On uneven playing field, Chand stands steady

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By KAYLA LOMBARDO
College Contributor Network

Champion sprinter Dutee Chand is no stranger to life's disproportions. The 18-year-old daughter of Indian weavers knows what it's like to survive on eight dollars a week, live in a two-room mud hut with no toilet, and encounter gender discrimination and scrutiny regarding her appearance and performance as an elite female athlete.

That's why the Indian track star, who fell in love running on the banks of the Brahmani River in India at age four, was not intimidated or defeated when a career and life-altering decision was announced in mid-July.

Following Chand's two gold-medal victories at the Asian Junior Athletics Championship in Tapei, an unknown competitor requested for the muscular champion to undergo testing for what he or she believed to be an unfair competitive advantage. In response, the Sports Authority of India (SAI), in compliance with the rules of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC), tested Chand for hyperandrogenism, a condition involving the production of high levels of testosterone. Chand's positive results scratched her from competition at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow at the end of the summer, and also banned her altogether from future races against women.

Because the International Olympic Committee (IOC) uses the measurement of testosterone levels as the distinguishing factor between male and female athletes, track's governing bodies have also followed suit with these methods of classification.

Despite the clout that the IOC possesses in the world of athletics, flaws within its gender classification system have been repeatedly identified. Although testosterone is known to help muscles grow and aid in the body's recovery after workouts, research shows that "there is no clear scientific evidence proving that a high level of testosterone is a significant determinant in female sports."

According to Kate Fagan of espnW, the IOC's desire to pinpoint testosterone as the source of athletic success furthers the divide between male and female athletes.

Fagan says, "Out of the thousands of genetic variants that athletes possess, the IOC has singled out just one for regulation, and it affects only female athletes."

The playing field for men and women in the testosterone case is anything but level. While males are also tested for testosterone, problems only emerge when unnatural drugs that boost the hormone are discovered. For women, however, the natural production of testosterone is enough to raise red flags.

Fagan believes the IOC's testosterone policy is a form of gender profiling, as well as a concerted effort to thwart the unconventionalities of female athletics today. Fagan says, "In some very obvious ways, this policy amounts to a witch hunt, a persecution of women who do not fit our traditional Western notion of femininity."

Chand has refused to comply with expected norms, however.

Amid the decision to ban her from competition, Chand was faced with options that would lower her testosterone to the IOC's appropriate level for females, and thus permit her reentry to the competitive stage. She was told to either take drugs to suppress the testosterone production within her body or undergo surgery to control it.

Chand has been urged by coaches and family alike to undergo unnatural physical alterations for the sake of competition. These urgings result from the comparison of Chand's situation to that of Caster Semenya; South Africa's 2009 800-meter world champion who was banned from competition for gender discrepancies but was later reinstated following testing and treatment.

Chand, however, isn't budging.

"I feel that it's wrong to have to change your body for sport participation," Chand said in a New York Times article. "I'm not changing for anyone."

Among all the voices who have attempted to persuade Chand in the direction of compliance, there remains at least one voice of reason. Dr. Payoshni Mitra, a research consultant on gender and issues within athletics, has worked directly with Chand to provide guidance for her situation and caution against unnatural remedies.

Mitra says, "The current policy that requires women athletes with hyperandrogenism to undergo therapy or surgery if they want to compete again is encouraging genital mutilation in an institutionalized way."

With this advice, as well as her own personal convictions, Chand is not only electing to forgo the suggested therapies, but she is also refusing to hang up her spikes without a fight.

Chand filed an appeal in September with the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland and challenged the IAAF's standards for female participation in track events. The case is expected to take months to produce a verdict about Chand's future in track.

Nonetheless, Chand is not fighting alone. The SAI is in her corner, and has written to the Ministry of Sports on her behalf. They are currently in search of permission to go before the IAAF to argue her case.

Chand is optimistic that she will begin competing again by springtime.

"I can come back. Though I have to wait for another four years for the Asian Games or the Commonwealth Games, I am thinking positive. I want to run again," Chand told the New Indian Express.

Despite the distress that Chand's situation has brought upon her, she is most disappointed that the barring of her participation has gone against the mores of what originally attracted her to athletics.

"When girls play a sport, they are treated equally, so society becomes more equal," Chand told the New York Times. "I really liked that."

Chand's search for equality, both on and off the track at the elite level, has involved more hurdles than she could have imagined during her younger days along the Brahmani River. But, for this unmovable champion, a toughness and resolve persist, along with a belief that who we are in our purest form supersedes what we appear to be in the eyes of others. For a woman like Chand whose femininity is constantly in question, there is nothing more exemplary of womanly strength and beauty.


Kayla Lombardo is a senior at Fordham University. She plays third base for Fordham's softball team and is a passionate New York Yankees fan. Follow her on Twitter: @KaylaLombardo11

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