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How India’s Dutee Chand ran past gender barriers to compete in Rio

Dutee Chand of Odisha competes in New Delhi on April 28, 2016.

CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Dutee Chand, India's national sprinting champion, will race in the women's 100 metres on Friday, with a small contingent of Indian athletics fans to cheer her on – and a backing squad of international lawyers and academics, spearheaded by a Canadian professor, who helped get her on to the track in Rio.

Chand, 20, is from a weaving village in Odisha, one of India's poorest states. She ran barefoot for years because she could not risk wearing out her one pair of school sandals.

She won India's sprint title in 2013, but the following year, weeks before she was to run at the Commonwealth Games, the sport's governing body informed her she was permanently banned from competition unless she had surgery or took other medical steps to alter her body chemistry. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) ruled that she had failed a test for hyperandrogenism (the latest iteration of gender verification) because her natural testosterone level had been ruled too high for her to be considered a woman.

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Ms. Chand was by all accounts mystified – she had not even known that gender testing existed. When the South African runner Caster Semenya faced a similar controversy in 2009, her country stepped up to defend her and filed a human rights complaint with the United Nations. India, however, did not seem prepared to fight for Ms. Chand.

That might have been the end of her running career, except that her case caught the attention of a loose network of advocates who were opposed to the insistence of sport's highest bodies on policing gender – and defining who gets to be a woman. One of them was Bruce Kidd, a historian and the principal of the University of Toronto Scarborough, as well as a former track and field athlete who competed for Canada in the 1964 Olympics.

Prof. Kidd served on the Commonwealth expert group on sport, and two years ago he found himself at a meeting in Glasgow, where he spoke to the Indian delegation about appealing the ruling against Ms. Chand to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Switzerland.

The Indians agreed in principle but would not pay for it. So Prof. Kidd enlisted James Bunting, a prominent Toronto lawyer with expertise in both sport cases and Charter challenges, who agreed to take the case pro bono.

At a CAS hearing in Lausanne in March, 2015, the IAAF said its policy serves to protect female athletes and preserve a level field of competition. Ms. Chand's team argued this issue is fundamentally different from doping, that there is no medical evidence that having an elevated level of naturally occurring testosterone gives a female athlete an advantage. Testosterone level, they said, is just one factor in an athlete's performance, and other variables, such as national and personal income, access to facilities and coaching and biomechanical analysis and nutrition, play a far larger role in determining an athlete's performance.

The court agreed, suspending for two years the IAAF policy requiring women to undergo medically unnecessary hormone therapy or surgery if they wished to compete – and clearing Ms. Chand to compete as a woman.

The court said the requirement that an athlete's natural testosterone fall within parameters arbitrarily determined to be normal for women was discriminatory (gender verification is never applied to male athletes, who can have any level of testosterone) and could not be justified, even in the interest of fair play.

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The IAAF said more than 30 female athletes had so far been caught up by the hyperandgrogenism regulation and that four had already undergone surgery and other treatments in order to lower their testosterone levels to what the IAAF said would qualify them as women.

For Ms. Chand's backers, the ruling was a win for all the female athletes caught up in what Dr. Kidd calls a "moral panic." While no one expects her to win a medal on Friday, her presence on the track is a victory in itself.

"It's about a young girl from a remote corner of the world who had dared to dream," said Payoshni Mitra, who heads a project on gender discrimination in sport in Kolkata and who was one of the first to take up Ms. Chand's cause, by e-mail. "The fact that she will be running after all the humiliation two years back, the incredible fight in India and at an international stage, is huge."

Paul Melia, president of the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, testified in the CAS case that to subject an athlete to the testing the IAAF uses would be considered a violation of human rights law in Canada.

But Friday may be Ms. Chand's first and last Olympic appearance. The IAAF has said it intends to provide evidence that high naturally occurring testosterone provides an unfair advantage, and the International Olympic Committee says it will follow the IAAF.

Ms. Chand's case first came up when the Athletics Federation of India requested she be tested – presumably because her competitors in India had raised questions because she did not have a conventionally feminine appearance – and it was the Indian track and field authority that first banned her. The case followed the controversy over Ms. Semenya, who won a silver medal in the 800 metres in London in 2012 and is a favourite for gold here next week.

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After Ms. Semenya began to win international events with record-setting times seven years ago, athletics officials subjected her to gender testing – at first not even telling her what they were doing. She endured years of controversy and invasive and humiliating testing practices.

Dr. Kidd says he believes it is not coincidence that all of the athletes who have so far been caught up in this issue are brown women from developing countries.

"This is a panic triggered by another extraordinarily gifted and well-trained runner from the global south who's faster than what they expect the subalterns to be," he said in a phone interview from Vancouver, where he will cheer for Ms. Chand.

"Dutee and Caster are women who believe they are women – who may have naturally high levels of inherent natural testosterone. They are successful athletes and they do not conform to the dominant expectation of what womanhood should be as per the IAAF handbook. These sporting bodies are locked in a binary view of gender and frightened by the fact that you have extraordinary women doing amazing things."

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About the Author
Latin America Bureau Chief

Stephanie Nolen is the Latin America correspondent for The Globe and Mail.After years as a roving correspondent that included coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Stephanie moved to Johannesburg in 2003 to open a new bureau for The Globe, to report on what she believed was the world's biggest uncovered story, Africa's AIDS pandemic. More

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