The Interpretation of Gender and Unfair Advantages In Sport

Reflecting on how some female athletes are banned from competitive sport because of gender issues, the piece casts a larger question on what physical characteristics should be considered as creating unfair advantage in sport?

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If you follow Indian Athletics, you would be familiar the name Duttee Chand, a promising sprinter, in the last couple of years swiftly rose into prominence to become the country’s best prospect in 100m and 200m. However this journey has been cut short as suspicion was raised on her gender. After a battery of tests it was found that she has more male hormones than is permissible to compete as a female. She needs further tests and possibly medical or surgical intervention before she can return to run. This is not the first time a female athlete in India has gone through this. Shanti Soundarajan (2006) and Pinki Pramanik (2012) are at least two other cases in the recent past.

Duttee is still a teenager and as this piece by Shivani Naik in Indian Express suggests, a huge pall of uncertainty glooms over her promising career.For instance, currently she is banned from International contests and is not competing in the ongoing Asiad, where she was expected to make her first big splash on the international scene. That was not be.

These cases raise a larger question. Why do we have such deterministic standards (based on physical characteristics) of what constitutes gender in sport? The manifestation of Gender as a neat dichotomous construct (Male or Female) is more of a social construction (Duttee or any of the other athletes I mentioned earlier were raised as females) than a scientific one. The latter is perhaps more fuzzy.

A further question is that of what constitutes unfair advantage in Sport? For instance height clearly signals an advantage in basketball and volleyball. Yet both these sports do not organize competition by height categories. Hence teams from “taller” [sic] nations have historically fared better.Yet, there are other sports that recognize the import of these advantages. Boxing and wrestling are clearly organized by weight categories. But perhaps all these respective sports look more spectacular because of this organization. We wouldn’t enjoy a basketball or volleyball game as much with shorter players.

Similarly, if women born with certain characteristics can run faster/better, why do we hold that as an unfair advantage? Is it different from being taller than others which lets one pocket more baskets than the rest or be better spikers?