The IOC has admitted that its current guidelines for transgender athletes are not fit for purpose, and hope to release a new framework within the next two months
Two weeks ago, New Zealand’s Laurel Hubbard made history by being the first openly trans woman to compete in a solo event at the Olympic Games – in her case, weightlifting.
She was able to qualify thanks to a change in the IOC’s guidelines in 2015, which stipulated that athletes with testosterone levels below 10 nanomoles per litre for 12 months prior to the event are allowed to compete – something that Hubbard did by taking medication.
While her inclusion was met with support, there were also some who were against the decision, arguing that it gives her an unfair advantage. But last week, the IOC’s medical and science director, Dr Richard Budgett, announced that the changes made in 2015 weren’t enough to support the inclusion of all women in sport, and that a new framework for transgender athletes based on more recent scientific research would be released within 2 months.
“Things move on,” Dr Budgett told The Guardian. “At the time when we made those guidelines, 10 nanomoles per litre was set because we thought that was the lower level for men. We know now that they go down to 7, and women can be higher as well. Agreeing on another number is almost impossible and possibly irrelevant.”
So, how are the IOC moving forward? Dr Budgett says that they plan to put in a framework for individual sports federations to make their own decisions, saying that there is no longer a ‘one size fits all’ approach according to the most recent research.
A common critique of transgender athlete inclusion is one of fairness, especially when it comes to women’s sports. “There is some research on this, but overall it really depends on whether you are coming from the view of inclusion as the first priority or absolute fairness to the nth degree,” says Budgett. “If you don’t want to take any risks at all that anyone might have an advantage, then you would just stop everybody. If you are prepared to extrapolate from the evidence that there is, and consider the fact that there have been no openly transgender women at the top level, I think the threat to women’s sport has probably been overstated.”
We recently spoke to runner Siân Longthorpe, who publicly came out as transgender around 2 years ago. She shared Dr Budgett’s opinion about the perceived threat to women’s sports. “I fully appreciate that transgender females competing against cis females is a very difficult situation, and there is no easy answer,” she said. “That being said, the way my life has been turned on its head these last three or four years, that would be huge price to pay for improving my performances in some running races.”
Siân has managed to find races and events where she feels welcome as a trans athlete; unfortunately this is not the case for everyone. The stark current reality is that 38% of trans people say that they avoid going to a gym or participating in group sports for fear of discrimination, harassment, or even violence. And this is why change at an Olympic level is so important: the global positive impact it could have on people’s everyday active lives. “The important thing to remember is that trans women are women, too” added Dr Budgett. “You have got to include all women if you possibly can.”