Will the Olympics Finally Embrace Trans Athletes?
Genitals alone don’t affect how fast you can run. Testosterone does.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC), which previously required transgender athletes to undergo gender-reassignment surgery in order to compete, is now expected to recognize that distinction by allowing all transgender men to compete in the male category “without restriction” and allowing transgender women to compete in the female category after a year of hormone replacement therapy (HRT).
The new recommended guidelines, obtained by Outsports, were developed during a meeting held last November. They are expected to be adopted by the IOC before the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
For transgender endurance athlete Chris Mosier, the policy change won’t send him to Rio but it should allow him to be on Team USA in Spain this summer.
Mosier, a transgender man who was featured by ESPN last October, qualified for competition in the sprint duathlon at the 2016 World Championship this summer but was uncertain whether or not he would be allowed to compete because he has not completed the required gender reassignment surgery, as Outsports reported this month.
“Assuming I get approval from the International Triathlon Union and they follow the new IOC policy, I will now be able to compete in the World Championship in Spain in June as part of Team USA,” Mosier told The Daily Beast. Mosier currently serves as the executive director of GO! Athletes, a support network for LGBTQ athletes.
To date, no openly transgender athlete has competed in the Olympics, but Mosier is hopeful that this policy proves historic in the coming years.
“This opens the doors for everyone else,” he told The Daily Beast. “Somewhere there is a young person just getting started in sport who can now live authentically as their true self and be able to someday compete for Olympic gold without compromising part of their identity as an athlete or as a person. That’s an amazing opportunity for everyone who was limited by the outdated regulations, and I think it will have a trickle down effect to other organizations, which will improve the landscape of sports for other trans athletes.”
For transgender athletes, this policy shift has been a long time coming.
In 2003, the IOC arrived at the Stockholm Consensus on Sex Reassignment in Sports, which opened the door for transgender competitors provided they met three specific conditions: HRT for a “sufficient length of time to minimize gender-related advantages in sport competitions,” legal recognition of their gender, and “surgical anatomical changes” including “external genitalia changes and gonadectomy.”
This final condition was an especially high hurdle for trans athletes to clear.
Hormone replacement therapy and changes to legal documents are often the first steps in a gender transition. But surgery, if desired, can be prohibitively expensive and is often not covered by private insurers.
The logic behind requiring surgery for a sporting event was also fuzzy: Although the testes produce testosterone, transgender women undergoing HRT are prescribed spironolactone, a diuretic that also blocks androgen receptors, reducing testosterone levels to a normal female range and altering muscle mass. Similarly, transgender men simply take testosterone, with no surgery required to move their blood levels into a normal male range.
In spite of this, the Stockholm Consensus, which was adopted by the IOC in 2004, required transgender Olympic hopefuls to wait “two years after gonadectomy [removal of the gonads]” to be eligible for competition.
Following the implementation of the 2004 policy, Kristen Worley, a transgender cyclist who had undergone gender reassignment surgery and otherwise met the Stockholm requirements, failed to meet qualifying times in official events leading up to the Beijing summer games in 2008. So far, Worley is the most notable openly transgender athlete to make a bid for Olympic eligibility.
Now that the requirements are less stringent, her story may not be so singular.
Joanna Harper, a chief medical physicist, herself transgender, told Outsports that she was present at the November meeting in which these previous requirements were discussed. She is pleased with the proposed changes, which closely resemble new guidelines the NCAA adopted in 2011.
“The waiting period for trans women goes from two years after surgery to one year after the start of HRT,” Harper said. “This matches up with the NCAA rules and is as good as anything. The waiting period was perhaps the most contentious item among our group and one year is a reasonable compromise.”
Harper, incidentally, is also an accomplished cross-country runner. In a 2014 interview with The Washington Post, she discussed firsthand the effects of spironolactone on her times: “I felt the same when I ran. I just couldn’t go as fast.”
There is more than just anecdotal data, of course, to support the one-year HRT requirement. A 2010 report co-sponsored by the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), the Women’s Sports Foundation, and the It Takes a Team! campaign noted that “any athletic advantages a transgender girl or woman arguably may have as a result of her prior testosterone levels dissipate after about one year of estrogen therapy.”
One 2008 scientific literature review cited in the report noted that “the data available does not appear to suggest that transitioned athletes would compete at an advantage or disadvantage as compared with [non-transgender] men and women.”
The proposed IOC policy recommends monitoring of transgender women’s testosterone levels for 12 months prior to competition, and throughout eligibility as well.
Now, an openly transgender athlete in the Olympic games could come sooner than anticipated. Caitlyn Jenner is, retroactively, a transgender Olympian but, 40 years after her decathlon win, the doors are finally wide open for athletes to compete after transition rather than before. It’s about time.