Transgender athletes, world athletics prohibits participation in women’s competitions. The Semenya, Thomas and Hubbard cases

There are still no transgender athletes capable of the “minimums” for international competitions at the highest level, but in the meantime, world athletics says no to their participation of transgender women in competitions in the female category.

Although the ban is more theoretical (“there are no transgender athletes in the world”, specified the president of World Athletics, Sebastian Coe) the decision to put up a barrier reopens the question.

“It is always difficult to take a position when the rights of two groups conflict, but we have chosen to protect women”, explained Coe, on the day in which his federation also reiterated the exclusion from international competitions in Russians and Belarusians, placing a big obstacle on the IOC intention to admit them to Paris 2024 as neutrals.

But there is also another wound that crosses world sport. Last November, the IOC had invited all international federations to define guidelines on the participation of transgender people. A theme on which champions and ex-champions are divided, seeking clarification from science. Among the most fervent opponents of the yes to the right of transgender people, also Martina Navratilova, former champion of homosexual rights, whose opposition to competitions in which transgenders and women compete together had caused controversy and debates.

It’s not just about issues like that of the West Virginia girl, who as a transgender woman asks to participate in athletics competitions with her companions: the case ended up in the US Supreme Court. That ideal of sport found itself at a crossroads in Tokyo, when New Zealander Laurel Hubbard, the first born male athlete, took part in the Olympic women’s weightlifting tournament.

It was a watershed that called all the main disciplines – especially those in which strength, endurance, anaerobic capacity prevail – to ask themselves: to what extent does the right of a transgender woman to compete clash with that of her rivals not to deal with physical advantages linked to transition?

World cycling has extended the “transition period” from 12 to 24 months during which transgender women must have a “low” testosterone level, before aligning themselves “in the category corresponding to their new gender identity”. Swimming has limited the access of its female categories to swimmers “who became women before puberty”, just as athletics has now done. A solution that excludes almost all transgender athletes, whose transition usually begins later.

And that has caused much discussion in the USA, where Lia Thomas – transgender champion – has broken all the records of the university championships by applying for the role of the next Olympic star. Fina has also envisaged the creation of an “open category”, a proposal that was born in support of gender inclusion, but which according to some runs the risk of ghettoisation.

A ban also came from world rugby.

“We don’t say no forever,” explained Coe, after the World Athletics Executive. Until now, the world federation required transgender athletes to reduce the amount of testosterone in their blood to a maximum of 5 nmol/L and to remain below this threshold continuously for a period of 12 months before competition. But now the announcement is complete. An ad hoc commission, led by an independent authority, with the participation of sports scientists and a transgender representative will take care of setting new rules.

“We will be guided in this by the science of physical performance and male advantage that will inevitably develop over the next few years,” Lord Coe added. We will revise our position as more evidence becomes available, but we believe the integrity of women’s athletics is paramount.”

And along these lines, athletics has also revised the participation criteria among women of hyperandrogynous athletes, such as Caster Semenya. They will need to reduce their blood testosterone level below 2.5 nanomoles per liter, by five, and must stay below this threshold for two years to compete internationally in the women’s category in any track and field event. Until now, the restrictions only applied to races of 400m and above.


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