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Sport: gender-testing guidelines suspended

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sportGender testing ‘goes to the very heart of the perception of women who play sport’.

The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) has had its guidelines on hyperandrogenism suspended for two years after their validity was questioned.

And if during those two years the IAAF cannot find any further evidence to support the form of gender testing in question, the rules will be have to be scrapped.

Hyperandrogenism is a condition which causes higher than normal levels of testosterone in women and girls.

Dutee Chand had her whole life turned upside down when, in 2014, she was dropped from the Indian team for the Commonwealth Games less than two weeks before they started.

The rising star of Indian athletics, the first Indian sprinter to reach a world athletics event in 2013, predicted, at just 19, to be a future Olympic medallist had failed a hormone test.

Chand, however, rejected hormone therapy and possibly genital surgery and challenged the ruling.

She and Dr Payoshni Mitra, a researcher on gender issues, put together a case and presented it to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in October 2014.

And in July 2015 the CAS concluded that not only were the guidelines flawed but there was no evidence to show that such “abnormal” levels of testosterone produced a significant improvement in athletic performance.

So Chand has been cleared to race – and is now hoping to qualify for the Rio Olympics in 2016.

The guidelines were only introduced after the last high profile case, that of South African runner Caster Semenya, who was asked to take a gender test in 2009 shortly before winning the 800m at the World Athletics Championships in Berlin – and breaking a world record.

She didn’t conform to some feminine “norm” being distinctly muscular while still a teenager. Suspicions lead to the IAAF being “obliged to investigate”, although this was initially to discount drug-taking.

Semenya went through years of abuse and intense scrutiny before she made a comeback and won a silver medal at the London2012 Olympics.

For a long time now doubts have been expressed about why and how tests have been carried out.

And it is not just in athletics where this is an issue.

All the teams were ‘gender-tested’ before the Women’s World Cup in June. Each team’s doctor had to complete and document the testing before signing a ‘declaration of gender verification‘.

Many see this as just a necessary evil in the life of a female athlete, but there have been instances where the practice has been ruthlessly and cynically exploited.

In 2013 for example, seven coaches threatened to boycott the the South Korean football K-League if the exceptional Seoul City striker Park Eun-Seon was not only tested but also banned from playing until her gender could be verified.

This obviously had nothing to with the fact that she was on a run of 19 goals in 22 games.

As I wrote for WVoN at the time: “Gender testing goes far beyond one group’s attempt to nobble a league’s top scorer through lies and intimidation, shocking though that is.

“It goes to the very heart of the perception of women who play sport.”

But since then there has been a new and worrying development, to which I alluded above; the ‘normalisation” of female genitalia’.

One part of the therapy suggested to ‘combat’ hyperandrogenism can be ‘clitoral reduction’ or removal of internal testes.

However, such surgery is based on the theory that high levels of testosterone or androgens improve athletic ability.

Can it really be that women are being operated on so that they conform to someone’s idea of what genitalia should look like?

There is all the campaigning going on around the evils of ‘culturally inspired’ female genital mutilation (FGM), and yet here it seems to be sanctioned – in the name of sport.

As this is looking to be a discredited theory this practice should be stopped immediately. The CAS, you recall, has concluded that there is no evidence to show that “abnormal” levels of testosterone produce a significant improvement in athletic performance.

The IAAF has two years to sort out its hyperandrogenism guidelines.

Meanwhile other gender testing goes on regardless.

Where this leaves intersex athletes or women with unusual hormonal make-ups is unclear.

And while doctors may no longer ask women athletes to drop their underwear to gauge gender, it seems some of the science is still rooted in fantasy.

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