Olympic Guidelines No Longer Require Trans Women to Have Low Testosterone Levels


Nov 17, 2021


Image Credit: Getty Images

The latest guidelines published by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) no longer necessitate transgender women to medically suppress their testosterone levels in order to compete in the women’s sports category.

The IOC announced a new framework for transgender and intersex athletes to “respect [people’s] identities.” The guidelines were reportedly drafted following a two-year consultation process with more than 250 athletes and stakeholders. According to the 10-point framework, no athlete should be excluded from the competition based on a “perceived unfair advantage” due to their gender. Sex testing and “invasive physical examinations” to verify the gender are also “disrespectful” and “potentially harmful,” the IOC noted.

Earlier this year, Laurel Hubbard, a weightlifter from New Zealand became the first transgender athlete to compete at the Olympics — an announcement that triggered a debate about inclusivity and fairness in sports.

Experts have criticized arguments linking testosterone to greater athletic ability in the past. “For every credible study and statement out there that proves greater testosterone is linked to greater athletic ability in men and women, there are equally credible studies that prove testosterone is just one of the many factors that affect sporting ability — sometimes even negatively,” Pallavi Prasad noted in her article in The Swaddle last year.

Moreover, as an article on Scientific American explained, trans women are not the only women with high testosterone levels — cis women with polycystic ovarian syndrome, or PCOS, also have elevated testosterone levels. And the prevalence of PCOS in women is believed to be anywhere between 2.2% to as high as 26%.

Further, “the truth is there are many other factors, from other hormones to societal conditioning, might boost athletic performance, making it difficult to pinpoint exactly what testosterone does for athletes,” Sara Chodosh argued in Popsci.

Related on The Swaddle:

New Report Outlines Scale of Homophobia, Transphobia in Sport

It is pertinent to note, however, that the framework is not legally binding. “What we are offering to all the international federations is our expertise and a dialogue, rather than jumping to a conclusion,” Kaveh Mehrabi, the director of IOC’s athletes’ department, said in a statement.

Many trans athletes from around the world have welcomed the new guidelines. “The new IOC Framework makes clear that no athlete has an inherent advantage and moves away from eligibility criteria focused on testosterone levels, a practice that caused harmful and abusive practices such as invasive physical examinations and sex testing,” Chris Mosier, a trans athlete from the U.S., tweeted.

Quinn, the first openly trans athlete from Canada to participate in the Olympics, was quoted by NBC News as saying, “[the guidelines] reflects what we know to be true — that athletes like me and my peers participate in sports without any inherent advantage, and that our humanity deserves to be respected.”

However, the new rules have drawn some degree of flak from members of the trans community too. “It is important that the IOC has come out in favor of inclusion of trans and intersex athletes… [but] transgender women are on average, taller, bigger and stronger than cis women and these are advantages in many sports,” Joanna Harper, the visiting fellow for transgender athletic performance at Loughborough University in the U.K. said. Harper is a competitive athlete herself. 

To some extent, the IOC’s new guidelines do appear to address Harper’s concern. Individual sporting bodies will have the liberty to decide their own rules, which can include restricting trans women from entering the female category — but if, and only if, their concerns about ensuring fair and safe competition are backed by “robust and peer-reviewed science … which demonstrates a consistent, unfair, and disproportionate competitive advantage and/or an unpreventable risk to the safety of the athletes.”

In the meantime, Harper notes it is “unreasonable” to ask sports federations to have peer-reviewed research in place; such literature could potentially take years.

Can this potentially be used by transphobic sporting bodies to prevent participation by trans athletes? Perhaps.

Related on The Swaddle:

IAAF’s Caster Semenya Decision Arbitrarily Dictates What Is Female

But as Chris Surprenant, a professor of ethics, strategy, and public policy at the University of New Orleans wrote in May this year: “Since there is no typical transgender athlete, broad rules for transgender athletes don’t seem appropriate…”

Surprenant suggests language similar to the U.S.’ Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s disability accommodation policy — which states that “the decision as to the appropriate accommodation must be based on the particular facts of each case” — could be applied to the debate surrounding the participation of transgender athletes in women’s sports. By leaving the decision to individual sporting bodies, the IOC does appear to be following a similar approach.

The Guardian predicted the IOC is, nonetheless, likely to draw censure from cis women’s campaign groups, who echo concerns about trans women putting cis women at a disadvantage by competing with them. “I think that everyone should have a place to compete and everyone has a right to participate in sports, but the question is, where is that most fair? For female athletes, it’s most fair for biological women to be competing against biological women… [sic],” Madison Kenyon, 19, a cis woman athlete who joined a lawsuit against trans women’s participation in women’s sports, told ABC News in April.

However, as Harper had countered once “We do… allow advantages in sports.” Prasad, too, puts forth a similar — and extremely compelling — point. Arguing that the idea of fairness and advantage must be put in perspective to gendered privilege, she says, “[S]ports isn’t ‘fair.’ It never was. Genetics isn’t… [and] privilege isn’t fair either — athletes of color are at a disadvantage when it comes to exposure, opportunities, and resources to even begin pursuing sports competitively, compared to Caucasian athletes. So, what is this ‘level playing field’ argument but a myth spun by those allowed to play and win in the field, to maintain the status quo?”

Moreover, while focusing on the “upper hand” a biological man may have over a biological woman, people do often forget to focus on the unique strengths cis women possess. “Women’s bodies have a lower center of gravity and therefore better balance; they tend to be more flexible, and their bodies more efficiently convert calories into energy giving them greater endurance,” Liesl Goeker wrote for The Swaddle in 2019.

The same way male bodies are believed to be at an advantage in sports requiring brute strength, female bodies could have unfair advantages in gymnastics and ultra-endurance running, Prasad noted. But how often do we see trans women complaining about being at a disadvantage against cis women gymnasts?

As Kereyn Smith, chief executive of New Zealand’s Olympic Committee, said in June: “… gender identity in sport is a highly sensitive and complex issue requiring a balance between human rights and fairness on the field of play.”


Written By Devrupa Rakshit

Devrupa Rakshit is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. She is a lawyer by education, a poet by accident, a painter by shaukh, and autistic by birth. You can find her on Instagram @devruparakshit.

  1. David Boles

    Why not have separate contests for transmen and transwomen?


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields *.

The latest in health, gender & culture in India -- and why it matters. Delivered to your inbox weekly.