Sunday, August 03, 2014

Boy, girl or super athlete?

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, August 3, 2014

Dutee Chand. Photo: K. Murali Kumar
The Hindu Dutee Chand. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

Our sport authorities need to be educated. Urgently. They need a crash course in understanding human biology, that there is no clear binary between male and female and that there are many conditions in-between.  But clearly, this knowledge, that has now become fairly commonplace, has failed to trickle down to those controlling Indian athletics.  They continue to believe that testing testosterone levels will conclusively establish whether a woman athlete is indeed a woman!

 So even as women athletes are bringing home medals from the Commonwealth Games, the Sports Authority of India (SAI) and the Athletics Federation if India (AFI) will be better remembered for denying, virtually at the last minute, the chance for one of our most promising runners to compete in these games in Glasgow.

 The case of Dutee Chand will not surprise people who have followed the often farcical and always tragic cases of leading women athletes around the world who have been barred for something over which they had no control. “Sex tests” as they are called, or gender determination tests, are now more refined than the crude form they took earlier.  But they are still not conclusive because nature is sometimes inconclusive in clearly defining the so-called “maleness” or “femaleness” of individuals. Children born with this kind of biological confusion — that is now recognised medically — grow up as boys or girls depending on the way they are socialised. They believe they are boys or girls. They grow into men or women. But the problem arises when the stereotypical definitions of what constitutes a man or a woman clash with the way a person appears.

 So if women athletes are supposed to be weaker than men, a strong woman is suspect.  Is she really a woman? Is she taking drugs to heighten the male hormones, thereby giving her greater strength? Or was she born this way? The latter question is not taken into consideration. Instead, the so-called “unfair” advantage that a strong female athlete might have is used as a stick with which to beat her. And many times, such promising athletes are ruined for life.

Dutee is regarded as one of India’s most promising track athletes. She has consistently brought home medals, the latest just six weeks ago at the Asian Junior Athletics in Taipei where she won two golds. Just as she was getting set to participate in the Commonwealth Games, she was made to undergo this so-called ‘gender determination’ test and thereafter held back. 

 The girl is just 18. She comes from a poor weaver’s family in Odisha. At one shot, the very people who should have been nurturing her for the future have virtually destroyed her career. Luckily for her, the Odisha government and sports association have promised help and are willing to invest in whatever medical intervention is needed to set right her hormone levels. But the question should still be asked: why do we have these tests? And when it is mandatory that even if tests are conducted, that they be kept confidential, why is this information put out in the public space? Dutee says that within days of the news of the tests, journalists landed up at her home in Gopalpur and demanded from her bewildered parents an answer to the nonsensical question: “Is Dutee a boy or a girl?” 

 A woman who knows well what this feels like is the outstanding woman athlete Santhi Soundarajan, who was stripped of her silver medial won at the 2006 Doha Asian Games when she failed a “gender” test. Santhi has managed, with immense difficultly, to overcome her despair and has rehabilitated herself.  But when she heard about Dutee, here is what she said, “They have tested her at the last minute, humiliated her and broken her heart… Now, if she re-enters the sports field, things will not be normal. Even if she takes treatment, people will kill her with their suspicious gaze.”

 Depressing words from Santhi, but Dutee should look at the example of another female athlete similarly humiliated. Caster Semenya from South Africa was considered the fastest woman on earth after her spectacular performance in 2009 at the World Championships.  Like Santhi and now Dutee, Caster “failed” the test and was humiliated.  But she dug herself out and went on to compete in the London Olympics where she won the silver medal in the women’s 800 metres. South Africa had her carry the country’s flag.  When will our sports authorities grow up and develop knowledge and sensitivity to nurture our future women athletes?

(To read the original, click here.)

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