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Should the CAS ‘let Dutee run’? Gender policies in Sport under legal scrutiny. By Thalia Diathesopoulou

The rise of Dutee Chand, India’s 100 and 200-meter champion in the under 18-category, was astonishing. Her achievements were more than promising: after only two years, she broke the 100m and 200m national junior records, competed in the 100m final at the World Youth Athletics Championships in Donetsk and collected two gold medals in the Asian Junior Championships in Chinese Taipei. But, in July 2014, this steady rise was abruptly halted. Following a request from the Athletics Federation of India (AFI), the Sports Authority of India (SAI) conducted blood tests on the Indian sprinters. Dutee was detected with female hyperandrogenism, i.e a condition where the female body produces high levels of testosterone. As a result, a few days before the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, the AFI declared Dutee ineligible to compete under the IAAF Regulations and prevented her from competing in future national and international events in the female category. Pursuant to the IAAF ‘Hyperandrogenism Policy’, the AFI would allow Dutee to return to competition only if she lowers her testosterone level beneath the male range by means of medical or surgical treatment.[1] On 25 September 2014, Dutee filed an appeal before the CAS, seeking to overturn the AFI’s decision and declare IAAF and IOC’s hyperandrogenism regulations null and void. She is defending her right to compete the way she actually is: a woman with high levels of testosterone. Interestingly enough, albeit a respondent, AFI supports her case.

IAAF and IOC rules set limits to female hyperandrogenism, which is deemed an unfair advantage that erodes female sports integrity. While these rules have been contested with regard to their scientific and ethical aspects, this is the first time that they will be debated in court. This appeal could have far-reaching ramifications for the sports world. It does not only seek to pave the way for a better ‘deal’ for female athletes with hyperandrogenism, who are coerced into hormonal treatment and even surgeries to ‘normalise’ themselves as women[2], but it rather brings the CAS, for the first time, before the thorny question:

How to strike a right balance between the core principle of ‘fair play’ and norms of non-discrimination, in cases where a determination of who qualifies as a ‘woman’ for the purposes of sport has to be made? 


‘Prove your gender!��

The separation between women and men in athletic competitions has been paradigmatic. Considering the sex-based physiological differences, which in case of a mixed competition would lead to virtually no women participation, the separation opened the door for women to compete at the highest levels. Nevertheless, the determination on the eligibility of women athletes to participate in the female category has become a source of controversies. So far, as decades of flawed IOC policies have demonstrated, it has not been clarified ‘who is woman’ for the purposes of sport.

The idea of ‘sex testing’ in sports dates back to 1960s and even preceded doping tests. The first gender test introduced by the IOC is nowadays laughable: nude parades of female competitors before a panel of judges in charge to verify the presence of female genitals and other sex characteristics.[3] Soon, this test was proven unworkable, since in intersex conditions, where people are born with both male and female genitalia, the outside did not match the inside.

The next test introduced was dubbed ‘chromosome testing’, which was based on the assumption that chromosomes are the key factor in determining sex, i.e. XY for male and XX for female. However, this test overlooked natural situations, where males have an extra X chromosome or females are missing one and was, therefore, soon abandoned. Thereafter, the SRY (i.e. the gene that triggers male sex determination) gene detection test was introduced, but the Olympics Games in Atlanta 1996 proved its deficiency:  eight women were tested positive for it and all were finally cleared for competition. Following this series of gender policies, which were deemed particularly discriminatory towards women with sexual development disorders, the IOC removed gender verification tests in June 1999.

It was not before 2009, in the wake of the Caster Semenya case, involving the South African 800m and 1500m runner and world champion, that an urgent need for reconsidering sex determination policies was brought into surface. Semenya’s masculine appearance, unusual muscle build and, foremost, her outstanding victory in the 2009 World Championships 800m race, fuelled a frenzy of suspicions on her gender. Following her victory, in an unprecedented breach of confidentiality and privacy rules, the IAAF leaked that Semenya had undergone tests to determine whether she had an unfair advantage as compared with other women. For three years, Semenya was not allowed to participate in events as her gender was still under investigation. In 2012, she was cleared by the gender testing committee and she began racing again. The story of Semenya, who suffered from humiliation and castigation by athletics officials and the media, unveiled IAAF’s incompetency in handling complex gender-related issues.

As a reply, in an attempt to establish an unambiguous, objective and scientifically based policy, IAAF and IOC, in 2011 and 2012 respectively, released new regulations. In that context, the focus shifted from sex testing to endogenous testosterone testing. The natural levels of testosterone have become the new golden rule: the purpose is not to determine ‘who is woman’, but rather ‘what makes a woman a woman’. Both policies are based on the assumption that testosterone is a key factor for men’s often superior strength and speed and, as a result, women with testosterone levels typical for males have an ‘unfair’ advantage. Therefore, according to the new regulations, if a female athlete has androgen levels higher than the normal male range, she is deemed ineligible to compete in women’s competition and will only be considered able to compete again if she lowers her testosterone level by means of medical or surgical treatment.

Despite IAAF’s protest to the contrary, this is the recent re-incarnation of ‘sex testing’.[4] The real import of these rules has been illustrated by the Dutee’s case. With Dutee’s appeal pending before the CAS, the legality of IAAF and IOC’s current gender policy needs to be scrutinized.


The unfair results of ‘fairness in sports’: The dark side of IAAF’s and IOC’s gender policy

Fair competition, which provides a fair opportunity to compete and prohibits athletes from competing with unfair advantages, has been widely accepted as a value integral to sports.[5] In this light, considering hyperandrogenism as an uncommon athletic capacity in relation to other female competitors, IAAF and IOC introduced the ineligibility of female athletes with hyperandrogenism in order to preserve the ‘sacrosanct’ competitive equality in the female category. However, it is our opinion that the current policy is on the borderline of what is fair for the following reasons: 

1. The ‘testosterone’ criterion as yardstick to determine eligibility?

According to the IAAF androgen policy, a general scientific consensus on naturally occurring testosterone as a relevant physical characteristic to separate athletes into different competition classes exists. The first problem is that this argument relies on the flawed assumption that a bright line between male and female can be drawn, not acknowledging situations of an ‘intersex’ status. As David Epstein, reporter and author of “The Sports Gene”, puts it clearly “neither body parts nor for the chromosome within them unequivocally differentiate male from female athletes”. Furthermore, while IAAF relies on a binary perception of biological sex in order to identify the gender of athletes, gender, in fact, is a social construction, which does not correspond to the complexities of biological sex. Secondly, it relies on the assumption that testosterone levels in the human body have limited variability within the sexes. Nevertheless, recent studies have found a complete overlap between testosterone levels in elite men and women, ripping apart testosterone levels as a reliable factor for separating between sexes.  The third problem is the lack of supporting scientific evidence that a competitive advantage can derive from high natural levels of testosterone.[6] Indeed, the scientific understanding of testosterone receptors is far from comprehensive. A recent research supported by the Swiss WADA laboratory added to the uncertainty: “Unfortunately, and to the best of our knowledge, there are neither available data on serum androgen levels nor reliable statistics on the so-called hyperandrogenism among a large and high-level female athletes’ population”.

IAAF policy, in overall, seems to create an absurd result: instead of introducing an objective criterion-if any- for separating between men and women, it rather suggests a classification of athletes between ‘high testosterone’ and ‘low testosterone’. However, ‘High-T’ and ‘Low-T’ categories of competition are not on the agenda.  

2. IAAF policy fosters discrimination

The current policy suggests a discriminatory treatment: it targets only women suspected for hyperandrogenism due to their physical appearance and high levels of performance. Women are asked to prove that they are female, while there is no such a requirement or restriction for men.

Furthermore, the fundament itself of the androgen policy is discriminatory against women who do not conform to traditional notions of femininity. Indeed, it lays on the physiological superiority of men in terms of endurance and strength as compared to women, perpetuating the long-established perception that an intrinsic link between manliness and sport exists, while femininity is associated with more gentle exercise.[7] In IAAF’s view, ‘too masculine women’ do not belong to the female category. It seems that under a scientifically based guise, IAAF seeks to impose a preference for certain social norms regarding what constitutes femininity in a woman’s appearance as criteria for participation.[8]

However, in order to perceive the level of discrimination, the most important question to be addressed is how you qualify an athlete. Hyperandrogenism is a rare biological characteristic and according to IAAF regulations and controversial scientific evidence, it gives female athletes a natural advantage that other female athletes do not have. Similarly, long limbs, broad wingspan for swimmers and height for basketball players are natural advantages.[9] Nevertheless, the later ones, but for hyperandrogenism, have never been considered as unfair. Indeed, the quintessence of elite sports lays on the participation of individuals with rare biological characteristics. In this light, the inevitable question arises: Why should female athletes like Dutee be obliged to reduce or eliminate an inherent advantage that they are born with? Why is then nobody asking a swimmer like Phelps to operate his double-jointed ankles? Or as SAI director-general Juji Thomson remarked: “ Just because Usain Bolt's height is to his advantage will the international authorities want his legs chopped off to ensure a level-playing field?” In other words, why hyperandrogenism has been viewed as different to other biological advantages broadly accepted in some elite athletes? The answer is simple: IAAF’s policy reflects the well-established public perception of femininity and female athletes who do not conform to this norm have to be excluded or ‘feminise’ themselves.

Thereby, IAAF and IOC policy exacerbate bullying and marginalization of women in sports putting their physical difference under unethical and humiliating scrutiny. Semenya had been intruded into the toilets by competitors seeking to check whether she really was a girl. While, after a race in Berlin, her competitor Mariya Savinova sneered “just look at her” when she was asked whether Semenya was a man. Similarly, the most talented female athletes, such as Serena Williams, Martina Navratilova, WNBA player Brittney Griner– and the catalogue is really long-, have been accused of not really being female. This play is up again with IAAF’s ‘are you woman enough to compete as female?’ policy seeking to confer legality to discrimination.

What should not be overlooked, finally, is the bitter truth that the current IAAF policy inevitably targets in priority women from developing countries. Athletes like Semenya or Dutee never perceived their difference, until they appeared on track field courts, where this difference has been flagged in the most humiliating way as abnormality. In sharp contrast to IOC’s declarations on eliminating any kind of discrimination in sports, IAAF and IOC gender policy achieves the most undesirable result: sex and social discrimination ‘all-in-one’. 

3. The disproportionate results of IAAF’s policy: To undergo treatment or not? This is not a question!

Female athletes with hyperandrogenism are faced with two choices: undergo medical treatment to fit the IAAF ‘Procrustean bed’ or abandon female competitions. The disproportionate and unfair consequences are evident.

As Katrina Karkazis, pioneer of Dutee’s motion against IAAF, remarks, the IAAF and IOC treat a physical difference as an illness, which requires a medical response. However, the necessity of such an invasive medical, or surgical, intervention is highly questionable. The suggested treatment does not stop at lowering female athletes’ testosterone level below IAAF’s limit of 10nmol/liter, but it rather aims to eliminate hyperandrogenism. In this sense, sharing IAAF’s assumption that testosterone is the key to performance, such treatment will render athletes like Dutee less competitive than other women who do not have hyperandrogenism or whose hyperandrogenism is below the cut-off. Thereby, IAAF policy, albeit mandating fairness in competition, puts a disproportionate burden on female athletes with hyperandrogenism.

Furthermore, concerns have been raised about the medical effects of the treatment suggested. In fact, it has been argued that long-term hormone therapy can have devastating results on female athletes’ health. Dutee’s denial to undergo this treatment is far from a ‘caprice’. A study published in 2013 revealed the cases of four female athletes identified as having hyperandrogenism, who were sent to a clinic in France. It was reported that those athletes also had medical procedures that had nothing to do with lowering their testosterone levels for sports: a reduction to the size of their clitorises, feminizing plastic surgery and oestrogen replacement therapy. It seems that the IAAF is pulling the trigger on female athletes’ head, who are ready to accept any treatment- even the most questionable ones- in order to keep competing.

On the other hand, the ineligibility sanction leads to a further disproportionate result: If Dutee is considered too masculine to compete in the female category, does she qualify for the male category? Can the mere presence of higher testosterone levels in a female athlete’s body presume that she can compete as a man? The answer has to be answered in negative, notwithstanding the ‘fair play’ issues that may arise. IAAF and IOC rules are cruelly disproportionate: athletes like Dutee who refuse to undergo this questionable treatment are effectively left without a forum to display their talent.


Do it like Pistorius

So far, the IAAF and IOC policy have been shown scientifically shaky, discriminatory and disproportionate. In parallel with these arguments, Dutee has also a very important precedent to rely upon: the CAS ruling in the Pistorius case.

In 2008, Oscar Pistorius, the South African double amputee runner, challenged IAAF rules that prohibited competitive running on ‘cheetah’ legs in international IAAF-sanctioned events alongside able-bodied athlete as being in breach of its commitment to non-discrimination. In that case, the fundamental rights of disabled athletes to be adequately accommodated and have genuinely equal opportunity to compete were at issue. Pistorius had to prove that he gained no advantage from using the prostheses. Reviewing scientific testing and analysis, the CAS concluded that ‘Cheetah’ legs did not give Pistorius an overall advantage.

Although the ‘tailor-made’ effect of the award could raise serious criticism[10], the Pistorius case has been landmark from a twofold point of view. Firstly, the CAS did not hesitate to challenge the indeterminacy of scientific analysis and developed the ‘net advantage’ approach, which stipulates that both the benefits and burdens have to be taken into consideration in determining whether a device provides an advantage to an athlete who uses it.[11] A similar approach has been adopted in the Veerpalu doping case, where the CAS questioned the scientific reliability of the limits applied for the WADA human growth hormone test (HGH).[12] Pistorius and Veerpalu cases have set an important threshold: international sports governing bodies, when it comes to enforce scientific- related sanctions, should rely on scientifically well-founded assessments.

Secondly, the CAS took an extraordinary step. It sent a clear message to international federations that they must address the eligibility criteria surrounding disabled athletes in a transparent and impartial manner.[13] There is no reason why the CAS in the Dutee case would do it differently. After all, sporting rules that seek to ensure fair competition and prevent a competitor from obtaining an unfair advantage have at least to be proportionate and non-discriminatory. 


Let Dutee Run?

The lines between male and female are blurring. As Fausto-Sterling has observed “the reason sports federations can’t get this right is because there is no right”.[14] Sports governing bodies may never be able to ensure fair competition without reaching absurd results.[15] In its daunting task to legally enforce controversial science related and ethical issues, CAS is facing a double challenge. It has the opportunity to set fair and accurate eligibility rules based on objective criteria, which will also preserve the essence of sports. Undoubtedly, sports governing bodies have the authority to establish their eligibility rules. However, self-regulation does not come without limits: sports federations’ rules have to comply with the non-discrimination clauses included in their statutes[16] and the IOC charter. The role of the CAS in monitoring the compliance of these regulations with non-discrimination norms is essential. Therefore, in some cases, CAS has to leave its ‘comfort-zone’: it has to deviate from its well-established practice to provide a significant degree of deference to sports governing bodies with regard to their authority to establish the eligibility rules and rather applies a ‘fairness’ requirement on a case-by-case basis, such as in the Pistorius case.

More importantly, CAS has the chance to finally flesh out the toothless IAAF and IOC commitments to gender equality. Dutee’s case is a fertile ground for an interpretation in the light and purpose of the recent UN resolution on sport and the proclaimed values underpinning the Olympic 2020 Agenda. After all, what is the point of trumpeting non-discrimination in sports, if, in 2014, a female athlete is deemed ‘not woman enough’ to compete with women?

Whatever the CAS decides, one thing remains certain: discrimination against women with sexual development specificities will not anymore be in the blind spot of the law. Dutee showed the way.



[1] IAAF Regulations Governing Eligibility of Females with Hyperandrogenism to Compete in Women’s Competition - In force as from 1st May 2011 ,  Article 6.8 <http://www.iaaf.org/about-iaaf/documents/medical >

[2] Dr Ben Koh, Daryl Adair and  Peter Sonksen OBE, ‘Testosterone, sex and gender differentiation in sport – where science and sports law meet’ (14 October 2014) <http://www.lawinsport.com/articles/item/testosterone-sex-and-gender-differentiation-in-sport-where-science-and-sports-law-meet>

[3]  J Ellison, ‘Caster Semenya And The IOC’s Olympics Gender Bender’ (26 July 2012) <http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/07/26/caster-semenya-and-the-ioc-s-olympics-gender-bender.html>

[4] R Pielke, ‘Dutee Chand, science and the spirit of sport: why IAAF policy is deeply flawed’ (20 October 2014) <http://www.sportingintelligence.com/2014/10/20/dutee-chand-science-and-the-spirit-of-sport-why-iaaf-policy-is-deeply-flawed-201001/>

[5] P Zettler, ‘Is It Cheating to Use the Cheetahs? The Implications of Technologically Innovative Prostheses for Sports Values and Rules’ (2009) 27 Boston University International Law Journal, 389.

[6] M Naimark, ‘A New Study Supports Female Athletes Unfairly Excluded From Sport’ (12 September 2014) <http://www.slate.com/blogs/outward/2014/09/12/sex_verification_in_sports_a_new_study_supports_unfairly_excluded_female.html>

[7] Dr Ben Koh,Daryl Adair and  Peter Sonksen OBE (n 2)

[8] R Pielke (n 4)

[9] For a very interesting comparison of the physiques between athletes from a wide range of different sports and competitions, see Howard Schatz’s Athlete series.

[10] CAS 2008/A/1480 Pistorius v/ IAAF (16 May 2008), para 56.

[11] CAS 2008/A/1480 Pistorius v/ IAAF (16 May 2008), para 36.

[12] M Viret and E Wisnosky, ‘Sinkewitz v. Veerpalu: Struggling to fit anti-doping science into a legal framework’ (19 March 2014) < http://wadc-commentary.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/WADC_COMMENTARY_Sinkewitz-Blog.pdf>

[13] Cornelius, 236

[14] J Ellison (n 3).

[15] P Zettler (n 5), 394.

[16] For instance, IAAF Constitution 2011, Art 3: “The Objects of IAAF are (…) 4. To strive to ensure that no gender, race, religious, political or other kind of unfair discrimination exists, continues to exist, or is allowed to develop in Athletics in any form, and that all may participate in Athletics regardless of their gender, race, religious or political views or any other irrelevant factor.”

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