Play Like a Girl, Woman!

Pinki Pramanik

The International Olympic Committee policy on female athletes with hyperandrogenism could result in a witch-hunt forcing an athlete to undergo invasive medical investigation based mostly on her appearance

By Payoshni Mitra

In his column named Serve and Volley in The Telegraph, Naresh Kumar, former Indian tennis player wrote on January 14, 2006:

“The saddest part about women’s tennis is the destruction of femininity. Most of the top notchers are six feet and over in height, and with the shoulders of a lumberjack and muscular bodies, they have an intimidating presence. Nature is distorted and pushed beyond limits by exercise regimes and diet supplements. Where, in nature, will you find bulging biceps coupled with ample breasts?”

These few lines sum up how most of the Indian sporting ‘fraternity’ looks at women’s sports. It is an aberration to have muscular bodies if you are a woman: six feet tall girls are intimidating and therefore, unacceptable; bulging biceps next to ample breasts are unnatural. With such a mindset, when our sport administrators come across athletes with intersex conditions, they not only struggle to tackle their issues but treat these athletes as anomalies, outcast them and then pretend they never existed.

We noticed this attitude when Santhi Soundarajan came back after the Doha Asian Games in 2006. In my documentary Y cant I run? Santhi talks about how she was suddenly looked at as ‘a cheater’. Footballer Bandana Pal was abandoned, not only by the concerned sport administrators but also disowned by her own family when the controversy about her sex was reported in Bengali newspapers about a decade back.

When Pinki Pramanik was arrested by the police in June this year, sport federations, officials, coaches and doctors were reluctant to comment initially. However, there was a noticeable shift in the way a section of the media (including vernacular press and TV channels) reported the cases – changing public perception and forcing sport governing body members and other concerned people to speak out and offer support to these athletes.

This was possible when some of us openly spoke in favour of Pinki Pramanik and Santhi Soundarajan and turned the focus on the ill-treatment of people considered different. However, the damage made was enormous. The utter failure of the state machinery, the audacity of the police in the way they violated Pinki’s rights again and again, the failure of the judiciary in comprehending the case, and the inefficiency and lack of knowledge about intersex conditions among medical practitioners were indicative of the lack of sensitivity and inadequacy within our society.

Pinki Pramanik’s case points to the fact that we still need to do a lot to be able to combat this maltreatment of athletes and non-athletes born different. When the debate about Pinki Pramanik’s ‘sex’ was getting unparalleled media attention in India, I was often asked about the so-called policy of ‘gender-verification’ in international sport.

The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had banned routine sex-testing for more than a decade. However, female athletes did not escape scrutiny so easily. Competing nations, participants and even medical officials at international and other tournaments continued to raise questions and force female athletes to go through sex-determining medical test.

Santhi Soundarajan and Caster Semenya are victims of such scrutiny. Even though, not much action was taken after Santhi Soundarajan’s medal was taken away, the IAAF was internationally criticised for the mismanagement of Caster Semenya’s case.  This forced the IAAF to rethink their policy on female athletes with hyperandrogenism. Eventually, before the London 2012 Olympics, both IAAF and IOC published new policies on female athletes with hyperandrogenism.

The current policies proclaim that atypically high levels of endogenous testosterone in women create an unfair advantage and therefore needs to be regulated. What is interesting is – on what basis would they conduct a test on hyperandrogenism? If it is not the athlete herself, or her national federation, who approach the IAAF Medical Manager for investigation, the Medical Manager’s reasonable grounds for belief in a case may be derived from any reliable source including a Doping Control Officer or information received by the IAAF Medical Delegate or other responsible medical official at a competition.

Such information is most likely to be dependent on an athlete’s appearance or performance. IAAF’s publication on regulations governing eligibility of females with hyperandrogenism to compete in women’s competition clearly states that:

“The difference in athletic performance between males and females is known to be predominantly due to higher levels of androgenic hormones in males resulting in increased strength and muscle development.

It is also known from experience that there are rare cases of young females competing in Athletics today who are affected by hyperandrogenism which, if the condition remains undiagnosed or neglected, can pose a risk to health. Despite the rarity of such cases, their emergence from time to time at the highest level of women’s competition in Athletics has proved to be controversial since the individuals concerned display masculine traits and have an uncommon athletic capacity in relation to their fellow female competitors.”

This above section should ring an alarm. It is clear that female athletes with powerful physiques will be subjected to unprecedented scrutiny as a result of such policies. The detailed list of medical guidelines, mentioned in the IAAF regulations, only reinstates stereotypes about how a woman should look. This is particularly disturbing because elite female athletes are fitter, muscular and more powerful than most female non-athletes and therefore, such policies will force female athletes to try and conform to a stereotype in order to avoid severe scrutiny and humiliation (as have been noticed in Semenya’s case).

Also, the IAAF policy makes an assumption that those who display what they term as ‘masculine traits’ will have an uncommon athletic capacity in relation to their fellow female competitors. If this was true, Santhi Soundarajan would have won the gold in Doha Asian Games beating Maryam Yusuf Jamal by a margin and Caster Semenya would have held the world record for women’s 800m by now. This makes it clear that these policy-makers are making an assumption on the basis of appearance of these athletes. Besides, the over-emphasis on hyperandrogenism and considering one’s naturally produced androgen as giving one an unfair advantage are debatable too.

Why are they so obsessed with this notion of ‘unfair advantage’ in women’s sports?

The sport governing bodies like the IOC and the IAAF are made of people (mainly men) who are no superior in intellect, sensibility or sensitivity, to our own Mr. Naresh Kumar quoted in the very beginning of this article. They are mostly absolutely incompetent men trying their best to make sure that the gap between the physical potential of men and women are never bridged. Their most recent attempt at achieving this is through their policy on female athletes with hyperandrogenism.

What concerns one the most, is the way the Indian sport administrators look at these IOC/IAAF policies as supreme and indisputable. Given that the IOC policy clearly bestows the duty to the national governing bodies to make sure that athletes with hyperandrogenism are treated and taken care of before they are sent to represent their respective countries in international tournaments, female athletes in India are likely to go through inspection as never before at a national level too.

There is also a common tendency to uncritically follow recommendations made by medical scientists. Scientists have critiqued medical science’s bias on women over the years. Research on intersex conditions is still insufficient. There is no adequate scientific evidence to support the notion that endogenous testosterone levels confer athletic advantage in any certain way.

Internationally, Professor Rebecca Jordan-Young, a socio-medical scientist from Barnard College and Dr. Katrina Karkazis, an anthropologist and bioethicist from Stanford University are campaigning against this policy and are demanding that it should be withdrawn. We in India must work towards protecting the rights of female athletes who are at the risk of undergoing increased scrutiny, exploitation and forceful medical treatment that may include hormone therapy and in some cases gonadectomy.

Featured Photo Courtesy: Mirror UK

Payoshni Mitra is an independent sports research consultant living in UK. As an activist-cum-researcher, Payoshni is closely working with some female athletes (with intersex conditions) in India in their fight for justice.


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