Transgender Athletes in the Olympics

On February 9th, 2018, nearly one billion people crowded around their television sets to watch the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games Opening Ceremony, which rivaled the 2008 Opening Ceremony in Beijing as the most-viewed televised event in history. Since their inception, the Olympic Games have focused on promoting the values of peace, unity, and international community. Founder Pierre de Coubertin sought to uphold these core tenants through the medium of competitive sport, hoping to bring leaders and nations of political strife together in well-natured competition. This year’s events were no different, as they pitted athletes from all around the world against each other in an effort to promote global citizenship.

Sports have always existed as an arena of political thought, and this year’s Olympic Games did not fail to disappoint. In the geopolitical arena, the unified Korean hockey squad put both Korean politics and the prospects of unity in the spotlight. Pyeongchang is also unique in its status as the second Games in which the International Olympic Committee (IOC) recommendation on gender verification will remain outlawed until further notice, joining the 2016 Rio Games with this distinction. Athletes will not face any regulation in gender verification, after the Court of Arbitration for Sports (CAS) findings ruled against the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) in utilizing the IOC’s policy.

The presence of social politics in sports is not unique to the Olympics. In 1912, Jack Johnson became the first black heavyweight boxing champion in world history; he won despite his face and spit in his eyes. The attendees at his matches, exclusively white, decried his brazen tactics in the ring—tactics that left one wondering, does Johnson win in spite of them, or to spite them?

The likes of Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, and Joe Frazier came to embody the manifestation of racial politics in boxing. In baseball, Jackie Robinson struggled with death threats on his path to becoming a National League MVP. The tennis player, Billie Jean King, revolutionized the role of women in sports and elevated her female peers into the mainstream.

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Professional sports have advanced several conversations on social issues; however, certain social and political issues remain that cloud its progress. Many people doubted tennis player Serena Williams’ fitness after childbirth, questioned WNBA player Brittney Griner’s gender because she could dunk, and called NFL player Cam Newton a “thug.” Institutional problems also remain, such as the wage discrimination toward the US Women’s National Soccer Team and the blind eye turned toward the decades of abuse inflicted upon athletes by predators like Larry Nassar of the US Gymnastics Team and Jerry Sandusky of Pennsylvania State University.

The decision to outlaw gender verification is part of the complicated relearning of gender in the collective consciousness of the international community, yet these policies implemented by the Olympic Committee and IAAF have failed to adequately reshape the manner in which gender is perceived, discussed and judged in sports. Why so?

The question of incorporating and including all genders in sports is complicated by the unique playing field that sports occupies in society. The art of physical competition is dependent on fair play to produce a fair outcome, the basis of which is minimizing physical differences that would provide one athlete an advantage over another. It is for this reason that doping in cycling and the use of steroids in baseball are strictly prohibited. The IOC and IAAF’s approach to producing fair play in international competition thus revolves around a fear that abnormal testosterone levels will be the death of competition. As a result, they have taken steps to minimize this concern alongside their policies of inclusion for the transgender community.

The reliance on science is the downfall of an otherwise well-intentioned Olympic Committee. To be clear, the world of sports has always struggled to embrace the nuances of gender theory as a result of its commitment to fair play, rather than any conscious tactic to exclude. However, the current value placed on science is a subconscious legitimization of transmisogyny. Until gender is understood as self-determined rather than scientifically verifiable, sports will remain an unsafe space for non-cisgender athletes and fans alike.

Sports is a peculiar arena for the discussion of transgender rights, given the historic separation of men and women in athletics. The conversation on transgender rights in the Olympics demands an understanding that in every sport wherein speed or strength are the isolated dependent factor (e.g. high jump, 800m, swimming), male athletes are setting world records faster or further than their female counterparts. The conversation on transgender rights in the Olympics equally demands recognition that the division of male and female athletes in the Olympics, and all athletics for that matter, have historically viewed gender as an exclusively physical trait. Through this lens, the value the International Olympic Committee places on fair competition becomes understandable grounds upon which they would expect trans-athletes to cede ground to physical testing before competing. After all, the antiquated, over-simplified notion of gender as a physical trait creates a clear binary of men and women, the former of which  has clear biological advantages over the other. Reacting to a changing social and political climate around our understanding of  gender, the International Olympic Committee held the Stockholm Consensus on Sex Reassignment in Sports in 2003. World leaders in sports convened to discuss the science behind gender and what to make of athletes who identify with a gender at odds with that with which they were assigned at birth. The meeting concluded with three newfound conditions whereupon a transgender athlete can compete:

1.     The athlete has undergone sexual reassignment surgery, appropriately altering their external genitalia and receiving a gonadectomy

2.      The athlete has attained legal recognition of their gender from their respective government or governing sports federation

3.     The athlete has participated in hormone therapy for at least two years prior to competition

With these conditions met, transgender athletes were allowed to compete against those of their actual gender. The IAAF adopted these regulations, urging all international athletics federations to do so as well. Individual federations remained autonomous in their decision-making, but transgender Olympic participation became defined by these restrictions.

Enter Caster Semenya.

When Semenya started racing on the world stage, she immediately became the ironic figurehead of a gender revolution in Olympic competition. A cisgender sprinter from Africa, she placed first in the 800m in 2008 at the World Junior Championships. From there on, she would continue to dominate the competition in her event, and reign supreme in international competition through 2009. However, once it became public that she had undergone sex testing by the IAAF in 2009, controversy erupted.

Semenya was born with hyperandrogenism, a condition wherein the body produces more testosterone than considered normal. Although the average biological male testosterone levels fall anywhere between 10 and 35 nmol/L of blood, the female equivalent typically ranges from 1 to 3 nmol/L. Semenya’s testing remains confidential, but temporary disqualification from international competition in 2009 hinted at disproportionately high testosterone for women.

Indian sprinter Dudee Chand soon fell victim to the same testing complications, with her hyperandrogenism disqualifying her from competition in 2014. As cisgender intersex athletes reeled from the 2004 restrictions, the IOC revisited its regulations.

By 2015, the demand for transgender athletes to get sexual reassignment surgery was omitted from international regulations. Instead, the IOC recommended international sports federations expect of transgender athletes the following conditions:

1.     The athlete must declare their gender

2.     The athlete’s declared gender must remain unwavering for four years

3.     In the case that the transgender athlete has declared she will compete as a woman, she must demonstrate testosterone levels below 10 nmol/L for at least one year prior to competition

4.     In the case that the transgender athlete has declared he will compete as a man, he need not go under any testosterone sampling

Former IOC Medical Commission Chairman Arne Ljungqvist lauded this new set of conditions, relaying that “[the IOC] cannot impose a surgery if that is no longer a legal requirement in various countries.” Ljungqvist went on to urge the irrelevance of sexual reassignment surgery in maintaining the fair play of the Games, suggesting instead that “it is necessary to ensure insofar as possible that trans-athletes are not excluded from the opportunity to participate in sporting competition.”

This progressive attitude from such an influential international governing body in sports was initially heralded as a new age of inclusivity for the Games. While 99 percent of cisgender women fall between the 1-3 nmol/L figure, a limit of 10 nmol/L became known as the hyperandrogenism rule, and provided a buffer for women born with unnaturally high testosterone. Likewise, a looser regulation made athletes in the midst of hormone therapy to participate in the Games sooner rather than later. IOC scientists and doctors alike patted themselves on the back with enthusiasm.

However, their celebration was brief. The Court of Arbitration for Sport looked into the new policies surrounding gender verification in the Games, and quickly ruled against the IAAF, stating that the Association had failed to prove that women with naturally high levels of testosterone had a competitive edge. The CAS recognized that the contemporary means for gender verification are a pseudo-science, but went further than that, and highlighted the shortcomings of gender verification in international sports as a whole. The Association had failed to demonstrate how the 10 nmol/L figure, despite aligning with biological averages in cisgender bodies, is any threat to fair play. Without ample evidence, the rule was suspended and the IAAF was given a two year window to collect sufficient data supporting their claim.

This February, athletes lined up behind their respective flags to march into Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium without any regulations on gender verification. Three years after the IAAF’s regulations were deemed discriminatory, they have yet to put together a research-based, data-driven argument supporting their claim. One would hope that this was a hint towards a victory for transgender athletes and intersex athletes alike.

Why, then, are  the Olympics Games yet to see a publicly transgender athlete as an active participant?

From Semenya to Chand, the case studies on gender verification have never included a single transgender athlete. The most prominent trans-athlete on the world stage was Caitlyn Jenner, who declared her correct gender identity 40 years after she won gold in the decathlon. Transgender athletes continue to compete in silence, hiding their identity to a world that will not have them.

The cause is rooted in the fundamental misunderstanding of how gender presents itself in the public sphere.

In The Washington Post, transgender marathon runner Joanna Harper pushed back against the gross misconception that transgender women dominate their respective sport. Not only does any dominant athlete have some advantage over their less successful counterparts, but the likes of Renée Richards, Mianne Bagger, and Fallon Fox, have failed to live up to the dominant athletic beast that so many stereotype trans female athletes to be. This misconception has simply failed to manifest itself in an actual case study in professional sports.

Even making the argument that trans women are not as dominant as they may be expected to be plays into the hands of transmisogyny. As Harper aptly asks herself, “How slow would I need to be for them to be happy?” Physical ability is not a function of gender, and to places limits on trans-athletes by demanding they re-engineer their body to conform to cis-passing conceptions of ability is unbridled transmisogyny.

Joanna Harper is a woman, and chooses to compete as such. Yet because of the body she was born with, the IAAF demands she inject herself with chemicals that stunt muscle development and weaken her bones, all in the name of fair play.

Neither the International Olympic Committee nor the International Association of Athletics Federations are consciously transphobic. Yet the regulations placed in international competition between 2004 and 2015 do not reflect a hate, but rather an ignorance around contemporary understandings of gender theory. In a well-natured, calculated effort to balance fair play and inclusion, these organizations turned to science, an move which was the final nail in the coffin of their efforts to embrace trans-athletes.

Gender is not encapsulated in a vial or a blood sample, and it is not written in DNA. If the Olympics wants to be the progressive face of change that it clearly strives to be, the Committee must recognize just how antiquated its underlying beliefs about gender identity and its practices of gender verification are.

Until then, multiple trans-athletes will march under the fireworks during the Opening Ceremony, their identity hidden beneath a history of misunderstanding. Pyeongchang will mark another Games without a publicly transgender Olympian, pointing at the failures of the International Organizations in successfully engineering a space that is not simply safe, but welcoming of athletes of all genders.

On July 24th, 2020, nearly one billion people will crowd their television sets to bear witness to the Tokyo Olympic Opening Ceremony. We can only hope that by then, then next Joanna Harper will not have to don a gendered-guise in order to compete.