Indian sprinter Dutee Chand wins the right to compete again

Player utilities

Listen to the story.

Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and this is The World. How much testosterone is too much? That’s been the debate over Indian sprinter Dutee Chand, a woman. Chand was suspended last year by the IAAF, the governing body for track and field, for what’s called hyperandrogenism. That’s the presence of a high level of testosterone in women. But today Chand’s suspension was lifted by the court of arbitration for sport. Chand now aims to qualify for next year’s Olympic games in Rio. We’ve asked Katrina Karkazis to join us, she’s a bioethicist at Stanford University and has joined us on The World before to talk about these issues. Katrina, first of all explain why Chand was suspended for competing in the first place.


Katrina Karkazis: So the IAAF, which governs track and field as well as the International Olympic Committee and a few other federations have a policy that sets a ceiling for natural, meaning non-doping testosterone levels for women, and Chan was suspected of having high natural testosterone levels, and when that was confirmed she was suspended from both international and national competition.


Werman: And why has she been reinstated? What does the Court of Arbitration for Sport actually say?


Karkazis: So it was a long hearing and there were quite a few witnesses, and one of the things at issue was whether or not natural testosterone levels confer unfair advantage in women, and what the court found is that the evidence isn’t there to support a policy like this. So one of the interesting things to me here is that they actually have created a policy in advance of the science, so the science wasn’t there for it, and now they have two years to come up with evidence that will support a policy like this. So it’s actually policymaking process in reverse.


Werman: So basically Dutee Chand was punished for what she had naturally occurring in her body?


Karkazis: Yeah, I would agree with that statement, absolutely.


Werman: What is natural testosterone? I mean, that seems to be a very key question here.


Karkazis: Well, it’s a hormone that actually is in men and women alike, and one of the reasons why I thought we might not win the case is that there are some really culturally entrenched ideas about testosterone. I’ve spent the last few days getting newspapers to correct headlines calling it a male hormone, men and women alike have it. I think another entrenched idea is that testosterone somehow is foreign or doesn’t belong in women’s bodies, and all of these kinds of ideologies are at play in the policy and why people think a policy like this is important to have.


Werman: So, Chand is allowed to compete for two years now but the Court of Arbitration for Sport supersedes the IAAF, the International Association of Athletics Federation. Does that mean it’s likely this ruling will be permanent?


Karkazis: Well, so they have two years to present evidence. It may be that they don’t. It’s hard to know how they’ll respond. They’ve not said very much in the wake of this. If they don’t present any evidence, then the policy is void permanently. So if they do present evidence, then Dutee Chand’s team has a chance to respond to that back at the court again, and what kind of response really depends on the kind of evidence that they present.


Werman: So Ms. Chand said that “many athletes like me will benefit from this landmark ruling.” In the meantime, since she was disqualified, suspended last year, she’s had to face a lot of insensitive questions about her sex, her gender. Do you think a ruling like this can actually change national attitudes?


Karkazis: Wow. It’s certainly my hope that it will. I hope that it will disrupt some ideas, like the earlier ones that I talked about regarding testosterone. I hope people understand that these policies aren’t necessary, that there’s not scientific evidence to support them and that finally sort of the highest ruling body in sport has spoken to that issue and said the evidence isn’t there. But I also hope that people understand it’s really a win for women athletes overall. This is a policy that scrutinized women based on their appearance, their gender presentation because people are looking for signs of high testosterone, and it’s really my hope that that kind of policing and scrutiny will stop or at least lessen in the wake of the ruling.


Werman: Do you think it’s unnecessary to have some line somewhere that says, “Whoa, that’s too much testosterone”?


Karkazis: I don’t, because any line--and this is something that I think that sports officials have acknowledged--any line will always be arbitrary. So where you draw that line is not going to be easy because it’s hard to disaggregate the effect of testosterone from everything else; not only everything physiological and, for example, genetic, but all of those other factors that are non-biological that go into one’s athletic performance, like access to good trainers, nutrition, facilities and support and other things. So, testosterone is but one component of athleticism and it’s important, but it’s not really the miracle molecule of athleticism that people say it is.


Werman: In the meantime, Dutee Chand says she’s psyched to be competing again but she is out of shape, she says. Being out of the running for even less than a year can be a career breaker for these athletes.


Karkazis: So that’s something that she’ll never be able to recover and the impact of that is enormous. She’s been in newspapers for a year, there’s been a lot of stigmatizing reporting, I think some reporting has gotten much better, and she’ll never be able to get that year back. And for track and field, this is the prime of her career. So, I have a lot of faith in her, I know she’s going to come back strong. She’s one of the most convicted 19-year-olds I’ve ever met in my life and I trust she’s going to bring it back and work hard.


Werman: Enough faith in her that you plan to see her competing next year in Rio?


Karkazis: You know what? If she qualifies, I’m going to buy a plane ticket, yes.


Werman: Katrina Karkazis, a bioethicist at Stanford University. Thank you so much, good to talk with you again.


Karkazis: Oh, thanks so much for covering the issue.