In the wake of the controversy surrounding Laurel Hubbard’s appearance in the women’s weightlifting championships at the Tokyo Olympic games, announcements that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was reviewing the rules around transgender and intersex inclusion in women’s sports, naturally raised expectations that the revised rules would bring much needed clarity and re-establish fairness for women in elite sport. As it turns out, the new rules are profoundly disappointing.
The IOC’s “Framework on Fairness, Inclusion and Non-Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity and Sex Variations”, unveiled last Tuesday, acknowledges very limited grounds for preserving women’s sport (fairness, player safety and a provision against opportunistic transgender identification) and concerns itself predominantly with the importance of inclusion, privacy and non-discrimination for the gender diverse. The burden on demonstrating the need to exclude particular players is referred to different sporting authorities to be argued out on a case-by-case basis.
The IOC’s failure to grasp the nettle is particularly striking, given that other international sporting codes have already done most of the heavy lifting. In 2019, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) released its Eligibility Regulations for the Female Classification (Athletes with Differences of Sex Development), specifying blood testosterone levels under 5 nmol/L for international women's races from 400m to one mile. These were accepted by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) as a necessary, reasonable and proportionate means of achieving the IAAF’s legitimate aim of preserving the integrity of female athletics in the restricted events.
World Rugby’s 2020 Transgender Guidelines, regulated against trans inclusion in the female game based on injury predictions. In support of their decision, they produced 49 studies showing that drugs to suppress testosterone in line with IOC rules, have only a limited effect in decreasing the physical advantages of a male body in terms of muscle mass, strength and power.
Higher levels of testosterone produce bigger and stronger bones, muscles and higher haemoglobin levels, conferring a “massive performance advantage” of 10%−12% on average. Previously, the IOC rules required transgender athletes to maintain blood testosterone levels lower than 10 nmol/L for at least 12 months before the competition but this still allowed XY athletes with male-range testosterone levels − even five times higher than typical female testosterone levels − to compete in female events. Now, even this inadequate rule has been abandoned, to be replaced with 10 Principles, 9 of which appear to have been drafted with the transgender lobbyist’s wish list in mind, rather than any serious concern to provide a sporting change to biological women.
The IOC’s Framework encourages each sport-specific international federation to make its own determinations about what constitutes an “unfair advantage” but warns (Principle #5) that
“No athlete should be precluded from competing or excluded from competition on the exclusive ground of an unverified, alleged or perceived unfair competitive advantage due to their sex variations, physical appearance and/or transgender status … [u]ntil evidence determines otherwise”.
Clearly, this throws the burden of proof onto women’s sports, which must now martial the scientific evidence to demonstrate the ineligibility of trans athletes on a case-by-case basis, muster the will and resources to defend these decisions and brace for the inevitable fury of trans lobby groups.
Asked by the media for comment, Tommy Lundberg, a physiology and sports science lecturer at Sweden’s prestigious Karolinska Institute who has studied trans women in sport responded:
"I think it's a mess and I am pretty confused … Requiring peer-reviewed research before they impose restrictions on transgender athletes is not realistic. I wonder how they would answer the simple question, 'Why do sex categories exist at all?'"
Scientist Joanna Harper, who is trans and has been studying trans athletes at Britain’s Loughborough University, agreed that “the suggestion that there should be no presumed advantages … just doesn't hold water. Transgender women are on average, taller, bigger and stronger than (non-trans) cisgender women and those are advantages in many sports”.
Anyone suspecting that the Framework has been drafted in the service of a political agenda, rather than purely in the interests of competitive sport, will not be surprised to find this openly acknowledged in the preamble, which explains the Framework “is issued as part of the IOC’s commitment to respecting human rights (as expressed in Olympic Agenda 2020+5) and as part of the action taken to foster gender equality and inclusion”.
The prism of the Olympic Agenda 2020+5 appears to have a significant distorting effect; rendering a version of “human rights” that looks quite different from those conventionally addressed in UN instruments such as the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of descrimination against Women (CEDAW), which recognises legitimate differential treatment between men and women as not only permissible, but a crucial means of preventing and eliminating female disadvantage.
The IOC’s Framework effectively throws women’s sport under the bus.