Dignity, and not sex, should be important for an Athlete

Updated: May 25

LGBTQIA+ is an acronym for ‘lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, intersex and asexual/aromantic/agender. The plus sign at the end refers to other sexual identities that cannot be encompassed under one acryonym, such as pansexual or androsexual.

L stands for lesbian, meaning a woman is who attracted to another woman. G stands for gay, meaning a man who is attracted to another man. B stands for bisexual, meaning a person who is attracted to both a man and a woman. T stands for transgender, meaning a person identifies themselves to a gender that is not the one assigned to them at birth. I stands for intersex, or someone who has reproductive features that do not fit into traditional definitions of male or female.

Q stands for queer, referring to someone who is heterosexual or someone who does not identify with the gender given to them at birth.

P.T. Usha, otherwise known as the “queen of track and field”, was adverse against using pills that would enhance athletic performances. Though she herself took B-Complex for treating a medical condition that caused irregular pulse, it was only to make her fit for sprinting events.

Usha’s stellar medal record at national and international track-and-field events caused sports authorities to raise their eyebrows in doubt, as such talents were unnatural of an athlete who claimed to not take any performance enhancers.

But in early 2000, a time when Indian sport was plagued with doping scandals, she was among the two athletes named in a confidential report by the Sports Authority of India (SAI) that listed players who tested positive for banned substances. ‘The Golden Girl’ was rather dejected over the report’s publication, explaining that her performances over the years were her own merit, and not of drug use.

While SAI has till date not commented on the verification of the report, the incident was the first time that authentic drug-testing in India raised suspicions, tainting the dignity of wrongly-accused Indian athletes on the international scale.

At the 2006 Asian Games, Tamilian sprinter Shanti Soundarajan failed a gender test because she ‘lacked female sexual features’. This subsequently stripped her of her silver medal at the Doha Olympics. Further investigation revealed that Shanti was a patient of Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome that indicated the existence of an extra Y chromosome.

Dutee Chand’s fate was sealed in a heartbreaking way when her name failed to make it to the final list of the 2014 Commonwealth Games and 2014 Asian Games. She was disqualified because of her hyperandrogenism.

On both episodes, sex testing robbed promising athletes of the medal they deserved. While the International Association of Athletics Federations does not make the test mandatory, it severely undermines an athlete’s months of training and exercise that had taken them to reach the position they were at to receive the medal.

Categorising athletes in male or female is a problem in international competitions. Going through the test itself can be quite exhausting, and failing the test can dent the motive they had come to win the competition. Sports committees should recognise the athlete and their dignity first, before their sex.

How are sports and dignity connected?

Sport is a way to promote education, in turn encouraging human dignity and human rights. Dignity is a human expression that is formed out of a person’s values and rights. These values and rights are nurtured by education, which informs the person that they are entitled to a certain reputation.

The Olympic Charter recognises that sport is a human right. As education helps preserve the dignity of a person, the activity of sports helps a person creatively express their body in a way that is enjoyable.

Perfecting the art of sport takes time, money and effort - which can be a prolonged process for any individual. So the more that someone practices their athletic abilities, the more their dignity is developed.

An athlete’s dignity is confined to respecting the rules in which sports operate, making sure that they demonstrate athletic abilities in a way so that everyone is given a fair chance.

While the Olympic Charter states that bias, bigotry and prejudice should not invade a person’s freedom to practice the sport - this is contrary to the sex-testing that the athletes are subject to.

“For me, dignity and sports are very interrelated because you have to build that confidence in believing in yourself,” says Nishtha Gupta, a DAV National Swimmer. “So while training itself, you train to win and not to come second or third. If you lose after putting all your efforts, time, and money, it takes a lot to pick yourself up again. One game, race, and event can change your outlook towards yourself.”

Every athlete’s main goal is to win a medal for their country. It also makes any athlete feel that they are honest, trusted by their own community members, and to be considered as the epitome in their field. Winning gives them the moment of pride which is befitting for the time it had taken for them to train. Dignity is thus, ‘the starting point and the end of sport’.

So when that moment of pride is taken away from the athlete because they are confined to a sex-test, the crushing agony is unbearable. It is a direct infringement of the dignity which they are entitled to and worked so hard to earn.

What the figures say

Across the Olympics (Summer, Winter and Paralympic), India is among the countries to have fewer than 3 LGBTQIA+ athletes to participate. This includes Tongo, Trinidad, Cyprus and the Philippines. While it is commendable that India is the only South-East Asian country to have sent one LGBTQ athlete, having such a less number is disappointing.

The astounding number of Western countries on the charts is not surprising, given that the LGBTQ policies there are more progressive. Most of these Western athletes come from lesbian and gay communities, while the first openly-transgender and non-binary athletes at the Tokyo Summer Olympics 2020 came from New Zealand, USA and Canada. Dutee Chand was the first openly Indian lesbian athlete that was sent to the Olympics twice.

The lack of participation can be due to athletes fearing the consequences of coming out: the stigma from society, interactions with others and their performance. It could also be to refrain from being labelled as a lesbian/gay/transgender/non-binary athlete. Another reason could be to avoid negative perceptions around the sport they play, such as calling it a ‘gay sport’. Sex testing has also robbed athletes of their medals, making potential athletes fearing that they might not get their own if they won.

Given that the acceptance towards LGBTQ in India has progressed in the past few years, there should be efforts to underline the voice of the LGBTQ sports community.

Kerala was the first Indian state to hold a transgender sports meet in 2017, a successful initative that aimed at reducing discrimination of the third sex and imbibed a sense of dignity to participants. Manipur also formed its all-trans football team in 2020, making it the first all-trans team in India.

These events should encourage athletes to participate in international sports, representing a new-age India, one that has moved ahead of conservative values. Progressive policies around making sports more inclusive for the LGBTQ society should help budding athletes to represent India beyond its borders.


While there have been revisions of the sex-test, it is more important to recognise an athlete’s dignity first. Sex-testing only serves to hurt an athlete’s dignity and does not bring any value to their performance. There should be more debates and discussions around the necessity for sex-testing, and more weight should be given to encouraging LGBTQIA+ athletes from India to join international sports. That would truly follow the Olympic Charter and spread the athlete’s honour, pride and dignity.

To read more:

  1. https://feminisminindia.com/2020/11/25/santhi-soundarajan-gender-determination-test/

  2. https://lexlife.in/2021/10/02/a-dilemma-regarding-transgender-sports-critical-analysis-on-the-issue/