The International Olympic Committee on Tuesday announced a new framework for the participation of transgender and intersex athletes in Olympic sports.
The framework – which will be implemented by international sport federations – features 10 principles, beginning with inclusion. “Everyone, regardless of their gender identity, expression and/or sex variations should be able to participate in sport safely and without prejudice,” the document reads.
“As per the Olympic charter – and the fundamental principles of Olympism – is that the practice of sport is a human right and therefore inclusive of everyone,” IOC Head of Human Rights Magali Martowicz said during a media roundtable on Tuesday.
While the IOC’s new framework is a historic step forward – and one celebrated by organizations like GLAAD and Athlete Ally – the framework isn’t a definitive set of rules. Instead, the six-page document is intended to help sport federations to create their own sport-by-sport, event-by-event policies.
“The framework gives them a process by which they can [make policy], thinking about inclusion and seeing what produces disproportionate advantage,” said IOC Medical and Scientific Director Richard Budgett.
What’s the context of the IOC’s announcement?
In April 2018, track and field’s international governing body (World Athletics, then IAAF) announced that female athletes with a Difference of Sexual Development (DSD) would be required to lower their natural testosterone levels to be eligible to compete in women’s races from 400 meters to 1500 meters. South Africa’s Caster Semenya, a two-time gold medalist at 800m (one of which was awarded only after a Russian athlete was disqualified for doping), was the most high profile athlete barred by this decision, though both of her podium mates from 2016 – Francine Niyonsaba and Margaret Wambui – were also impacted.
In the lead-up to the Tokyo Olympics, two Namibian teenagers – Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi – were ruled ineligible to compete in the 400-meter competition, where they would have been medal contenders, and switched instead to the 200-meter event.
Just days after the Tokyo Games concluded, the study that was the basis for World Athletics’ testosterone regulations – published by the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2017 – issued a correction saying that the relationship between high testosterone levels and improved performance should not be considered causal.
The Tokyo Olympics also marked the first time that out transgender athletes competed at the Games. Weightlifter Laurel Hubbard from New Zealand became the first transgender woman to compete, though she failed to complete a lift in her event. The Tokyo Games also saw the first out non-binary athletes: Canadian soccer player Quinn won gold, U.S. skateboarder Alana Smith competed in the street competition, and BMX freestyle cyclist Chelsea Wolfe traveled to Tokyo as an alternate for Team USA.
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While the IOC’s guidance was written with elite sport at the forefront, the organization also said that the same principles of inclusion and non-discrimination “should be promoted and defended at all levels of sport, especially for recreational and grass-roots sport.”
That statement is particularly remarkable given the current onslaught of anti-trans sentiment and legislation that has been seen both in the United States and internationally. In the last two years, ten U.S. states have enacted anti-trans sports bans (either through legislation or executive orders). Many of these bills impact kids of all ages, beginning as early as elementary or middle school.
The IOC won’t use testosterone to determine eligibility, but that doesn’t mean sport federations can’t
In a major change, the IOC is nixing its own testosterone-cap policy and instead encouraging each sport federation to create its own policies based on the 10-part framework.
“We are really moving away from this one-size-fits-all approach,” Martowicz said.
The IOC’s previous guidelines – last updated in 2015 – stated that transgender women would be eligible to compete if their total testosterone level in serum had been below 10 nanomoles per liter for at least 12 months. The new framework waives that requirement.
“It is perfectly clear now that your performance is not proportional to your in-built testosterone,” Budgett said.
International sport federations may decide to continue using testosterone-based criteria if research supports that approach, and after Tuesday’s announcement, World Athletics indicated that its current testosterone-based eligibility rules will remain in place. It is also possible that some federations may choose to implement a testosterone-based policy that raises the bar above 10 nanomoles per liter.
“There was a lot of agreement amongst many of us in sport that the 10 nanomoles was probably the wrong level if you’re looking at testosterone anyway,” Budgett said.
IOC acknowledges previous harm of eligibility criteria, gender verification testing
Perhaps the most important takeaway from Tuesday’s announcement was the IOC’s acknowledgement that previous eligibility criteria have “sometimes resulted in severe harm” – leading to the second principle of the framework: prevention of harm.
Beginning in the 1960s, the IOC began mandating gender verification tests for Olympians competing in women’s events. These invasive and demeaning tests continued for decades, first as physical exams, and later as chromosome and hormone testing.
Further testing and medical procedures have also been directed specifically at intersex athletes, often without their knowledge or consent.
When the IOC first opened the door for transgender women to compete in 2004, surgery was a requirement for participation. That was later replaced by the testosterone-based rule (explained above).
“We really want to make sure athletes are not pressured into making a harmful decision about their bodies for the purpose of being allowed to compete,” Martowicz said.
The new framework explicitly states that criteria to compete in a certain gender category “should not include gynaecological examinations or similar forms of invasive physical examinations.” It also says athletes shouldn’t be subjected to targeted testing aimed at determining their sex, gender identity, and/or sex variations.
As part of Tuesday’s announcement, the IOC made a point of noting that such testing and medical procedures can harm all athletes, not just trans, intersex, and non-binary athletes.
Will sport federations create policies inclusive of transgender and intersex athletes?
While the IOC will provide international federations with guidance on how to write their own policies, “the framework is not legally binding,” said IOC Athlete Department Director Keveh Mehrabi. “What we are offering to all the international federations is our expertise and a dialogue, rather than jumping to a conclusion.”
“It’s important to stress that the sports organizations cannot pick and choose the principles. They have to take them into account together,” Martowicz said.
The IOC framework shifts the burden of proof from individual athletes to the international sport federations. It also specifies that inclusion should be the default unless “robust and peer reviewed research” presents evidence that an athlete is gaining “a consistent, unfair, disproportionate competitive advantage in performance and/or an unpreventable risk to the physical safety of other athletes.”
That said, there is not an abundance of robust or peer reviewed research on the topic, which the IOC is planning to help fix using its own research fund.
“There are a number of priorities for the medical research fund, and one of them is transgender and DSD research,” Budgett said. “It’s very important that we broaden the evidence base. There is some interesting research that needs to come to conclusion, and that will give us much more information about performance which is the issue which is really key to determining eligibility.”
Can the IOC’s framework turn an unmoored debate into a constructive conversation?
The topic of transgender and intersex athlete inclusion is nearly always framed as a debate or controversy between two sides, something the IOC called out in Tuesday’s media roundtable.
Rather than take a so-called side, the IOC instead created a tool to move the conversation forward. As such, the tenth and final principle states that eligibility criteria should be regularly reviewed to account for any “relevant ethical, human rights, legal, scientific, and medical developments.”
“I think we can clearly say we have not found the solution to this big question,” said IOC corporate communications director Christian Klaue. “This is a topic which will be with us for a long time.”
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