On Uneven Playing Field, Chand Stands Steady

Champion sprinter Dutee Chand is no stranger to life’s disproportions. The 18-year-old daughter of Indian weavers knows what it’s like to survive on eight dollars a week, live in a two-room mud hut with no toilet, and encounter gender discrimination and scrutiny regarding her appearance and performance as an elite female athlete.

Dutee Chand. (Courtesy of Vipin Chandran)

Dutee Chand. (Courtesy of Vipin Chandran)

That’s why the Indian track star, who fell in love running on the banks of the Brahmani River in India at age four, was not intimidated or defeated when a career and life-altering decision was announced in mid-July.

Following Chand’s two gold-medal victories at the Asian Junior Athletics Championship in Tapei, an unknown competitor requested for the muscular champion to undergo testing for what he or she believed to be an unfair competitive advantage. In response, the Sports Authority of India (SAI), in compliance with the rules of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and theInternational Olympic Committee (IOC), tested Chand for hyperandrogenism, a condition involving the production of high levels of testosterone. Chand’s positive results scratched her from competition at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow at the end of the summer, and also banned her altogether from future races against women.

Because the International Olympic Committee (IOC) uses the measurement of testosterone levels as the distinguishing factor between male and female athletes, track’s governing bodies have also followed suit with these methods of classification.

Despite the clout that the IOC possesses in the world of athletics, flaws within their gender classification system have been repeatedly identified. Although testosterone is known to help muscles grow and aid in the body’s recovery after workouts, research shows that “there is no clear scientific evidence proving that a high level of testosterone is a significant determinant in female sports.”

According to Kate Fagan of espnW, the IOC’s desire to pinpoint testosterone as the source of athletic success furthers the divide between male and female athletes.

Fagan says, “Out of the thousands of genetic variants that athletes possess, the IOC has singled out just one for regulation, and it affects only female athletes.”

The playing field for men and women in the testosterone case is anything but level. While males are also tested for testosterone, problems only emerge when unnatural drugs that boost the hormone are discovered. For women, however, the natural production of testosterone is enough to raise red flags.

Fagan believes the IOC’s testosterone policy is a form of gender profiling, as well as a concerted effort to thwart the unconventionalities of female athletics today. Fagan says, “In some very obvious ways, this policy amounts to a witch hunt, a persecution of women who do not fit our traditional Western notion of femininity.”

Chand has refused to comply with expected norms, however.

Amid the decision to ban her from competition, Chand was faced with options that would lower her testosterone to the IOC’s appropriate level for females, and thus, permit her reentry to the competitive stage. She was told to either take drugs to suppress the testosterone production within her body or undergo surgery to control it.

Chand has been urged by coaches and family alike to undergo unnatural physical alterations for the sake of competition. These urgings result from the comparison of Chand’s situation to that of Caster Semenya; South Africa’s 2009 800-meter world champion who was banned from competition for gender discrepancies, but was later reinstated following testing and treatment.

Chand, however, isn’t budging.

“I feel that it’s wrong to have to change your body for sport participation,” Chand said in a New York Times article. “I’m not changing for anyone.”

Among those who have attempted to persuade Chand in the direction of compliance is a voice of reason. Dr. Payoshni Mitra, a research consultant on gender and issues within athletics, has worked directly with Chand to provide guidance for her situation and caution against unnatural remedies.

Mitra says, “The current policy that requires women athletes with hyperandrogenism to undergo therapy or surgery if they want to compete again is encouraging genital mutilation in an institutionalized way.”

With this advice, as well as her own personal convictions, Chand is not only electing to forgo the suggested therapies, but she is also refusing to hang up her spikes without a fight.

Chand filed an appeal in September with the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland and challenged the IAAF’s standards for female participation in track events. The case is expected to take months to produce a verdict about Chand’s future in track.

Nonetheless, Chand is not fighting alone. According to the New Indian Express, the SAI is in her corner, and has written to the Ministry of Sports on her behalf. They are currently in search of permission to go before the IAAF to argue her case.

Chand is optimistic that she will begin competing again by springtime.

“I can come back. Though I have to wait for another four years for the Asian Games or the Commonwealth Games, I am thinking positive. I want to run again,” Chand told the New Indian Express.

Despite the distress that Chand’s situation has brought upon her, she is most disappointed that the barring of her participation has gone against the mores of what originally attracted her to athletics.

“When girls play a sport, they are treated equally, so society becomes more equal,” Chand told theNew York Times. “I really liked that.”

Chand’s search for equality, both on and off the track at the elite level, has involved more hurdles than she could have imagined during her younger days along the Brahmani River. But, for this unmovable champion, a toughness and resolve persist, along with a belief that who we are in our purest forms supersedes what we appear to be in the eyes of others. For a female like Chand, whose femininity is constantly in question, there is nothing more exemplary of womanly strength and beauty.

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The Fine Line Between Muscles and Masculinity

For a college or professional athlete, there is no escaping the weight room. It is an essential ingredient in the recipe for athletic success when competing at a high level. The combination of strength and skill allows athletes to raise their levels of play to extraordinary heights, while altering their physical appearances in the process.

Serena Williams. (Courtesy of Neil Munns)

Serena Williams. (Courtesy of Neil Munns)

As a female athlete, however, the recipe for athletic success is often complicated by societal pressures and gender norms. Because of the common social stigmas that come with being a muscular woman, female athletes are often faced with a conflicting desire to get stronger in order to improve their athletic performances, while attempting to avoid the attainment of a masculine physique.

For women, a constant pressure exists to be toned, but never jacked. But, at what point does one lose her girlish softness, which the media tells us is essential for femininity? For females athletes, it is somewhere between the squat rack and the barbell.

During my experience as a Division I college athlete, I have personally grappled with the issue of maintaining femininity in a sport that requires actions that are anything but feminine.

For a power sport like softball, where quick and explosive spurts of energy are required for success at the college level, weightlifting involves much more than your typical treadmill workout with an occasional dumbbell thrown into the mix. With movements like cleans, snatches, squats, and presses making up our daily training regimens, my teammates and I often find ourselves struggling to fit into our street clothes without standing out amongst other females in the crowd.

In order to uphold our femininity in the eyes of onlookers, we compete with faces full of makeup, hair tied back with ribbons, and body parts adorned in jewelry. Despite our efforts, however, our physiques still hinder others’ perceptions of us, as we are often judged by both our athletic and non-athletic contemporaries as being manly because of our muscles.

The idea that muscles are reserved solely for men and wanting them is a sin worth reprimanding is still an issue that often plagues female athletes today. According to Vikki Krane, a professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, society’s perception that muscles equate to masculinity often makes women self-conscious of their appearances, and can lead to eating disorders which hinder health and athletic performances.

Even an elite athlete like tennis star Serena Williams feels self-conscious about her muscular appearance. In 2009, the 33-time Major Champion confessed feelings of insecurity about her well-built arms in an interview with People Magazine.

“I think they’re too muscular. They’re too thick,” Williams said. “Look at Michelle Obama. I’m like, ‘keep wearing strapless dresses!’ But I don’t like mine.”

Athlete Camille Leblanc-Bazinet competing at the CrossFit Games. (Courtesy of CrossFit, Inc.)

Athlete Camille Leblanc-Bazinet competing at the CrossFit Games. (Courtesy of CrossFit, Inc.)

Much of these notions of unattractiveness come from the media’s perception that the stronger the female, the more masculine characteristics she will possess.

Judgment of female appearances and the over-sexualization of women cannot be avoided, even in highly competitive settings. When the phrase “female athletes” is searched on Google, the first two results that come up are Men’s Fitness Magazine articles for “The Sexiest Female Athletes of 2014” and the “Top 10 Sexiest Female Athletes of 2013.” In fact, five of the nine initial results found involve the words “hot” or “sexy” in reference to the description of female athletes.

Achieving the media-driven depiction of the “ideal” athletic body hardly involves the bulky biceps and bulging quadriceps that are realities for most high-level female athletes.

The truth of the situation is that there are no easy answers for female athletes because society does not make it easy to be a muscular woman.

However, with all clichés and nuances aside, overcoming the stigma of being a muscular female athlete starts with the athletes themselves. By refusing to accept society’s expectations as acceptable norms, more women will be empowered by their strength instead of intimidated by it.

With initiatives like Nike’s “strong is the new beautiful” t-shirts, popular Twitter hashtags like #girlswholift, and the emerging popularity of the CrossFit Games on ESPN, more attention than ever is being focused on female strength. The continued exposure of muscular women to the general public will make female strength less of a misunderstood enigma, and more of an accepted norm.

And like any other social movement in our world today, with enough people behind the cause, a change in opinions is definitely feasible.