The Burden of Proving Femininity in Athletics: Why Dutee Chand Should be Allowed to Compete

03/25/2015 06:25 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2015

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

Chand, a promising 19-year-old Indian athlete, was disqualified just days before the beginning of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in July 2014 after a medical test determined that levels of testosterone was above the "normal" limit set by IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) and IOC (International Olympic Committee) policies (you can access the IAAF policies here).

The assumption of the IAAF regulations is that hyperandrogenism -- a genetic variation where female individuals produce high levels of testosterone -- provides an unfair advantage and disrupts the level playing field.

This assumption is wrong.

There are plenty of other genetic variations that are not regulated by the IAAF and, even though advantageous for athletic performance, they are not considered unfair for competition. For example; endurance athletes have mitochondrial variations that increase aerobic capacity and endurance (for more examples, see the review by Ostrander at al 2009 or Pitsiladis 2013). Why aren't such genetic and biological variations considered unfair? Because it is part of what we think elite athletes are.

We think that excellence is achieved through the combination of natural talent -- biological and genetic variations -- and the efforts in training that the athlete puts forth to maximize what her talent offers. This is what makes sports completion valuable and admirable.

So then why is hyperandrogenism singled out? It is singled out as it challenges our deeply entrenched social beliefs of women in sport in a way that other variations do not.

Female athletes who do not conform to "normal" standards of femininity will be the targets for testing. There is an increasing pressure on women athletes to "perform femininity" (think of Flo Jo, who used to run with very long painted nails) to avoid having their gender call into question.

The burden of proof to perform femininity is on the athletes.

So is the burden of proof to demonstrate that the athlete does not benefit from the supposedly advantages of higher testosterone levels. The medicalization that IAAF recommended to Dutee Chand and to other athletes is unnecessary and places immense economic, psychological and physical burdens on athletes. There are many women out there affected by hyperandrogenism (polycystic ovaric syndrome is one of the conditions that causes it, and between 10-15 percent of women are affected) but they do not have to take androgen suppressive therapy or undergo surgeries, including feminizing plastic surgeries that are recommended by the regulations and that have nothing to do with levels of testosterone.

Finally, the burden of cost is on the athletes and their families for the treatment recommended by IAAF to get back on the track field. Such costs rest on the shoulders of the athletes or their families. According to the Indian Express, Dutee Chand has the financial support from the sports ministry of India for an appeal; otherwise she too would not have been able to appeal.

According to the IAAF Regulations, if Chand is able to reduce her androgen she will be allowed to resume international competition. She refused to do so and has appealed. Quoted in The New York Times in October 2014 she said: "I feel that it's wrong to have to change your body for sport participation. I'm not changing for anyone."

Her lawyer will probably follow the line of defense that there is no upper limit for testosterone in men, hence the regulations are unfair. This will be a risky line as the IAAF could get back and say that they are going to put up a higher threshold for men.

The IAAF is going to show data that suggests higher levels of testosterone provide an advantage. While the case is not proven, this line of argument will prove difficult, and ultimately, fall prey of the scientific experts.

That is why we need to adopt a different line of defense. Even if it were case proven 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 femininity in sport.

The IAAF is now faced with a disruptive dilemma. Either ban from competition all athletes who receive 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 attempting upholding the very opposite ideal of a level playing field.

You can follow Dutee Chand's case here.

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