POSTED: February 2nd 2016

JOHN GOODBODY: Problems remain for future of transgender athletes in the Olympics

Stella Walsh / Phactual
Stella Walsh / Phactual

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(SFC) New guidelines have been drawn up by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on the contentious issue of the admission of transgender athletes to international competition. Gender verification has been a vexed question for sporting bodies for generations with allegations that men have been participating as women.

Stella Walsh, representing Poland, won the 1932 Olympic 100 metres with what an official Canadian report described as "long man-like strides". In 1980, she was murdered in a robbery attempt and the autopsy revealed that, although she had both male and female chromosomes, she also had a male penis and testicles and no female sexual organs.

After the chromosome test to determine sexuality was abandoned for lack of scientific validity before the 2000 Olympics, there was the sad case of South African Caster Semenya, who won the 2009 world 800 metres title, amidst controversy whether she had been subjected to any gender verification. It has never been disclosed whether she was then forced to undergo any surgical treatment when she returned to competitive athletics, finishing second in both the 2011 World Championships and the 2012 Olympics, albeit with times that were slower than in 2009.

Last year, the Court for Arbitration in Sport (CAS) upheld the appeal of the Indian sprinter Dutee Chand that she should be permitted to take part in international events without having to be subjected to any treatment for her naturally high levels of testosterone. Chand had been barred from taking part in the 2014 Commonwealth Games.

The CAS ruled that the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) had to give up its 'hyperandrogenism' regulation for two years, when it would have to be abandoned completely unless it could produce some new scientific evidence to support its original ruling.

Following a symposium in Lausanne, the IOC have now recommended that transgender athletes should be allowed to take part in the Olympics and other international events without being obliged to undergo a sex reassignment operation.

The IOC stated: "It is necessary to ensure insofar as possible that trans athletes are not excluded from the opportunity to participate in sporting competition. The overriding sporting objective is and remains the guarantee of fair competition.

"To require surgical anatomical changes as a precondition to participation is not necessary to preserve fair competition and may be inconsistent with developing legislation and notions of human rights."

However, the IOC guidelines also say that that any male-to-female transgender athletes have to show that their testosterone levels must be below 10 nanmols per litre of blood for at least 12 months before being able to compete in women's events. A high level of the male hormone is a great advantage in many sports.

The IOC has suggested to the IAAF that it must now return to the CAS with further scientific arguments to reinstate its original rule. Peter Sonksen, professor of endocrinology at St. Thomas's Hospital in London, who pioneered research into a test for human growth hormone, said last year: "I do not think they (the IAAF) will be able to do what the CAS wants them to do and in two years' time the regulation will be rescinded."

In his research, he has found examples of some female competitor having high levels of testosterone and some males having low levels, so making any parameter arbitrary and unfair because there was some overlapping.

The issue clearly remains a difficult one and one can see further problems ahead as sportswomen question whether some of their rivals should be taking part in the same events as they are.

 ** JOHN GOODBODY covered the 2012 Olympics for The Sunday Times, his 12th successive Summer Games and is the author of the audio book A History of the Olympics, read by Barry Davies, the BBC commentator. He was Sports News Correspondent of The Times 1986-2007, for whom he received journalistic awards in all three decades on the paper, including Sports Reporter of The Year in 2001.  

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