Yet Chand still competed at the highest international level – until she was diagnosed with hyperandrogenism, the natural production of high levels of testosterone which could give her body an extra boost of strength. With little thought of how it would devastate her life, she was dropped by the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) whose leaders, like Adille Sumariwalla, seemed more concerned with maintaining their status with the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), than supporting their own athletes.
But Chand fought back, managing to be heard by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. She argued she was being treated worse than athletes who took performance enhancing drugs, who were punished but then allowed back to compete. Mishra writes: “For the athletes producing testosterone naturally without taking supplements, it was like telling them, ‘You are a different species; it’s wonderful. But sorry, you are not allowed to compete…”
Chand won, and hopes to win a medal in the Tokyo Olympics. But the issue is not going away. Allegations of unfairness are being made against many women athletes accused of having unfair advantages because of their natural condition. A particular focus is New Zealand’s weightlifter Laurel Hubbard, who is competing after completing her gender transition. Such athletes are said to violate the Olympics vision of fairness, with sports an arena of pure ability.
But this is a notably one-sided vision, usually only invoked when an athlete from the developed world is faced competitors from the developing world whose abilities can somehow be labelled unfair. Such as with East African runners whose natural physique combined with high-altitude homes that develop greater lung power helps them with endurance events. There have been grumblings about the unfairness of competing with them, and the immense attention that any white athlete who appears able to challenge them immediately gets is an indication of how these feelings have never quite gone away.
In the early years of the Modern Olympics, fairness fuelled the debate over amateurs and professionals. The former were said to embody the Olympic spirit, while the latter were only in it for the money. These neatly reserved the Games for rich athletes who could afford the time to train, while excluding those like the poor, but immensely versatile Jim Thorpe, who was stripped of his two gold medals in the 1912 Games after it emerged that he had played semi-professional baseball. Thorpe, not coincidentally, was Native American.
Allegations of unfairness against athletes like Chand follow the same tactic. At her hearing she was supported by Madeleine Pape, an Australian Olympic athlete who had become an academic researching gender in sports. Pape pointed to how athletes from countries that gave them access to every advantage, including good childhood diets, and then access to good training and facilities, were already at a huge advantage. “So when the IAAF focused on a single biological trait in the Hyperandrogenism Regulations, it completely failed to tell the world in how many different ways the world of track and field was inherently ‘un-level’,” writes Mishra.
Equipment is another issue. Cycling might seem like a sport suited to competitors from developing countries, where bicycles are imperative transport. Yet the sport is dominated by countries who can support the huge cost of creating the specialised cycles used for most Olympic events. Australia’s Electron Pro bikes for Tokyo 2020, for example, took over 4,500 hours of development, and will cost $18,000 each. Arguably, the real competition in Cycling happens in the design labs of rich countries, but somehow questions of fairness are rarely raised.
Another example can be seen in the competing fortunes of wrestling and Modern Pentathlon. The former is an ancient sport which requires no special equipment. Athletes compete with their most basic asset, their bodies, and it is dominated by competitors from the developed world. The latter was created purely for the Olympics and involves running, swimming, fencing, shooting and horse riding, the latter three disciplines all involving immense cost. When Mexico’s Ismael Hernandez Uscanga won bronze in Rio in 2016 he was the first medallist from outside the developed world or the former Soviet Union and its allies, where competitors nearly all have support from their militaries (as does Uscanga).
Yet in 2013 it was wrestling that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) voted to drop from the Games, while Modern Pentathlon was not challenged, despite its absurdly high barriers to competition. It was widely suggested that this was because the vice-president of its international federation is the son of Juan Samaranch, the revered former president of the IOC, and clearly someone well versed with its politics. The backlash against the decision to drop wrestling was strong enough to get the
to reverse its decision, in a rare real victory for fairness in the Games. It was an example of how the one-sided use of fairness by the developed world can be combated, starting with its use against women athletes like Chand and Hubbard.