IOC walks back transgender and intersex athlete policy, but passes buck on ensuring inclusion

·4 min read
BEIJING, CHINA - OCTOBER 23: Olympic rings is seen at Shougang Park on October 23, 2021 in Beijing, China. The Big Air Shougang at Shougang Park will host the big air freestyle skiing and snowboarding competitions of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games. (Photo by Li Wenming/VCG via Getty Images)
The International Olympic Committee on Tuesday revealed a new policy for transgender athlete inclusion. (Photo by Li Wenming/VCG via Getty Images)

The International Olympic Committee on Tuesday loosened and walked back its policy restricting the participation of transgender and intersex athletes in Olympic sports, but said it won't enforce sport-specific rules governing inclusion.

After a two-plus-year consultation process, the IOC moved away from a 2015 guideline that required transgender women to lower their testosterone levels if they hoped to compete alongside other women. On Tuesday, IOC officials admitted that there is "no scientific consensus on how testosterone affects performance across all sports," and that the "role of testosterone" in creating "unfair advantage" is "unclear."

They made these admissions months after Laurel Hubbard, a New Zealand weightlifter who'd suppressed her testosterone, became the first openly transgender athlete to compete at the Olympics; and after multiple runners were barred from races in Tokyo by testosterone-based rules governing the eligibility of athletes with differences in sex development (DSDs).

The IOC, in revealing an updated "framework" that clashes with those rules, outlined 10 new principles. It encouraged each sport-specific international federation to follow those principles in creating its own eligibility rules, and in making its own determinations on what constitutes an "unfair advantage."

IOC moves away from blanket policy

The IOC steered away from a "one-size-fits-all" approach, officials said, because competitive advantages associated with male and intersex biology “differ across sports, and sometimes even disciplines and events."

Past policies had not acknowledged those differences. The 2003 Stockholm Consensus produced an early IOC policy that required gender affirmation surgery for transwomen to compete in women's divisions, regardless of sport. The updated 2015 policy removed the surgery requirement, but still included testosterone suppression and a buffer period. It was a "guideline," and wasn't forced upon individual sports, but most sport-specific federations simply adopted it.

Now, after consulting athletes, human rights organizations, LGBTIQ experts and scientists over multiple years, the IOC has decided that policies should differ from sport to sport. And it argued, in the new framework, that it is "not in a position to issue regulations that define eligibility criteria for every sport, discipline or event across the [various] different national jurisdictions and sport systems."

IOC acknowledges past harm

The IOC, at an hour-long briefing and virtual question-and-answer session on Tuesday, essentially admitted that previous guidelines were flawed. One slide of a detailed presentation stated that "policies that require women to modify their hormone levels to compete" — as the IOC's previous policy did — "can have serious adverse impacts on their health." Officials acknowledged that sex testing and "invasive physical examinations" designed to verify an athlete's gender are "disrespectful" and "potentially harmful."

They also said they heard "directly" from athletes, who explained that old regulations "generated severe harm to their health."

The IOC's new framework, as a result, discourages sports federations from using sex testing or genital inspections in eligibility determinations. The framework states that "athletes should never be pressured ... to undergo medically unnecessary procedures or treatment to meet eligibility criteria."

In crafting its new approach, the IOC seemed to prioritize human rights and inclusion. "Inclusion" is the first of the 10 principles, and "prevention of harm" is the second. The third, "non-discrimination," states that "eligibility criteria should be established and implemented fairly and in a manner that does not systematically exclude athletes from competition based upon their gender identity, physical appearance and/or sex variations."

'The framework is not legally binding'

IOC officials said that international sports federations must consider all 10 principles in codifying their own policies, and said implementation of the framework would begin in March of 2022, shortly after the conclusion of the Beijing Winter Games.

But, crucially, they said they would not and could not force the sports federations to adopt the framework.

"The framework is not legally binding," Mehrabi said.

He reiterated that the IOC is "recommending" that, for example, "the whole unfair advantage should be evaluated based on performance," and not on any one specific measure such as testosterone. He said that the IOC will offer resources and expertise to each federation as it works through its own policy.

But when asked whether the IOC would accept any policy that an individual federation introduced, even if it clashed with the new IOC framework, Mehrabi avoided the question, declined to "jump to a conclusion," and said each process would be considered on a "case-by-case basis."

And thus, the near-impossible task of defining "fairness" or "disproportionate advantage" will be left to dozens of federations, each of which governs a distinct sport in a distinct way.

"We have not found the solution to this big question which is out there," IOC spokesman Christian Klaue said. "But what we have tried to do is outline a process which helps international federations to set eligibility criteria and to find solutions. And we will continue helping them doing that work. But clearly, this is a topic that will be with us for a long time. ... It's a long-term project."