The memory of Dutee Chand’s fight for her right to compete for the simple reason of having a natural inherent condition is still fresh in our minds. Dutee unwittingly became the face of a global debate around gender and sports when she chose to challenge the rule laid down in 2011 by IAAF, that women who naturally produce testosterone at levels usually seen in men will be ineligible to compete as women. The condition is called hyperandrogenism, and such athletes have two ways to deal with this, quit or undergo medical intervention, requiring surgery and hormone therapy to lower androgen levels.
Dutee’s fight took her to the Court of Arbitration of Sports (CAS) in Lausanne, Switzerland. The lady who came to her aid was Dr Payoshni Mitra, an athlete’s rights advocate who is one of the few people in the Global South or developing countries working closely with hyperandrogenic athletes and athletes who identify as women with intersex variations in Asia and Africa.
Her empathy for them stemmed from her own experience of abuse as a young athlete and she decided to pursue a PhD in Gender issues in Sports. “It’s a form of institutionalised discrimination that is taking place, so embedded in the structure of sports which needs to be fought together. These athletes have been suffering alone so it’s important for me to reach out to them and create those alliances so that we can fight something so severe.
There is still no substantial research on gender and sports. And, most athletes are unaware that there is a body they can go to challenge such rules,” says Dr Payoshni Mitra who was the government-appointed mediator on Dutee Chand’s case. Her job is not an easy one.
With a sensitive issue such as this, reaching out to the athletes, some of whom come from really poor backgrounds and are afraid of facing the wrath of sports authorities, is the first hurdle, and getting them to trust her is another challenge. “Before Dutee, I reached out to most athletes and told them there is support if they want it.
Now since I’m working in the public domain, people from Africa are also reaching out to me,” adds Dr Payoshni. The support she brings is a substantial one – involving a global network of athletes, government officials, advocates, scholars, scientists, and media professionals.
She also has to walk a tightrope fighting for their rights since certain cases are not in the public domain. “A big challenge I face is protecting their identities. There are plenty of girls I know about whose cases aren’t known. It’s a very personal issue and you don’t want to be outed. So, I have to fight for someone’s right while maintaining confidentiality, it’s tough,” reflects Dr Payoshni who believes there is an insensitivity to any sort of difference, especially in a body-centric field like sports.
Acceptance of a difference will take a long time in a field plagued by patriarchy and racial injustice. In such a male-dominated arena, for a woman to bring about a difference in approach to gender issues is an exacting task. And, for Dr Payoshni, one of the experts working with South African Caster Semenya to fight against regulations targetted at lowering testosterone levels of hyperandrogenic athletes like her, taking challenges head-on are her way of life.