In their 2019 Call for Applications, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Medical Scientific Commission is “calling on researchers to apply for support and funding of athlete-centered projects.” They go on to state that they are looking for research projects “that has the potential to directly benefit Olympic athletes” and that the funding for projects will receive up to $100,000. The kind of research that the IOC is looking for includes studies on prevention of injuries and illnesses as well as IOC Consensus Statements topics including transgender athletes.

The discussions and controversy around transgender athletes and sports has been heating up recently as several big name sports stars including Martina Navratilova, Sharron Davies and Sam Newman have published anti-trans articles or made anti-trans comments regarding athletes. In addition, many leading sports organizations and national governing bodies have also influenced the discussion, some such as USA Powerlifting have banned transgender athletes whereas others such as USA Hockey, Crossfit, and Scottish Athletics have adopted transgender inclusive policies.

The movement for inclusion of transgender athletes in sports has garnered a lot more attention recently from the athletic successes with athletes such as cyclist Dr. Rachel McKinnon, wrestler Mack Beggs, boxer Pat Manuel, MMA fighter Fallon Fox, and duathlete Chris Mosier. As well as various legal challenges, including efforts by South Dakota to ban transgender athletes from high school sports and Minnesota for ruling against transgender discrimination in sports.

In addition to cycling, Dr. Rachel McKinnon has recently published her own research on the inclusion of transgender athletes in sports which examines the idea of fair play and a “level playing field” that many of the arguments used to justify discrimination of transgender athletes in sports.

The International Olympic Committee has guidelines designed to be inclusive for transgender athletes to compete at the Olympic level. Originally adopted in 2003, the guidelines were updated in 2015.

  • There are no restrictions for transgender men to compete in the male division of sports.
  • Restrictions for transgender women include…
    • The athlete has declared that her gender identity is female. The declaration cannot be changed, for sporting purposes, for a minimum of four years.
    • The athlete must demonstrate that her total testosterone level in serum has been below 10 nmol/L for at least 12 months prior to her first competition (with the requirement for any longer period to be based on a confidential case-by-case evaluation, considering whether or not 12 months is a sufficient length of time to minimize any advantage in women’s competition).
    • The athlete’s total testosterone level in serum must remain below 10 nmol/L throughout the period of desired eligibility to compete in the female category.
    • Compliance with these conditions may be monitored by testing. In the event of non-compliance, the athlete’s eligibility for female competition will be suspended for 12 months.

In addition, the guidelines state that surgery “as a pre-condition to participation is not necessary to preserve fair competition and may be inconsistent with developing legislation and notions of human rights.” Despite these guidelines, there have been no transgender athletes who have ever competed at the Olympics.

In addition, the IOC has guidelines regarding athletes with hyperandrogenism. However, they deflect the discussion onto a case by case basis. A case regarding South African track athlete, Caster Semenya is currently awaiting a decision by the Court Arbitration of Sport to rule in accordance to a proposed rule by the IAAF regarding regulation of testosterone produced within the bodies of female athletes who have hyperandrogenism.

The IOC’s investment for more research is important to help answer many of the questions that are currently part of the debate and to help develop more consistent and scientifically grounded policies. It is well recognized that more conclusive research is necessary as more athletes who identify as transgender, non-binary and intersex pursue sports.

By Dirk Smith