Approaching the 2014 Commonwealth Games in July, India announced that it had pared the provisional list of its national track and field team from 41 to 32. Six of the athletes cut were from the men's 4-by-100 relay team, which was complete crap; another was a controversial triple jumper. But only after prodding by the assembled media did the head of the Athletics Federation of India admit that yes, um, there was this one woman athlete who had undergone gender testing.
Thomson and the AFI quickly caught hell for their obfuscation but remained mum on the athlete's name because of "confidentiality protocol." But it was clear whom they were hiding: the preliminary list showed 18-year-old Dutee Chand, the current national 100-meter champion and Asian junior championships double gold medalist. The updated list did not.
"The test simply tells us that she has excess androgen in her body and is therefore not eligible to compete in the female category," the Sports Authority of India said in a statement the next day. Quick to clarify that the test was not a gender test—the International Association of Athletics Federations stopped checking for two X chromosomes in 1999—SAI then pointed the finger, saying this was not their decision; they were merely "following regulations set by international sport organisations like the IAAF and the IOC for governing eligibility of females with hyperandrogenism to compete in the women's competition."
Chand, it's since been revealed, has abnormally high testosterone in her system, a naturally-occuring condition of an intersex individual. Of the varied Differences of Sexual Development (DSDs) significant in women's sports, two are of special note because of high T levels: androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS) and five alpha reductase deficiency (5-ARD), both of which can raise testosterone into the male range. On the most basic level, AIS has a negligible impact on athletic performance but 5-ARD might, though it's not conclusive as the sole factor. (For an in-depth examination, Joanna Harper has written an extensive history of intersex athletes in women's track and field.)
The real question is how the governing bodies handle this issue when it comes up. Yes, the IAAF and the IOC have over the past five years come under deserved criticism for their bungling of determining who can compete against whom. Caster Semenya of South Africa was the most prominent face of the issue, necessitating the IAAF to update its stagnated policies in 2011, which were adopted by the IOC the next year. But despite the facelift, ethical questions regarding the rules still remain, especially on their application. A recent study from the new rules' first Olympic trial examined four athletes flagged in London for hyperandrogenism. The study describes in depth the scientific nature of their varied conditions, but the most unsettling part is how they all chose to handle the issue.
From the study:
Each athlete was informed that gonadectomy would most likely decrease their performance level but allow them to continue elite sport in the female category. We thus proposed a partial clitoridectomy with a bilateral gonadectomy, followed by a deferred feminizing vaginoplasty and estrogen replacement therapy, to which the 4 athletes agreed after informed consent on surgical and medical procedures. Sports authorities then allowed them to continue competing in the female category 1 year after gonadectomy.
To this point, in order to resume competition Chand has had three options: surgery (like the four 2012 Olympians), chemicals (Semenya's rumored solution), or to quit the sport. The first often ends a woman's career, as it reduces the amount of testosterone below even an average woman's level. The second also comes with risks, and if Semenya's performances since are any indication of a "success," one could conclude that it's nearly as detrimental as going under the knife. And the third? For an athlete, is it even really an option?
But Chand has taken a fourth tact: to fight. At the end of September, she filed an appeal with the Court of Arbitration for Sports, challenging the IAAF's hyperandrogenism policy. Her country has backed her as well, footing the bill for legal costs and inviting her to resume training at the national facility.
Like Semenya, the significance of Chand's personal battle is far outweighed by the impact she may leave in her wake. Margaret Wambui, the Kenyan 800-meter gold medalist at the World Junior Championships this summer, has her own deal of speculation about being intersex. They're the same whispers that Chand has said she's suffered from.
Chand's performances, unlike Wambui, are far from international caliber even when compared to junior levels, and should Chand have competed at the Commonwealth Games, it would have done little to change India's distant fifth in the medal count. But with the support of her country, her challenge of the current administration's policies could signal a greater understanding and acceptance of human biology when it comes to athletic performance. Like Semenya before her, she may be paving the way for the next generation.
"Look, I'm not alone," Chand said of Semenya's influence. "There are other people like me."