The International Olympic Committee Is Finally Advocating for Trans and Intersex Athletes

With its new inclusion guidelines, the IOC will no longer mandate testosterone testing for trans women...but leaves enforcement up to the individual sports.

The International Olympic Committee Is Finally Advocating for Trans and Intersex Athletes
Photo:Adrian Dennis (Getty Images)

While 2021 has seen the devastating rise of transphobia, it has still been a promising year for trans rights: The International Olympic Committee has announced new guidelines that no longer require trans women athletes to undergo hormone therapy or “medically unnecessary treatments” to be eligible to compete, because there is “no presumption that athletes should have an advantage due to their transgender status.”

From an organization that distributes messaging to nearly every country in the world, that’s a powerful denouncement of the discrimination that permeates nearly every level of American sport today—the impact of which should not be understated.

Given that the HRC reported 2021 as the deadliest year on record for trans and nonbinary people, with over two thirds of the victims identified as Black trans women, the new guidelines are sorely needed. And, as nearly three dozen anti-trans bills were introduced in the US in the last year, many of which would require trans girls to provide “proof” of their sex in order to participate in high school sports, the framework’s decisive language could drastically change the lives of trans girls across the country, who are experiencing much of the same discrimination and harassment as trans Olympic athletes.

News of the IOC’s 2021 guidelines comes at a time when the Olympics are suffering from one PR nightmare after another. Outside of the Games being a nightmare for host cities, the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics saw trans athletes dealing with harassment from President Donald Trump, two nonbinary athletes getting repeatedly misgendered on a global scale, and an ongoing, contentious conversation about whether trans women have an “unfair” advantage in competition. As per a 2015 IOC policy, trans and intersex athletes were required to undergo hormone therapy and tested to ensure their testosterone levels fell below a random threshold to meet eligibility requirements — hopefully for the last time.

Notably, the one bright spot of the Tokyo Games was that they marked the first time in history that openly trans women have qualified for the Olympics.

But the new IOC guidelines are just that: guidelines. They are not mandates nor requirements, and the language is vague, which ultimately leaves the most crucial decisions up to the international federations (IFs) that govern each sport. One such organization, World Athletics, has clarified that it is keeping its current policy for differences of sex development or DSD athletes—the very same policy that rendered South African 800m runner Caster Semenya, who was assigned a woman at birth, ineligible for her event because her natural testosterone levels were “too high” to compete as a woman.

For trans and intersex athletes, that means these groundbreaking new guidelines that validate their gender identity and existence in the international sports community come with one big discriminatory asterisk. Athletes “should be allowed to compete in the category that best aligns with their self-determined gender identity,” but IFs don’t have to let them. IFs shouldn’t test for testosterone levels, but they can. And IFs shouldn’t exclude trans athletes from the Olympics altogether, but they will, if they can “show” there’s an unfair advantage. The IOC has the power to enforce equality on their world stage. They chose instead to make some very nice suggestions and pass the buck to the IFs instead.

The issue here isn’t what’s fair, but who gets to define what’s fair. As journalist Britni de la Cretaz told NPR back in August, “The idea of fairness is determined by dominant, mainstream society. In this case, what we are deeming fair is what is fair to cisgender athletes and how cisgender athletes feel about having to compete against trans women and trans people, rather than centering how the trans folks feel about being excluded and what’s fair to them.”

In some respects, this is progress, and could even be considered a victory. But these gestures are measures that suggest equality without actually doing the work to get there.

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