It is not a binding policy, but it is policy with great symbolic value: the recently published guidelines of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on the inclusion of transgender and intersex athletes. It is no longer justified to conclude that they always have an advantage in women’s competitions. Requiring them to keep their testosterone levels below a set limit for a year, as happened to the hyper-androgenic athlete Caster Semenya, for example, is a thing of the past if it’s up to the IOC.
But the IOC places the responsibility for the implementation of the guidelines on the international sports federations, so that the situation can be looked at on a sport-by-sport basis. Setting rules that define the criteria for each sport and discipline is not up to us, the IOC says. The rules and systems are too diverse for that. Associations are advised to involve athletes in their decision, but are not obliged to do so.
After years of heated debate among human rights activists, racism watchers, feminists, scientists and governments about one of the most complex and sensitive issues in the history of international sport – when is a woman a woman? – feels it Framework on Fairness, Inclusion and Non-Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity and Sex Variations like a saltless compromise.
Symbolism is beautiful, but you don’t buy much for it, is a frequently heard response. Sports federations can – and will – give their own twist to the guidelines, is the fear. But there are also those who believe that the IOC is paying too much attention to a small minority, under pressure from public opinion. Transgender and intersex athletes have the social tide with them, but would not realize that they could herald the end of top sport through competition distortion.
Little time for reflection
The IOC assures that it did not happen overnight. It took two years to draw up the guidelines, and 250 athletes, lawyers, doctors, sports administrators and human rights experts were consulted for this. “A series of webinars will be held for athletes and sports associations from March next year,” said a spokesperson. “The usefulness of the guidelines is then explained, ambiguities are removed.”
According to the IOC, it must be assessed per sport whether someone has a disproportionate advantage. A contact sport such as football cannot be compared with a martial art such as judo or an individual sport such as gymnastics. First and foremost, unions “guarantee safe and fair competition within the context of inclusion and non-discrimination”.
The IOC spokesperson could not say how many unions have embraced the guidelines since its publication last week. It is still too early for that. “First, the guidelines must be analysed. Only then can it be determined whether unions should revise their rules.”
In any case, the international athletics association World Athletics needed little time for reflection. President Sebastian Coe announced last week that its own rules will not be adjusted. These prescribe that an athlete may have a maximum of 5 nanomoles per liter of blood to participate in international athletics competitions at distances between 400 meters and 1,500 meters. If her testosterone level is higher, she will have to take medication or undergo surgery. Coe had read the guidelines, he said. “They are in line with everything we strongly believe in: the fair play principle and open competition.”
Athlete rights activist Payoshni Mitra can be very excited about such statements. She cites a passage from the new guidelines – point 2.2 to be precise – which states that the criteria for athletes to participate in competitions should not be at the expense of their health and well-being. “Coe does not respect the guidelines at all,” says Mitra. He will not intervene in hurtful reporting about hyperandrogenic athletes or punish doctors who in the past treated a hyperandrogenic athlete without their consent. Mitra: “Coe has little interest in concepts such as privacy and physical autonomy.”
Also read: Athlete Caster Semenya is ‘more cynical than ever’ about World Athletics motives
Mitra is also critical of Coe’s “hiding” behind years of thorough research. She refers to a much-discussed message in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, last summer, in which two top World Athletics employees — one is director of the health and science division, the other his predecessor — admitted that they were too firm in their conclusion that female athletes with high levels of testosterone an advantage to have. High Testosterone in Women correlates more successfully, they say now. To claim otherwise could be seen as “misleading.”
Sylvia Barlag, the Dutch board member of World Athletics, calls the reference to the correction in the trade journal, in light of the new IOC guideline, “bland”. The researchers admitted that they were a bit too quick to make connections between testosterone and sporting success, she says, but that doesn’t mean that the data behind their research is wrong.
These data form the basis for the regulations on ‘DSD’, differences in sexual development. On that basis, two-time Olympic champion Semenya was not allowed to participate in the Tokyo Games at her favorite distance (the 800 meters) last summer because she refused to use testosterone inhibitors.
Barlag does not expect World Athletics to make a turn in the short term. More research is needed for that, she says. And: “Sport, especially top sport, is by definition discriminatory, because it is about finding the best or the fastest”. That this premise conflicts with human rights is annoying and unfortunate, but it is a fact.
And yet, Barlag does not rule out the possibility that the new IOC guidelines will one day be embraced by the World Athletics Federation. Because, she says, thorough and original research can also change a sports association such as World Athletics. According to her, the union should take a good look at recent research of five British sports councils, towards the inclusion of transgender athletes.
In that research, Guidance for Transgender Inclusion in Domestic Sport, doesn’t provide any one-size-fits-all solutions, but the authors did look for what they call “innovative and creative ways” to avoid unfairly excluding athletes from participating. One is to create a new, open category that anyone, regardless of their gender, can participate in.
Barlag does not think it inconceivable that athletics will one day receive an extra category, but she does not rule out the possibility that the performance of individual athletes will play a greater role. “If a hyper-androgynous athlete does very well among the women, but can’t keep up with the best male juniors, then it doesn’t make sense to let her come out with the men. What could happen is that it is still said: accept her without conditions with the women.”
But, and that’s the big question smoldering below, there’s a danger that the sport will kill itself that way. Because, says Barlag, who wants to watch a match where the individual performances are so far apart? Look at the monster results at the World Cup for women two years ago, there wasn’t much fun to be had, was there? Barlag, sighing: “No, I don’t expect it to happen anytime soon.”
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of November 25, 2021
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