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The definition of a female athlete

By Manu Joseph

They are not saying she is a man. Also, there is the fact that she is not a man. But the Sports Authority of India, after conducting medical tests on the eighteen-year-old sprinter, has announced that she is “not fit for participation in a female event”. And, once again an Indian athlete has been forced to say with sorrow and confusion, “But I have always been this way”.

The sprinter who was born in Odisha to an impoverished couple, who is shorter than most of the athletes she usually defeats and has a stride that is too ferocious to allow grace, was a hero until a few days ago. But now she has joined the short list of talented Indian athletes who have turned out to be unfit “for participation in a female event”. She is free to compete with men.

She did not do anything she should not have, nor did she hide any secrets about her body. The issue is that she has a higher level of androgenic hormones than a vast majority of women, a condition known as hyperandrogenism. As these hormones contribute to physical strength, their apparent excess in a woman disqualifies her as a female athlete. The International Association of Athletics Federations has laid down this rule to achieve, among other things, “the fundamental notion of fairness of competition in female athletics”.

Its notion of fairness extends to men who have become women through surgical process. They would qualify to compete in a female event if they possess, among other attributes, womanly levels of androgens or can prove that their high levels of androgens do not give them any advantage.

Stripped of all the frills what this means is that an athlete may have been born a female, may indeed be a woman beyond any biological ambiguity but if she has a particular condition that makes her naturally prone to gaining physical strength more easily than most women then she is unfit to compete against other women. In effect, a female athlete, according to the prevailing authoritative definition, is a person who has to be deficient in naturally occurring chemicals that are crucial to an athlete. Without this deficiency she is deemed to have an unfair advantage.

But then, competitive sport is purely a measure and celebration of unfair advantages. Not just physical advantages but also economic and cultural advantages. Genius itself is, in its very core, a profitable human abnormality as opposed to a handicap, which is an abnormality that has no benefits at a moment in time. The American swimmer Michael Phelpps has size-14 feet, which would have made him an undesirable Japanese woman in medieval times but, as the Scientific American pointed out, his large feet “reportedly bend 15 degrees farther at the ankle than most other swimmers, turning his feet into virtual flippers.” The resting heart rate of several top runners and cyclists is less than 35 beats a minute, while an average human’s is between 60 and 100.

Without the gift of abnormalities, perseverance is exercise and not art, which professional sport is.

The young female athlete who has been evicted from the Indian squad for the Glasgow Commonwealth Games that begin in a few days, used to sprint against women who were much larger than her, women from affluent nations, who ate foods as children that she had never seen, received healthcare that she was not fortunate to receive, and were trained in ways that were beyond her means until late in her life. Her competitors, by the virtue of their birth in places that are very different from Odisha, enjoyed unfair advantages. Her androgenic hormones, in contrast, are her being.

The managers of international athletics have discontinued gender verification tests, which were conducted only on women for practical reasons, and has instead depended on a level of androgens to define a female athlete. But, the test for hyperandrogenism is not a standard test that every female athlete has to undergo. Its need is invoked by a complaint or suspicion. And very often the basis of the complaint is the masculine appearance of the athlete. The requirement for the hyperandrogenism test is, in no small measure, a comment on the physical appearance of an athlete.

It is highly probable that athletes who look feminine or whose coaches ensure that they look feminine, but have hyperandrogenism can escape detection throughout their careers. That makes the test, whose pious purpose is fairness, the most overtly unfair element in international sports.

As most Indian athletes hail from impoverished places, they are exposed to abysmal standards of medical facilities and a test for hyperandrogenism is not a priority for those who manage or coach these athletes. A consequence is that some of India’s athletes have suffered the indignity of their gender being questioned late in their careers, long after they have become public figures and celebrities. As it has happened with the 18-year-old athlete, who will now have to undergo medication to artificially reduce the level of her androgenic hormones so that she gives a fair chance to her large well-nourished rivals from the richest nations of the world.(HT Media)

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