Understanding the New Olympic Guidelines for Trans Athletes

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The International Olympic Committee (IOC) recently released its long-awaited new guidelines for transgender and intersex athletes. Rather than establishing rules to be followed by international and national sports federations, the IOC framework instead proposed that the eligibility rules for these athletes follow 10 principles: inclusion, prevention of harm, non-discrimination, fairness, not presumption of benefit, evidence-based approach, primacy of health and bodily autonomy, stakeholder-centered approach, right to privacy and periodic reviews.

This framework replaces the IOC Guidelines 2015 this required trans women to lower their testosterone for 12 months before competing in the women’s division. The new framework makes inclusion the first of the guiding principles and removes testosterone suppression requirements – two substantial changes for the organization.

The emphasis on inclusion is a welcome contrast to the ban on trans women from women’s sports by 10 US states, including Texas, and the ban on trans women in the women’s category in international matches by World Rugby.

There are, however, two of the IOC’s principles that are problematic. The suggestion that trans women have advantages over cisgender women is not presumptive. On average, trans women are taller, fatter, and stronger than cis women and that is a plus in many sports. The benefits, however, are an integral part of the sport and there is no evidence that trans women who have experienced testosterone suppression are disproportionately successful in female sport. In fact, trans women remain under-represented at all levels of sport; most notably in the NCAA, which first implemented hormone therapy-based eligibility criteria for trans women in 2011.

Another problematic element of the IOC framework is the details of the principle of the evidence-based approach. In this section, the IOC cadre proclaims that it is only appropriate to adopt eligibility restrictions on the basis of “solid, peer-reviewed research” specific to trans athletes. It will take at least several years and probably decades before such research exists. Sports federations need conditions of eligibility in the present. Testosterone-based regulations for trans women, such as those adopted by World Athletics, allow both inclusion of repressed minorities and meaningful sport for all women. Current regulations should be viewed as living documents that will be improved upon as more and better data is released (the 10th IOC Principle).

Some have criticized the fact that the IOC executive delegates final decisions on trans athletes to individual sports federations, suggesting that the executive amounts to “passing the buck”. A closer look reveals the logic of sport-by-sport regulation. The fact that trans women are taller than cis women is an advantage in basketball, but a disadvantage in gymnastics. The larger size of trans women hinders them in endurance events, but can be a safety concern in contact sports. In addition, the IOC has never chosen the athletes who participate in the Olympic Games. This task has always fallen to national and international sports policies, and the new IOC framework is only an explicit recognition of this reality.

The most hyperbolic criticism of the IOC cadre comes from those who suggest that the new guidelines will hail the “end of elite women’s sport”. Critics of the IOC’s 2015 transgender guidelines have made the same claim. In fact, these kinds of apocalyptic statements were first made 45 years ago, when transgender tennis player Renee Richards went to court. These claims are as false today as they were in 1976. Transgender people probably make up less than 1% of humanity and face substantial barriers to participating in sport and will therefore never overtake women’s sport. at any level. Additionally, transgender women maintain testosterone and hematocrit levels within the normal range of women for health reasons. This is true even for the serious trans athletes we study at Loughborough University, who would sportly benefit from higher testosterone levels.

It is, however, true that if individual sports allowed trans women to compete at a high level without lowering testosterone to female levels, then a few trans athletes would be willing to compete in female sport without testosterone suppression.

There are also those who claim that the inclusion of transgender people will lead men to impersonate women to gain athletic glory. This fear of male impostors in women’s sport first appeared in the 1930s and was repeated many times over the next 90 years. And yet, in all these years, there is no evidence that this has ever happened.

At this point, it’s unclear how many sports will adopt the IOC framework. World Athletics has no plans to suspend its testosterone-based transgender regulations, and several sports will no doubt follow this path. World Rugby is extremely unlikely to lift its ban on trans women, and some sports could follow suit.

Finally, it is important to understand that the discussion of the Olympic Games obscures an important fact. Most female trans athletes, like most female cis athletes, participate in sports at the recreational or local level. At these levels where there is no drug test and no cash prizes, it is entirely appropriate to allow trans women to compete on the sole basis of their gender identity. At the higher levels of the sport, however, the inclusive but restrictive policies of World Athletics and the NCAA seem more reasonable than the new IOC framework.

Joanna Harper published the first transgender athletic performance analysis in 2015 and helped write the International Olympic Committee guidelines on transgender people. She is now the visiting scholar for transgender athletic performances at Loughborough University in the UK. In 2019, she is the author of the book “Sporting Gender”. Harper is a trans female competitive athlete who ran a 2:23 marathon when competing in the male category and still runs in the female category today.


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