IOC changes approach to trans athletes, but real life depends on each sport

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The disclosure of new guidelines from the IOC (International Olympic Committee) for the inclusion and participation of transgender athletes with differences in sexual development indicates the possibility of relevant changes, but their immediate effects are still unknown.

The main initial impact of the document published this Tuesday (16) by the organization is in the change of tone and approach to the subject, which in recent years has proved to be one of the biggest challenges for organizations that regulate and organize world sport.

The so-called IOC Guide on Justice, Inclusion and Non-Discrimination Based on Gender Identity and Gender Variation has 10 basic principles, including inclusion, harm prevention, non-presumption of advantage and primacy of health and autonomy.

It updates and supersedes the committee’s latest understanding of the matter and provides principles but does not set rules to be followed.

“The IOC is not in a position to issue regulations that define the eligibility criteria for each sport, discipline or event in different national jurisdictions and sporting systems,” he clarified.

These were left for the regulatory bodies of each sport to define based on their specificities.

In 2015, a much leaner IOC publication tried to establish a standard criterion for the participation of transgender athletes in all sports: trans men could compete without restrictions in the men’s categories and trans women would need to undergo pre-conditions in the women’s categories.

The main rule in the latter case was that the athlete reduced her testosterone level to 10 mmol/L for at least 12 months before starting to compete and kept it at that level to continue in activity.

Based on this rule, the CBV (Brazilian Volleyball Confederation) authorized the volleyball player Tifanny Abreu to compete in the Superliga and recently did not allow the registration of another transsexual athlete, Mabelly Gonçalo de Souza, for not meeting the criteria.

Wanted by sheet, the confederation said on Wednesday that, “with the recent release of the new IOC guidelines, it awaits the FIVB’s position [federação internacional] to define its criteria in relation to the topic.” The FIVB did not respond if it intends to change its policy.

This year in Tokyo, New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard became the first openly transgender athlete to compete in the Olympic Games, also on the basis of hormonal regulation.

Now, the IOC abandons its supposed quest for objectivity. In the committee’s assessment, basing the criteria on this point alone, in addition to being insufficient, was not the most appropriate way to deal with the issue.

“The guide is breaking with the notion that there is a single testosterone threshold — be it 10 nmol, 5 nmol or whatever — that determines competitive advantage in all sports. Our process helped us realize that there is no scientific consensus on how Testosterone affects athletic performance. And there’s a very simple reason for that: good performance means very different things in different sports. And endogenous testosterone levels affect different bodies in different ways,” the committee said in a response to the report.

The tone of the guidelines was celebrated by entities that advocate for causes related to human rights. Shift, which helped the IOC through the two-year process in which 250 stakeholders were heard, listed the points where it felt the most progress had been made.

Between them:

  • Seek to avoid discriminatory assumptions (eg, based on an individual’s physical appearance) in developing and implementing eligibility criteria, which disproportionately affect transgender women and non-white women in the Global South.

  • Confirm the rejection of invasive physical examinations and other scientifically unfounded “sex testing” methods as ways of determining eligibility, which in the past have led to serious forms of abuse.

  • Preventing eligibility criteria from infringing the right to bodily autonomy, including ensuring that such criteria do not directly or indirectly pressure athletes to undergo unnecessary medical treatments or procedures of any kind.

Athlete Ally was in the same line and highlighted the direction that the burden of proving an alleged advantage that a trans athlete can take over cisgender competitors pass to the regulating body of that sport, based on reliable and peer-reviewed research.

The difficulty in establishing trust criteria in these studies has been one of the great dilemmas surrounding the discussion in recent years. And nothing indicates that this issue will be easier to resolve by international federations, even if the IOC is committed to helping with the drafting of regulations.

In the heated debate, there are those who argue that an athlete who has gone through male puberty cannot in any way compete in female categories. There are also advocates that there be no restrictions for athletes identified as women.

Joanna Harper, a professor specializing in transgender athletic performance at Loughborough University (UK) and herself a trans runner who transitioned in her early 20s, argues for the possibility of finding a way around regulation, but this will still require many years of study .

Harper also participated in the IOC consultation process and told the Los Angeles Blade website that he saw many good things in the new guidelines, but disagreed with the lack of presumption of advantage among trans women in sport. It also called into question the possibility that entities present solid evidence immediately.

“There is no doubt that trans women are, on average, taller, bigger and stronger than cisgender women and that these are advantages in many sports,” she said.

“There is no reason to suggest that sports organizations need to have robust, peer-reviewed research before placing any restrictions on transgender athletes. This research would take years or perhaps decades to complete. it is unreasonable to impose some restrictions on trans women in elite sports,” she argued.

Shift recognizes that from now on the success of the established principles depends on how they will be implemented by the regulatory bodies.

“The IOC will need to play an active and continuous role in this regard. Furthermore, the adoption of a forward-looking framework does not, by itself, address the damage that has occurred in the past,” he said. “While it marks an important shift in the Olympic Movement’s approach to the issue of eligibility, it continues to be based on a binary notion of gender. More work will be needed on the inclusion of non-binary athletes or athletes with non-compliant gender identities.”

World Athletics, the international athletics federation, spoke out after the guidelines were published and said its controversial eligibility rules will remain in effect.

In addition to a lower threshold for the hormone (5 nmol/L), they dictate that women with high levels of testosterone, even naturally produced, need to take medication to lower them if they are to compete in events from 400 meters to 1,500 meters.

The measure mainly affects athletes with differences in sexual development (which can generate a mixture of physical, genetic and male and female hormonal characteristics). The most famous case is that of the South African Caster Semenya. The two-time Olympic champion refused to undergo hormonal treatment and was unable to defend her 800 m title at the Tokyo Olympics.

The ban was unsuccessfully challenged by the runner in the Court of Arbitration for Sport and the Supreme Court of Switzerland. After the Games, it became public that the authors of one of the studies the federation claims to have based on to justify the veto corrected their argument, as there would be no way to prove the causal link between high levels of testosterone and superior athletic performance in female athletes of elite.

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