The Testosterone Rule Strikes Again – New Policy to Address Transgender Athletes

New Guidelines issued by the IOC (International Olympic Committee) offer a new policy for the participation of transgender athletes in sports competitions. According to the new policy, transgender athletes should be given the option to compete without having to undergo genital re-construction surgery. Female to Male (F-M) transgender athletes will be allowed to compete without further limitations, however Male to Female (M-F) transgender athletes would be allowed to compete only after receiving hormonal treatment intended to keep testosterone levels under a fixed threshold for at least a year before the competition. This is a significant change to the previous guidelines, which recommended that transgender athletes be eligible to compete only after a genital re-construction surgery and two years of hormonal therapy. The committee explained that the change of policy was due to “current scientific, social and legal attitudes on transgender issues”. The overriding objective of all policies according to the IOC was ‘fair competition’, so whereas genital appearance was not considered to affect fairness, testosterone levels are still understood to generate a competitive edge.

The decision to affirm the competitive advantages associated with testosterone levels is in contrast to the last ruling made in the case of Dutee Chand, discussed in my last post about the ‘Testosterone Rule’. Chand is not transgender but a female athlete with a condition called Hyperandrogenism, a condition characterized by high testosterone levels in women. In Chand’s case, she appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) which accepted her appeal and suspended the testosterone rule until the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) brings further scientific evidence in 2017. Whereas in the transgender context, testosterone was recognized to comprise beneficial effects, in the Hyperandrogenism (or larger Intersex context), this understanding required further scientific validation. The IOC committee was actually aware of this inconsistency and included a direct plea to IAAF calling on them to return to the CAS with the new IOC guidelines and evidence to support the former rules regulating Hyperandrogenism. Intersex organizations have already expressed disappointment about the differential treatment the two conditions receive. Whereas the section in the new guidelines dedicated to trans-athletes is full of human-rights, autonomy and inclusion language, the section dedicated to Hyperandrogenism is cursory and does not recognize the vulnerability of this group to coercive sex-assignment surgeries. With respect to CAS recommendation that female athletes with Hyperandrogenism should be allowed to compete as men, the organization suggests this framework reinforces stigma and humiliation of intersex women.

There is no easy way to resolve this. OII Australia, a prominent Intersex organization said “Overall, both policy statements reinforce the idea that a testosterone level of 10nmol/l divides males from females. This is despite an acknowledgement in medical papers by sports clinicians that this level is arbitrary”. True, as many scholars like Anne Fausto-Sterling and others have noted, Hormones are not sex differentiators, but I think this misses the point in the context of sports competition. The wish to create a system of competitive sports which is inclusive of all sexes and genders is not bound to deny biological differences that matter in this particular context. Some attempts have been made to refute the relationship between testosterone and athletic capability, but so far, they have not been successful. Despite many folkloristic attributions associated with testosterone, it is broadly agreed that it influences factors like body fat, muscle size, structure and strength – features which affect athletic competence in many kinds of sports.  So if testosterone is what really matters, why do we need a sex classification at all? Perhaps the move from a sex classification to a hormone classification is actually a step towards a new universal rule that abandons the M/F distinction all together? It may also help to deconstruct the misleading conception of sex-hormones as constituting sex/gender in humans.

But while carefully embracing a hormonal rule over a sex rule, it is important to maintain the possibility that testosterone levels are NOT the best criteria to classify athletes if fairness is the ultimate goal. Perhaps it is also advised that we broaden our horizons beyond the traditional classification systems in sports and imagine a system that looks at ALL athletes, males and females, according to the advantages they enjoy in particular contexts. A genuine classification code was created for the Paralympic Games, which tailored detailed classification systems based on the characters of the specific sport, the impaired function of the athlete, and the level of imparity. One could even question our attachment to physical advantages and include other criteria like economic or social advantages that influence fairness. Even though unrealistic at this point, the mere speculations on how an alternate sport classification system might look, makes the case that sex classification is not mandatory at all, and can definitely be revised.

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