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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 testosterone level ” bas “before lining up” in the category corresponding to their new gender identity ».

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

In the process, on Sunday, the International Swimming Federation (Fina) limited access to its women’s categories to swimmers ” become women before puberty », a solution that excludes almost all transgender athletes, whose transition is generally later.

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, Fina is considering the creation of a ” open category in addition to the women’s and men’s events, which would be unprecedented in all sports.

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 it was established ” a comprehensive inclusion policy “, which the organization hopes to deliver next year.

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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 » et « the integrity of women’s sport “, rather than “ l’inclusion of transgender contestants.

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 sexual reassignment operation at least two years before the athlete’s request – a criterion lifted in 2011 -, as well as a “ hormone therapy “verifiable during” a duration long enough to minimize gender-related competitive advantages ».

Scientists and activists

But in the meantime, the discussion has changed in nature, eluding endocrinologists or sports scientists for ” gain visibility “, as athletes and human rights activists seized 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 », Le« right to privacy », and the objective « inclusiveness of elite sport, listed the IOC in November, delivering ten potentially contradictory 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 considering a third category at the Olympic Games in the long term, leaving each body ” determine the threshold at which an advantage may become disproportionate, and develop the necessary mechanisms to compensate ».

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The site, which is particularly complex for organizations with variable legal and scientific resources, is only just beginning: on Thursday, the UCI said ” discuss with other international federations of a research program on the evolution of the physical performance of highly trained athletes under transitional hormone treatment ».

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