In 2014, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the organization that governs world track and field competition, banned 18-year-old Indian sprinter Dutee Chand from international competition. The IAAF applied its 2011 Regulations Governing Eligibility of Females with Hyperandrogenism to Compete in Women's Competition, which defined hyperandrogenism as having levels of testosterone considered too high for a female.
Some of Chand's opponents - presumably coaches or athletes from other teams - had complained that she wasn't a ‘real woman', triggering the IAAF's invasive investigation, which started with a blatant deception: telling Chand that a routine blood test required an ultrasound, and ultimately produced the so-called 'diagnosis' of hyperandrogenism.
Unlike many other female athletes with this inaccurately labelled ‘health problem', Chand did not comply with the IAAF's conditions for reinstatement. Instead, she challenged the ruling and took her case to the international Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). On July 27, 2015, the CAS announced a decision that was as surprising as it was enlightened: It immediately suspended the IAAF's hyperandrogenism regulations for a maximum of two years, giving as grounds the absence of "scientific evidence about the quantitative relationship between enhanced testosterone levels and improved athletic performance in hyperandrogenic athletes."
No doubt the IAAF will not waste a minute of this two-year period trying to assemble scientific evidence to support its outdated ideas about strict gender binaries and culturally specific (that is, white and western) definitions of ‘femininity'. In fact, the CAS specifically endorsed a statement made during the hearing that "nature is not neat" and went on to emphasise that "there is no single determinant of sex" - a point upon which the scientific community has agreed for decades.
It is to be hoped that the CAS requirement for scientific evidence might disqualify the biased anecdotal testimony from women like UK marathon runner Paula Radcliffe, who asserted that higher testosterone levels made the competition "unfair" and added that lots of other top runners agreed with her - hardly ‘expert' or unbiased witnesses.
Although, in the last few years, the IAAF has paid more attention to privacy and confidentiality than it did in the high-profile case of Caster Semenya, information about the brutalising impacts of its hyperandrogenism regulations has become public, most notably the cases of four female athletes aged 18 to 21, all from rural areas of developing countries. The IAAF began these investigations following complaints during the London 2012 Olympics. Rather than give up their athletic careers, the young women agreed to have surgery to remove internal testes that produced the alleged problem of high testosterone levels. Shockingly, they underwent further surgery that had no bearing whatsoever on their athletic ability - ‘femininizing vaginoplasty' and clitoral reduction - along with estrogen replacement therapy. Imagine the outcry that would follow if the teenage targets had been Katie Ledecky or Gabby Douglas.
Thirty years ago, a movie on international women's body building competition, Pumping Iron II - The Women, included a bizarre scene involving the judges - old white guys - who were sitting around the table deliberating, in all seriousness, what constituted a ‘feminine' muscle. This scenario seems benign when one considers what today's IAAF ‘experts' have been doing, behind the scenes, to come up with mandates for surgery that amounts to genital mutilation. How is it that these ‘experts' have the right to define a ‘normal' vagina or clitoris? Are they sitting around the table describing, discussing and ‘redesigning' these young women's genitalia? How is this moral or ethical?
Such prurient obsessions are not confined to IAAF experts. During the Southeast Asian Games last June, Malaysian gymnast Farah Ann Abdul Hadi won two gold medals, prompting her country's Minister for Islamic Affairs to take issue with her attire - a leotard that, he claimed, revealed the outline of her genitalia. As Australian sport commentator Peter FitzSimmons asked, why on earth was he looking so closely? The same month, Iranian women were banned from watching men's international volleyball matches, leading FitzSimmons to conclude that all this was not simply a matter of respecting cultural differences - it was repression of women.
Although, up to this point, the targets of this kind of repression, at least the publicised targets, have been women from non-western countries, the overarching problems of discrimination, sexual harassment and sexual exploitation of girls and women in sport are not limited to these contexts. In many respects, the ‘no girls allowed/aloud' rule still applies to the schoolyard, the locker room, the TV studio and the board room. And in these scenarios, despite increasing public awareness about transgender people, and recognition that significant numbers of transgender women and men began questioning their gender identities as children, ‘gender-non-conforming' individuals experience additional layers of prejudice, often starting at a young age. Finally, racism and homophobia work hand in hand with all the other ‘isms' to make everyday life challenging, often overwhelming, for these young people.
And the silence surrounding misogyny is deafening. Witness the audience response - laughing and clapping at the insults Donald Trump hurled at women, especially assertive women, last week. What about girls who are overweight, or not conventionally attractive, or unpopular - are they ‘dogs' and ‘fat slobs'? What about the boys whose fathers applauded Trump - will they now insult girls and women with impunity? And what is the connection to sport? At its best, it can promote physical confidence and competence, a sense of fairness and mutual respect, fun and friendship. At worst, it can produce more Trumps: winning is everything, no one remembers losers, girls are losers.
Helen Jefferson Lenskyj is a Professor Emerita at the University of Toronto, Canada who writes frequently on issues of gender and sexuality in sport.