have risky side effects with potentially lifelong health risks.
What makes disqualifying female athletes like Dutee Chand even worse is that the IAAF policy not only confuses doping with biological luck, disregards medical science, and asks women to undergo medical intervention that does nothing for their overall health, but it also shames women who are born with intersex traits. It forces them to decide between undergoing unwarranted, uncomfortable, risky, and expensive medical treatments or being publicly disparaged as insufficiently feminine. Nothing about this is consistent with the spirit of sports.
Being born a certain way, such as with a naturally high testosterone level, does not by itself create an unfair advantage. If it does, what are the IAAF and other sport governing bodies going to do for the growth hormone-deficient 5’2 inch male basketball player who is pitted against a 7’1 inch opponent? Should men with the lowest testosterone measurements be told they cannot compete in ice-dancing at the next Olympics? What about kicking out men who are naturally at the high end of the testosterone spectrum from boxing, wrestling, and ice hockey? The stigmatizing nature of those questions shows that the IAAF decision is sexist, unscientific, and misguided.
Let Dutee Chand run.
Arthur L. Caplan, PhD, is the Drs. William F. and Virginia Connolly Mitty Professor and head of the Division of Bioethics at New York University Langone Medical Center. Lee H. Igel, PhD, is associate professor in the Tisch Institute at New York University. Both are affiliated with NYU’s Sports and Society Program.