Transgender athletes in the Olympic Games - ‘My advantage is not as great as people think.’

by JACKIE FYTIST on Mar 10, 2022

Transgender athletes in the Olympic Games - ‘My advantage is not as great as people think.’

Since ancient times, competitive sports have been mainly divided by the traditional concept of gender identity, i.e. male and female, with the addition to the physical and biological differences between men and women. However, with the change of social values, it has become a controversial topic whether transgender athletes can be recognized by the public and compete in their now affirmed gender group.

In this regard, quite a lot of clinicians and politicians have been trying to allow transgender people to join in international competitions. As early as 2003, the Medical Commission of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) formulated a new guide for transgender athletes. According to the guide, athletes must have undergone gender reassignment surgery, showing legal recognition of their gender, and they must have proof of receiving Hormonal Therapy for at least 2 years prior to the competition.

However, there were still no transgender athletes participating in the Olympic Games even with the 2003 Guide put into place. The main cause was gender reassignment Hormone Therapy was not yet vastly available or acceptable in the majority of the countries in the world. This absence of transgender athletes participating in international games was carried into the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. And from this event, the IOC decided to cancel the requirement of legal recognition and the requirement of surgical anatomy change in their entry guide. Instead, it was established that for transgender athletes to compete in the Olympics, they must follow a strict hormonal level requirement, incl. for transgender female athletes, the serum testosterone level should be kept below 10 nmol for at least 12 months before the competition.

With the 2015 update, the world still hasn’t met any transgender athletes to compete in the Olympic Games. Possibly due to the then still negative perception and lack of better understanding for transgender people. Some opposed by arguing that for those that were assigned men at birth, even after gender reassignment surgery, they have already possessed the physical advantage built like a male athlete, and their sports genome would be different from cis women, therefore, it is unfair to other cisgender athletes to allow transgender athletes to compete in their affirmed gender group. Selina Soule, a Connecticut track and field athlete, once publicly opposed treating transgender women as women. She said that it was unfair to those female athletes who were assigned female at birth. She thought that allowing transgender athletes to participate in women's sports games took away her dream.

With the social controversy, it was not until 2021 that the first transgender woman participated in the Olympic Games. Transgender weightlifter Laurel Hubbard was selected for Tokyo Olympics, and she was approved by the International Olympic Committee to participate in the weightlifting competition of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. Even though she didn't win any medals, she was supported by many fellow Olympic athletes. Australian weightlifter Charisma Amoe-Tarrant also expressed great respect for her and was happy that she was officially approved to participate in the Olympic Games.

Hubbard’s participation brought a keynote into the public eyes, in order compete in the female league, as a transgender woman, Hubbard has met the hormonal/testosterone level requirement set by the Olympic Committees, and her performance is considered fair competition to her fellow female athletes. Schuyler Bailar, a transgender swimmer who once represented Harvard University in men's NCAA Division I, pointed out that nowadays, discussions about transgender athletes tend to focus on two areas: fairness and physiological advantages. He mentioned that sports are based on physiological differences. When we have athletes like Phelps, we will think that he is born for swimming. But his lactic acid level is only half that of average athletes, and no one said it was unfair. Similarly, among female athletes, there are differences in all aspects other than gender characteristics. Many female weightlifters can lift hundreds of kilograms through constant exercise. This doesn't mean it's 'unfair’, it's just a physical difference.

In summary, the controversial debate on whether transgender athletes could compete in competitive sports games, based on their compliance to the strict guidelines for entry, will continue to raise its profile and inevitably lays a greater psychological restraint for transgender athletes. But with the IOC issued a non-legally binding framework in November 2021, focusing on 10 principles relating to non-discrimination, fairness, health, and physical autonomy. Their stance is undoubtedly setting an unprecedented example on welcoming transgender athletes, and promoting the recognition and acknowledgment of their participation.

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