World Athletics, please note: DSD regulations are a violation of human rights

December 5, 2020

AthleticsWorld Athletics


Deep into the Human Rights Watch (HRW) report titled ‘They’re Chasing Us Away From Sport’, which was released on 4 December, the already painful recounting of the wrecked lives of women athletes delivers a harder kick in the gut.

At a domestic athletics meet after World Athletics’s (WA) April 2018 new eligibility regulations for women were announced, a coach saw the crowd, mostly “people in the athletics industry” taunting an athlete.

“I’ve heard whispers and gossip but I’d never heard a crowd suddenly start…” They were, “laughing, booing and hissing, ‘hey it’s a guy, it’s a guy.’”

A short while later, the coach saw a group of sportswomen huddled together in the car, crying.

In the past, each of them had been name-called by peers, athletics officials or the general public because they did not conform to the stereotype of what ‘female’ athletes should look like.

The new HRW report documents just how far-reaching the toxic trickledown effects of these regulations are, affecting not just athletes but also their families, officials, and the environment around the sport itself.

The report has a subtitle–Human Rights Violations In Sex Testing of Elite Women Athletes–and it escalates WA’s “eligibility regulations for female classification” from medico-scientific decoy into what it really is: the abuse of the rights of women athletes to privacy, dignity and health. The idea that athletes must have “human rights” is contrary to elite sport folklore, which is laden with physical hardship, suffering and a coach’s “tough love”. What the “eligibility regulations for female classification” has done, as highlighted in the report, is to assault the body, soul and spirit of women coming through puberty and adolescence.

One of them said, “When I won more and more, I only felt fear.”

HRW senior researcher Kyle Knight said the idea of the report began following the organisation’s involvement as expert witness for the South African Olympic champion Caster Semenya in the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). “HRW specialises in documenting human rights abuses through first-hand testimony,” and found there had been no “contemporary documentation of the range of impacts” the regulations had on women.

This is the company WA finds itself in: HRW’s last few reports have concerned labour rights, extrajudicial killings, incendiary/ chemical weapons, violence against women and sexual abuse in Haitian football. The research was carried out between July and November 2019, with Knight, athletes rights activist Payoshni Mitra and cultural anthropologist and bioethicist Katrina Karkazis conducting the interviews with 13 elite athletes and two coaches, and talking to other experts.

Mitra was part of Dutee Chand’s team in her case against the IAAF (World Athletics’s old name) where CAS ruled in Chand’s favour. Karkazis was an expert witness in Chand’s case and helped Semenya’s team during her legal challenge.

Knight said interviewing the athletes had given him “whiplash”: “exhilarating sporting accomplishments and blindsiding assaults on their dignity… I cannot even imagine what it feels like to experience first-hand the acute degradation inherent in these regulations.”

On its website, WA has put out a list of FAQ’s on classification of female eligibility. They do not address the simple questions that arise from the HRW report: Why aren’t women athletes clearly explained the situation at the start? Without an athlete’s permission, how can WADA dope tests double up as gender tests? What’s more, the January 2021 WADA code will officially allow sports bodies to use data from dope tests for their female eligibility criteria. Why aren’t athletes given their medical reports? What happens to the medical ethics of doctors ignoring the women in their care as patients and serving sporting bodies instead?

Why, as Knight confirms in his email, do “investigations under the contemporary regulations disproportionately target women of colour from the global south”? Knight was “unaware of any such investigations on white European or American women.” India knows its cases: Santhi Soundarajan, Pinki Pramanik, Chand. South Africa has Semenya. Another name features in the HRW report: Ugandan athlete Annet Negesa, 800m gold medallist at the 2011 All-Africa Games.

Negesa became the first athlete to speak about undergoing “corrective” surgery without full information, that formed part of a June 2013 study by Patrick Fenichel & Co. published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. The report, about the four women athletes, includes identifiable information about their personal lives and details about their private parts. Medical and legal scholars called the study, “biomedical violence” against the women. Along with Fenichel, one of the reports many authors is Stephane Bermon, who went on to become the director of the IAAF’s health and science department.

Negesa came out in public for the first time in the 2019 German TV documentary Gender Battle, the Abandoned Women of Sport, with disturbing clarity. In the film, a former member of the IAAF’s disciplinary committee Steve Cornelius calls the surgeries “a criminal act,” as they were not medically prescribed and carried out to enforce a sporting regulation.

The new WA regulations make no mention of surgeries but list seven conditions that will bar an athlete from competing in races between 400m and 1600m. Mitra says, “Let us not go ahead accepting there is science in their argument. Their science is flawed, it is not fool proof, it has been called out, it is not neutral. Their medical commission members have a particular lens.” In his role as IAAF expert witness in Chand’s case, Bermon informed the court that, “undeveloped countries tended to have more elite athletes with certain DSDs than developed countries”.

WA has already spun out the autonomy argument; that, being a private body, it is not subject to the human rights rules that HRW refers to, but remains committed to “equal treatment and non-discrimination.” Under that interpretation, athletes cannot be entitled to human rights.

In the report, WA boss Sebastian Coe’s “let’s level the field playing” homily is dismissed by a coach asking if the playing field is indeed level between athletes from a rich country, with the nutrition and training they can afford, and those from developing countries. The coach goes on to suggest two Olympics: “developed country Olympics and underdeveloped country Olympics.”

The HRW report demands that WA rescind the regulations. There has to be accountability, Knight said, “for what women have suffered and continue to suffer by the regulations.”

A backlash against the HRW report is almost predictable. But dismissing human rights of athletes as irrelevant or secondary not only damages women and men but also entire sporting ecosystems. It is how Larry Nasars are born.

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