Athletes can say no to gender tests. But are authorities asking for permission?
By Pragya Sood
Dutee Chand came out of the closet at the age of 23 and declared her same-sex relationship in a country where ancient laws persist. She is also an athlete with a disorder of sex development (DSD) that sparks other types of discrimination.
India decriminalised gay sex only in 2018, when the Supreme Court ruled that a colonial-era law against homosexuality was discriminatory.
She came out as gay in a newspaper interview in May and the reaction of the public was positive, with thousands of retweets proclaiming their support for her decision.
But Chand’s story is not limited to her being in a same-sex relationship. Her form of DSD is hyperandrogenism, which means her body produces more testosterone than the average female.
Male sex hormones are known as androgens and are found in both genders, although in different quantities. A high number of androgens can lead to hyperandrogenism.
In 2014, before going to the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, she was subjected to a gender test. Chand was told it was a routine test, so did not object. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) wanted to know how she was performing so well, but did not ask her permission for the test as they should have.
The result of this “officially unofficial” test was announced on TV, beginning a four-year public row about Chand’s sexual identity.
“The first time I came to know about my condition was on TV,” she said. “I didn’t even understand what they said. The headlines were ‘Chand is not a girl’.”
Santhi Soundarajan, 38, who comes from a village in Tamil Nadu, India, also had to undergo a gender test after a good track performance.
“In 2006, after I won a silver medal at the Asian Games in Doha for the 800 metres, they asked me to come in for a test,” said Soundarajan. “I didn’t know what I was going for, but went anyway. They destroyed my career, my family’s reputation and the ability for me to get another job.”
Her parents are brick kiln labourers, and for someone like her, the courage to fight major authorities like the IAAF requires support from local and national sports federations, which she did not get.
In the same year, a lack of official procedures meant that Pinki Pramanik, 33, also had to undergo the test. A roommate accused Pramanik of raping her, which later proved to be a false allegation.
After being in custody, she was unofficially tested. For eight years, Pramanik was off track and had no hope of returning. She found the authorities’ treatment of her traumatic.
“My case didn’t even reach the media because the officials told me unofficially not to run,” said Pramanik. “So that cuts the possibility of getting support from anywhere.”
Soundarajan and Chand share a determination to struggle through tough situations. But when you come from a small village in India, even nerves of steel can buckle under societal pressure.
Chand is a 100- and 200-metre short distance runner, while Pramanik and Soundrajan are 400- and 800-metre mid-distance runners.
When Chand received her diagnosis, she was given two ways out: either suppress her testosterone levels through treatment, becoming a “normal” girl again, or fight a case worth at least a million Indian rupees (£11,436).
On the other hand, for Pramanik, her career was over. “I was told not to run again. I was young and naive, and fighting seemed like a frightening action.”
While Pramanik was given a job in Indian Railways as a ticket collector after she was proven innocent, Soundarajan had no option but to return to her parents’ occupation as a brick kiln labourer.
“Once I started winning medals, the girls who ran with me started asking me whether I was a boy or I did drugs,” said Chand, recalling her junior championship era. “It was almost as if it was unfair to them that I was achieving.”
“Nobody asks men if they are performing well,” said Chand. “There is no discrimination there. Then why do women have to go through this?”
She also remarked on how Caster Semenya is another victim of these regulations. However, Chand thinks the rules will not last for long, especially with the IAAF trying to ban every female athlete just because they “perform well”.
“This [gender test] is an unfair procedure that women have to go through,” agreed Pramanik and Soundarajan, saying it would prevent women from competing.
Caster Semenya’s recent battle with the IAAF’s regulation highlights how authorities need to clearly decide where the line should be drawn. While women have been discriminated against for hormone spikes, men are cheered on and not forced to undergo tests on speculation. One example of this is Michael Phelps, an Olympic swimmer with large feet and hands.
Dr Payoshni Mitra, a researcher and activist, was one of the 10 members in Caster Semenya’s legal team.
Before Mitra entered the picture, Chand and Pramanik did not know they had a case. They were forced to believe that their new reality was being seen as male in a woman’s body.
“Sports bodies should not violate human rights principles,” said Mitra. “The key is to ensure that all sports governing bodies are subjected to human rights instruments, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the European Convention on Human Rights. That will help ensure that athletes like Pramanik are protected from exploitation at the hands of national sport governing bodies.
While Chand is back on track and is the fastest runner in India, and Pramanik is gearing up for upcoming competitions, Soundarajan dreams of running again, but has a long fight ahead of her.
“The federation is not God,” said Soundarajan, with determination in her voice. “This is a human rights violation. They cannot stop us from running. Everyone has equal rights.”