Imagine if four female Olympic athletes from extremely poor countries were told that if they wanted to compete, they’d have to undergo a surgical procedure on their genitalia—with lifelong health repercussions—to lower their testosterone levels. Imagine if they were informed by ruling officials that unless they went under the knife, their athletic dreams would go up in smoke. Imagine if the doctors also subjected them to procedures that had nothing to do with their testosterone levels, but were aimed at “feminizing” them, including “a partial clitoridectomy, and gonadectomy, followed by a deferred feminizing vaginoplasty.” This is not the plot of a new sports book by Margaret Atwood. This is an all all-too-true tale from the 2012 London Olympics.
Surgical violence of this kind is perpetrated against women with naturally high levels of testosterone, referred to in the medical world as “hyperandrogenism.” In other words, women, because of what their body naturally produces, are deemed to no longer be women. Instead, in the eyes of the ruling international bodies in sports, they are aberrations in need of correction. What’s not clear in any of these cases is whether these doctors revealed that this surgery can also lead to sterility, loss of sexual sensation and lifelong risks to their health.
There is one woman, however, who is standing up, going public and saying hell, no to what international athletic officials define as normal. She also comes from a developing country, also was born into poverty and also represents the best hope for her family to deliver them from their one-dollar-a-day jobs as weavers. By refusing surgery, and by fighting to be heard, she is risking a great deal. But this is someone of uncommon courage. Her name should be synonymous with resistance against the idea that there is somehow something wrong with anyone outside the proscribed gender binaries in sports. She is from India, and her name is Dutee Chand. Last month, Dutee Chand went public with her refusal to let hormones or surgical instruments invade her body, saying, “I feel that it’s wrong to have to change your body for sport participation. I’m not changing for anyone…. It’s like in some societies, they used to cut off the hand of people caught stealing. I feel like this is the same kind of primitive, unethical rule. It goes too far.”
Chand’s story began at what should have been her ultimate triumph, having just won two gold medals at June’s Asian Junior Athletics Championship. An opponent, undoubtedly at the prodding of a coach, demanded that she be tested for “hyperandrogenism”. The Sports Authority of India thoroughly examined her naked body, took her blood and had her receive an ultrasound. According to Chand, who was just 18, she was not informed why they were going over her body like it a piece of meat. She was then deemed unfit to compete without surgery and hormone treatment.
This all highlights the profound double standard women face in sports when it comes to how we view their very bodies. I spoke to Nancy Hogshead-Makar, multiple Olympic Gold medal swimmer and civil rights attorney. She said to me, “When men are born with unusual genetic differences that help them become better athletes (think Michael Phelps), we applaud them. When women are born with them, they are scorned and told they’re a threat to other women. Dutee Chand is no more of a threat to fair competition than Lisa Leslie or Brittney Griner in the WNBA. I don’t have the condition hyperandrogenism, but I am unusually muscular. When I was growing up, I heard on almost a daily basis that I wasn’t gender conforming—that my strength was a threat. More testosterone doesn’t make a woman male, any more than extra height or large lung capacity does. Elite athletes of all types are important for young girls to see because their very presence breaks down stereotypes that hold women back.”