Hailed by some as a victory for human rights and deplored by others as the doom of women’s sports, transgender athletes will be welcomed at this year’s Winter Olympics, at least in theory. Following a change in International Olympic Committee (IOC) rules, there will be no requirement for transgender athletes to undergo surgery or any kind of transition, other than testosterone reduction therapy.
Transgender athletes have been allowed to compete in the Olympics since 2004, but only after gender reassignment surgery, a minimum two years of hormone treatment and legal recognition of their new gender. A 2015 decision removed these restrictions, with the only significant impediment now being a blood testosterone level below ten nanomoles per liter, for at least a year (the average female has less than two nanomoles per liter).
Transgender Athlete Competes for Team USA
The first openly transgender athlete accepted to compete on behalf of the U.S.A. was Chris Mosier, who represented the country at the Sprint Duathlon World Championship in Spain, 2016. Mosier was born female, but identifies as male; he was featured in a Nike advertisement after “coming out” as transgender and has been a prominent activist. Although the dualthlon is not an Olympic sport, the IOC decision regarding transgender athletes allowed Mosier to compete internationally. He said after the Spain race:
I am proud of this moment, not only for my own athletic career, but also for the sports equality movement as a whole. This opens the doors for other transgender athletes. I am excited that others can see this moment and know it is possible to continue to compete at a high level while being your authentic self.
But for all that Mosier is the public face of transgender athletes in the U.S., he is unlikely to be a truly controversial figure. Much of the debate surrounding transgender athletes is based on the idea that male-to-female competitors who have transitioned post-puberty, have an unfair advantage over their counterparts who were born female, due to higher levels of testosterone, greater muscle mass and bone density, lower body fat, and so on. While Mosier and other advocates campaign for all transgender athletes, the lack of an inbuilt physical advantage for female-to-male athletes makes Mosier a rather disingenuous choice of spokesperson; few would object to a transgender athlete competing without an unfair physical advantage over the competition.
Gender Controversy in Women’s Sports
Gender and sex have a long history of contention in women’s sports, where regulators have been touchy regarding the perceived advantages of women with masculine traits, such as elevated testosterone. Such women have been subjected to gender tests to ensure a level playing field, with several banned from competing or stripped of prizes due to “abnormal” albeit natural hormonal variations.
The sudden change in attitude from the IOC and similar organizations regarding gender appears to have little to do with fair play or science, and a lot more to do with point-scoring in today’s political climate. With androgynous or intersex females long questioned on their validity at the Olympics and other sports competitions, why are transgender athletes allowed a testosterone level well above that of the average woman, not to mention the associated male physical traits that are largely being ignored by sports regulators?
The future of hormonal testing for international women’s sports is balanced on the pending outcome of a re-opened investigation into Indian runner Dutee Chand. Despite being born and living as a girl her whole life, Chand was suspended from competing due to high levels of testosterone produced naturally in her body (hyperandrogenism). Chand told the Sydney Morning Herald:
Some in the news were saying I was a boy, and some said that maybe I was a transsexual. I felt naked. I am a human being, but I felt I was an animal. I wondered how I would live with so much humiliation. I am unable to understand why I am asked to fix my body in a certain way simply for participation as a woman. I was born a woman, reared up as a woman, I identify as a woman and I believe I should be allowed to compete with other women, many of whom are either taller than me or come from more privileged backgrounds, things that most certainly give them an edge over me.
The concept of a level playing field at the Olympics is a fallacy; it doesn’t take much to figure out why the U.S.A., Britain, Russia, China and Germany top the medal tally every time. A relative wealth of financial resources, nutrition, training facilities and so on play a role in these victories. Just as each individual has unique physical advantages and disadvantages well beyond testosterone androgen levels: limb length, physical size, height, lung capacity; the list of variables could go on endlessly.
It does seem cruel that athletes like Chand, who were born and lived as females have been banned without warning due to a hormonal variation beyond their control. But if Chand wins, the outcome would go further than just her or women like her. It’s expected that such a result would void the practice of androgen testing at the Olympics, meaning that, as it currently stands, the only obstacle to a biological man competing against women would be to “identify” as a female for four years – an entirely non-physical requirement.
But that said, there is surely a difference between working with the luck of the draw when it comes to nationality or genetics, and willingly engineering of a class of athlete inherently advantaged over the competition.
The IOC made the controversial suggestion that females such as Chand be allowed to compete against men instead of women. If sports were to move in that direction, will the future measure of gender rely solely on a person’s testosterone levels?
No Openly Transgender Athletes at Olympics
Despite the rule change, there are no known transgender athletes competing in PyeongChang. They were similarly missing from the Rio Olympics; although it’s rumored that two male-to-female transgender athletes may have competed, their identities were not revealed and it’s unknown how they performed. With the IOC making such an effort to accommodate transgender athletes, the secrecy surrounding the two who may have competed in Rio suggests a certain spinelessness to actually follow through. While the committee members may have “enlightened” attitudes regarding gender, when gold medals are at stake, competitors and nations may be less accommodating. With prominent medal winners such as China and Russia remaining conservative when it comes to gender and sexuality, what would the international reaction be to openly transgender athletes at the Olympics?