From cycling to swimming, transgender sportswomen excluded from the top level

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Lausanne (AFP) – From cycling to swimming via rugby league, several sports have just restricted the access of transgender athletes to female competitions, engaging a debate combining advances in research, sports equity and human rights.

In a few days, three federations responded to the call of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which on November 16 asked sports bodies to establish their own criteria to allow transgender and intersex people to compete at high level.

The International Cycling Union (UCI) opened the ball on Thursday with a clear hardening, doubling the “transition period” (from 12 to 24 months) during which transgender women must have a “low” testosterone level before s line up “in the category corresponding to their new gender identity”.

Referring to “new scientific studies”, the cycling body lowers the accepted threshold by half, from 5 to 2.5 nmol / L of blood, on the grounds that it is “the maximum level of testosterone that observed in 99.99% of the female population”.

In the process, on Sunday, the International Swimming Federation (Fina) limited access to its female categories to swimmers “who became women before puberty”, a solution which excludes almost all transgender athletes, whose transition is generally more late.

The IOC leaves the hand

Shaken for months by the controversies concerning the American Lia Thomas, the first transgender swimmer to win a university title in the spring, the Fina is considering the creation of an “open category” in addition to the women’s and men’s events, which would be unprecedented for all sports combined.

Swimming Federation president Husain al-Musallam speaking to referees ahead of a Tokyo Games event on July 30, 2021 Oli SCARFF AFP/Archives

Finally, on Tuesday, the International Rugby League temporarily banned transgender players from women’s international rugby league matches until “a full inclusion policy” is established, which the organization hopes to deliver next year. .

Sebastian Coe, president of the International Athletics Federation, for his part paved the way for a modification of its regulations by promising, without further details, to favor “equity” and “the integrity of women’s sport”, rather than the “inclusion” of transgender competitors.

Far from being a coincidence, this salvo of positions was expected since the IOC gave up proposing uniform directives, as it had been doing since 2004, reminds AFP Ekain Zubizarreta, sports sociologist at the University of Pays Basque.

World Athletics President Sebastian Coe interviewed by reporters in Tokyo, July 27, 2021
World Athletics President Sebastian Coe interviewed by reporters in Tokyo, July 27, 2021 Charly TRIBALLEAU AFP/Archives

The Olympic body then demanded a sex reassignment operation at least two years before the athlete’s request – criterion lifted in 2011 -, as well as a verifiable “hormone therapy” for “a period long enough to minimize the competitive advantages linked to gender”.

Scientists and activists

But in the meantime, the nature of the discussion has changed, escaping endocrinologists or sports science specialists to “gain visibility”, as athletes and human rights activists seize it, underlines the researcher .

The debate was also stimulated by the media and legal battle of certain intersex athletes, including South African champion Caster Semenya, who forced the authorities to refine their regulations and reveal their scientific sources.

From now on, it is a question of both estimating the impact on muscle mass and endurance of high testosterone, as well as the time during which these effects last, but also of respecting “the primacy of health” , the “right to privacy”, and the goal of “inclusiveness” of elite sport, listed the IOC in November, delivering ten potentially conflicting principles.

South African Caster Semenya lined up for 5000m in Saint-Pierre (Mauritius), June 9, 2022
South African Caster Semenya lined up for 5000m in Saint-Pierre (Mauritius), June 9, 2022 Fabien DubessayAFP/Archives

Asked on Tuesday by AFP, the Olympic organization did not indicate whether it was ultimately considering a third category at the Olympics, leaving each body “to determine the threshold from which an advantage may become disproportionate, and to develop the mechanisms necessary to compensate “.

The project, which is particularly complex for organizations with variable legal and scientific resources, is only just beginning: on Thursday, the UCI said it was “discussing with other international federations” a research program on “the evolution of performance of highly trained athletes undergoing transitional hormone treatment.”

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