Olympics Set To Abandon Testosterone Criteria For Trans Women Athletes - Women's Health

Olympics Set To Abandon Testosterone Criteria For Trans Women Athletes

The International Olympic Committee has announced new guidelines for transgender and intersex athletes looking to compete in the Olympic Games, with a focus on a ‘framework of fairness.’

After mounting pressure on the International Olympic Committee to present a more inclusive and accepting space for trans and intersex athletes, the IOC finally announced an updated framework that Human Rights Watch is calling a “significant step toward protecting the dignity of all women athletes.”

The IOC issued a new set of guidelines for transgender and intersex athletes in a report titled, The Framework on Fairness, Inclusion and Non-Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity and Sex Variations. Consisting of 10 principles which seek to welcome all athletes at every level of participation, key focus areas were that of inclusion, prevention of harm and non-discrimination. More importantly, despite the guidelines being a focus for Olympic hopefuls and elite athletes, the committee hopes that the framework is applied to all levels of sport, including recreational and grassroots sports. 

Testosterone has long been debated in relation to trans and intersex athletes. In the past, the IOC has recommended that trans women suppress their testosterone levels to under 10 n/mol per litre for at least 12 months to compete, a policy that was deemed no longer fit for purpose earlier this year. But rather than lower the criteria for intersex and trans women’s testosterone levels, the Olympics instead handed eligibility rules over to individual sports agencies. 

As Forbes reports: “Among the things the IOC didn’t do was issue new criteria for testosterone levels and did not define who is or isn’t a woman. Also, for the first time in modern Olympic history, the committee is walking away from its “one size fits all” guidance and leaving it up to each sport and governing body to determine who is eligible to compete.”

The publication adds, “The IOC guidance is that the criteria should respect internationally recognised human rights, rely on robust scientific evidence as well as athlete consultation, and that “precautions be taken to avoid causing harm to the health and well-being of athletes.” 

With this in mind, an international federation can still impose restrictions on transgender women and athletes with differences in sexual development (DSD), if it’s deemed necessary to ensure fair and safe competition. It’s a devastating blow for a number of athletes, including the likes of South African middle-distance runner Caster Semenya, who continues to be banned from competition by World Athletics. The organisation’s regulations which were implemented in 2018, prohibit athletes with DSD from competing between the distances of 400m and a mile unless they take hormone-reducing drugs. Semenya, a two-time Olympic 800m gold medallist, refused to take the drugs and was subsequently unable to defend her title at Tokyo 2020.

As IOC medical director Richard Budgett explained, “What we’re saying now is you don’t need to use testosterone at all, but this guidance is not an absolute rule. So we can’t say that the framework in any particular sport, such as World Athletes is actually wrong. They need to make it right for their sport and this framework gives them a process by which they can do it, thinking about inclusion and then seeing what produces disproportionate advantage.”

While competitive sport might focus on scoreboards and the data behind performances, the IOC has now acknowledged that such attitudes grounded in winning at all costs worked to exclude trans and cisgender women athletes. The framework now states support for the “central role that eligibility criteria play in ensuring fairness, particularly in high-level organised sport in the women’s category.”

GLAAD, the world’s largest LGBTQ media advocacy organisation, has called the new framework “a victory for all athletes and fans.” As Alex Schmider, associate director of transgender representation at GLAAD and producer of Hulu documentary Changing the Game, says: “Sports are for everyone, and fairness in sports means inclusion, belonging and safety for all who want to participate, including transgender, interest and non binary athletes.”

By Jessica Campbell

Jess is a storyteller committed to sharing the human stories that lie at the heart of sport.

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