In the deepening crisis embroiling the IAAF and it’s failure to uphold doping regulations is the tawdry tale of the human rights abuses meted out to female athletes who failed to conform to the artificial values the IAAF adopted to designate who it deemed female enough to compete in elite athletics.
At face value the present turmoil the IAAF finds itself in seems straightforward enough: the international body charged with applying anti-doping regulations is accused of looking the other way in hundreds of cases of positive doping results because the individuals were too high value to be indicted. The inference that many of the most well known names in elite athletics may be doping is reinforced by the news that Russia has quietly acceded to being banned from all international elite athletics for the forseeable future. It is highly unlikely they are the only culprits in this tawdry tale of money and corruption, riven as it is with international rivalries.
Into this boiling cauldron of competing rivalries came accusations that some female athletes were not really anything of the sort. That they were masquerading. Many of the accusations came from the same quarters that are now found to have been systematically doping to win: for personal and national esteem.
So loud were these calls for something to be done, that the IAAF and the IOC did exactly that.
Sport is often described as war without the shooting. National esteem measured in the number of gold medals a nation wins at international events.
Sporting authority has long had a problem with women. To begin with women were not even permitted to compete in sport, and when they were, the question then became – how to define what is a woman. It is that question which remains to this day.
Women continue to be defined by what they are not – that is, men. Except that the boundaries that define men and women are wholly artificial, and not nearly as clear cut as many beleive.
As Katrina Karkazis et al observed in their article – Hyperadrogenism in Elite Female Athletics
In the earliest iteration of sex testing, female competitors were required to provide medical “certificates of femininity,” but the IAAF and IOC provided no standard criteria and exercised no oversight for making this determination (Heggie 2010). Conceivably, these markers could be based entirely on social and cultural criteria of femininity such as hairstyle and dress (Heggie 2010). Thus, outwardly observable feminine characteristics (gen-der) served as a proxy for biology (sex).
In a bid to finally put this question behind them forever, and utilise science as the mechanism to answer the question once and for all, the IAAF adopted genetic testing in 1996, in Atlanta, and in doing so immediately discovered that a significant number of women embodied Xy chromosomes. It wasn’t what the IAAF either expected, or wanted to learn. This knowledge was disregarded and most of the athletes were permitted to continue competing, only to retire quietly afterward.
Genetic testing was subsequently dropped in 1999 as the deciding factor in defining female athletes, but only after the degrading exclusion of athletes like Maria Jose Martinez-Patiño
That left the IAAF with a problem of it’s own making, and in the place of genetics it then fell upon the idea of using blood testosterone to separate elite male and female athletes from one another. The IAAF adopted wholesale the parameters and protocols used to define intersex children as male or female. The IAAF commissioned a massed test , carried out at an international meet in South Korea, of the female athletes and the subsequent peer reviewed paper was intended to support the values it had adopted.
It did nothing of the sort. In fact the paper went some way to contradict the IAAF’s adoption of blood testosterone as the defining factor in separating men and women, and also questioned the inference that a woman’s endogenous blood-t level was analagous to doping.
The lack of definitive research linking female hyperandrogenism and sporting performance is problematic and represents another central point of the controversy (9, 31). With the exception of data extracted from doping programs in female athletes in the former German Democratic Republic (7), there is no clear scientific evidence proving that a high level of T is a significant determinant of performance in female sports.
At the 2012 London Olympics 4 athletes were caught in the net of the newly adopted blood testosterone level regulations, and the realities of what that meant became clear. They were all forced to undergo clitorectomies, and invasive surgeries that sterilised them, as a price for being permitted to continue to compete. None of which were remotely related to their athletic prowess, and all of which compromised their future health prospects.
The blood testosterone testing protocol was suspended by the Court of Arbitration in Lausanne earlier this year after an astonishingly successful campaign by Dutee Chand – an athlete who refused to acquiesce to the demands of the regulations – her campaign was ably supported and aided by Payoshni Mitra and Katrina Karkazis.
The names of those who have been summararily thrown out of athletics because they did not conform is short: most do not publicise their plight. Of those that do, their names should be remembered: Santhi Soundarajan, Maria Jose Martinex Patĩno, Foekje Dillema. To which roll call of honour should be added the name of Caster Semenya – an athlete who maintained a dignity in the face of disreputable press hounding and vilification.
All these women, and many more besides who remain unnamed, have suffered for being who they are, whilst those who pointed the finger continued to compete in the full knowledge of an athletics authority that knew many were systematically doping in order to succeed.
The IAAF owes all these women a profound apology, and a public explanation for what on earth has been going on these past years.