Metro Weekly

Transgender Athletes Banned from Women’s Track and Field

Council promises that a newly-formed working group will study possibilities for transgender inclusion in separate events.

Original Photo: Celso Pupo Rodrigues/Dreamstime – Photo Illustration: Todd Franson

The World Athletics Council, the governing body for international track and field, will ban transgender women from elite competitions designated for women.

The policy, which will be implemented on March 31, targets transgender female athletes who underwent male puberty before transitioning.

It also tightens rules for intersex athletes or people assigned female at birth who were born with sexual development disorders by cutting the acceptable levels of testosterone in their blood by half, reports National Public Radio

The council said the new policy was adopted in order to ensure “fairness and the integrity” of female-designated competitions over inclusion.

The council says no transgender athletes are currently competing in track and field. Still, the ruling could hinder several past Olympic medal winners, such as Caster Semenya, the gold medalist in the women’s 800 meters at the 2012 and 2016 Summer Olympics, who was assigned female at birth but who was born with XY chromosomes and has a naturally high testosterone level.

“Decisions are always difficult when they involve conflicting needs and rights between different groups, but we continue to take the view that we must maintain fairness for female athletes above all other considerations,” Sebastian Coe, the council’s president, wrote in a statement last Thursday.

The World Athletics Council plans to form a working group to consider the issue of transgender inclusion over the course of the next year. The working group will speak with transgender athletes to seek their perspective, review research, and submit recommendations to the council — which could include the creation of a separate category for transgender athletes, or designating men’s competitions as “open” to participants regardless of sex assigned at birth.

The new policy is centered around reducing the physical advantage that transgender athletes who have undergone male puberty enjoy over cisgender female competitors, even after taking hormones to lower their testosterone levels. 

While there is limited research involving elite transgender athletes, the council says it has conducted its own research and found that, even with hormone therapy, transgender athletes enjoy a physiological edge over other female competitors.

But several international groups, including Human Rights Watch, have called the council’s evidence flawed.

Human Rights Watch has questioned the use of sex testing for female and intersex athletes, on the grounds that such testing violates fundamental rights to privacy and dignity, may force some athletes to pursue unnecessary medical interventions in order to compete, and subjects them to unfair public criticism by sports officials.

The group also notes that women from the Global South are likely to be disproportionately impacted by such testing. 

In 2018, the World Athletics Council — at the time known as the IAAF — imposed new rules requiring athletes with differences in sex development who were competing in women’s track events between 400 meters and a mile to lower their natural testosterone levels with birth control pills, hormone shots, or surgery.

Semenya refused, saying those treatments left her feeling like she would have a heart attack, and took her case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which ultimately ruled against her in 2019. She is currently appealing that ruling in the European Court of Human Rights.

Other international athletic bodies are also moving to ban transgender athletes from female-designated sports.

Last year, FINA, the world governing body for swimming adopted a policy that effectively prevents most transgender females from competing in women’s events while saying it would examine creating a third “open” category of events not designated for a specific gender, in which transgender women could compete.

Under FINA’s policy, transgender or intersex athletes may only compete if they can provide evidence that they could not or never underwent male puberty, or had male puberty suppressed “beginning at Tanner Stage 2 or before age 12, whichever is later.”

Those same athletes also must provide evidence that they have continuously maintained testosterone levels below 2.5 nanomoles per liter since transitioning.

Similarly, World Rugby adopted a rule in 2020 that transgender women could not play in women’s events in order to ensure “safety and fairness” in the sport, although transgender women are still allowed to compete in mixed-gender, non-contact rugby.

In the United States, 19 states have banned transgender athletes from playing in female-designated sports at the K-12 and collegiate levels.

A handful of those bans also prevent transgender males from competing in men’s designated sports, although most states fixate exclusively on transgender female athletes.

Many states are also considering other measures, unrelated to sport, aimed at discouraging transgender visibility or block people from undergoing a gender transition. 

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