Seema Punia Writes to AFI: What is Hyperandrogenism & Its Rules?

Seema sealed her qualification for the Olympics with a throw of a 63.72m at the Inter-State Athletics Championships.

Other Sports
4 min read
<div class="paragraphs"><p>Seema Punia qualified for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics on 30 June. </p></div>

Even as India’s athletes go through the gears in the final weeks, ahead of the delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympics, there is a controversy brewing in the discus department of the contingent.

In a letter to the Athletics Federation of India (AFI), Seema Punia, who will be going for her fourth Olympics, has raised serious questions about a fellow athlete. She wrote, asking that a hyperandrogenism test be conducted.

The athlete in question had sealed the Olympic qualification in March during the Federation Cup.

Seema, however sealed her qualification for the Olympics, with a gold medal-winning throw of a 63.72 meters, on the concluding day of the National Inter-State Athletics Championships on Tuesday, 29 June.


What Did Seema Punia Say?

On the same day she secured an Olympic berth, Seema wrote to the Athletics Federation of India, demanding a hyperandrogenism test on another Indian athlete, whom she will compete alongside in Tokyo.

“Judging by her physical build and extraordinary improvement, (she) doesn’t seem 'normal',” Seema was quoted as having written in her letter by Indian Express.

“In my career spanning more than two decades, I have not come across such improvement in any athlete. Over the last four years, this 25-year-old has improved her performance by 12-14 metres, which is unusual. Hence, I request you to conduct a hyperandrogenism test on the athlete in the interest of a level playing field, sporting spirit, and meaningful competition. If the country is serious about getting good results at the Olympics and several foreign coaches have been hired towards that end, why are the other athletes denied the guidance of the coach of the national record holder? There’s a lot of anger and dissatisfaction among women athletes over competition with such athletes. Even though their voices are muted at the moment, the feelings are bubbling inside."
Seema Punia
“All complaints are looked into by the Grievance Committee. The Committee will look into it.”
AFI President, Adille Sumariwalla, was quoted as saying by PTI when asked about the incident.

What is Hyperandrogenism?

Hyperandrogenism is a condition that causes higher testosterone levels than expected in biological females. Blood tests are used to check different hormones, along with thyroid function among other things. It is considered an advantage for affected athletes over the non-affected ones.

There are of course various forms, but the one the IAAF was specifically concerned with in 2019 was hyperandrogenism in intersex women that led to them having testosterone levels that were much higher than the average for females.

Men and women produce testosterone, but men generally produce much more.

Dutee Chand won a silver each in both 100m and 200m in 2018 Asian Games.
Dutee Chand won a silver each in both 100m and 200m in 2018 Asian Games.
(Photo: AP)

What Are the Rules?

According to the rule book used by the IAAF, the question surrounding hyperandrogenism and the sport does not apply to field events, which in turn could result in the AFI not doing too much about Seema’s request eventually.

If an athlete falls under the IAAF regulations for Female Athletes with Differences of Sexual Development, they are barred from events that range from 400m to 1 mile, including 400m, hurdles races, 800m, 1500m, 1 mile races and combined events over the same distances.

While hyperandrogenism is an area of concern in some event, the IAAF rules state:

Female athletes who do not wish to lower their testosterone levels will still be eligible to compete in:

  • (i) Competitions that are not international competitions: In all track events, field events, and combined events, including the restricted events; and

  • (ii) International competitions: In all track events, field events, and combined events, other than the restricted events

<div class="paragraphs"><p> Semenya’s appeal focuses on “fundamental human rights,” the lawyers said.</p></div>

Semenya’s appeal focuses on “fundamental human rights,” the lawyers said.

(Photo: AP)

Hyperandrogenism and Athletics

This is not the first time an athlete has been questioned due to higher testosterone levels than normal. In recent years, the harrowing gender row has affected the likes of India’s Dutee Chand, who will be in Tokyo, and South African Olympic champion Caster Semenya.

While the latter forced the IAAF to bring about formal regulations with regards to testosterone levels, an incident involving Spain’s Maria Martinez-Patino, who was made to leave an Olympic team in the mid-1980s, led the IAAF to instead consider testosterone levels when deciding who was eligible to compete as a woman.

It was in 2014 that Dutee’s hyperandrogenism was first brought up by the AFI in compliance with the International Olympic Committee, leading to widespread criticism for them and also the IAAF, as this was seen as a breach of privacy and human rights.

Dutee, of course, appealed the decision and a year later in 2015, after the IAAF regulations had been suspended, she was cleared of any wrongdoing by the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

South Africa’s Semenya too had a testing time with the authorities, as she went from court to court trying to make her point. From CAS to the European Court of Human Rights, her battle against world athletics has been nothing short of difficult.

With her, it all started off in 2009 when the IAAF asked her, the then teenager, to undergo a gender test after she won her first world title in Berlin. Plenty of back and forth happened on the matter between all stakeholders for the next decade before the sports world’s top court, CAS, ruled that Semenya and other female runners with unusually high testosterone must take medication to reduce their levels of the male sex hormone if they want to compete in certain events.

The South African has changed events on the track in her career and even tried her luck with football, as she looked to keep her career on the right track. She however, failed to make the cut for Tokyo.

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