A landmark decision has seen transgender women banned from competing in the female category at international events.

Lord Sebastian Coe, the president of World Athletics, said no transgender athlete who had gone through male puberty would be permitted to compete in female world ranking competitions from 31 March 2023.

However, it seems that there is some flexibility going forward, with a working group to conduct further research into the transgender eligibility guidelines.

“We’re not saying no forever,” Coe said.

Previous rules stated that transgender women reduce their amount of blood testosterone to a maximum of 5nmol/L and stay under this threshold continuously for a period of 12 months before competing in the female category.

Coe said the decision was “guided by the overarching principle which is to protect the female category” and that there are currently no transgender athletes competing internationally in the sport.

“Decisions are always difficult when they involve conflicting needs and rights between different groups, but we continue to take the view that we must maintain fairness for female athletes above all other considerations,” said Coe.

“We will be guided in this by the science around physical performance and male advantage which will inevitably develop over the coming years. As more evidence becomes available, we will review our position, but we believe the integrity of the female category in athletics is paramount.”

The Council agreed to set up a working group for 12 months to “further consider the issue of transgender inclusion”.

An independent chair will lead the group, while it will also include up to three council members, two athletes from the Athletes’ Commission, a transgender athlete, three representatives of World Athletics’ member federations and representatives of the World Athletics health and science department.

It will consult specifically with transgender athletes, as well as review and commission research and put forward recommendations to the Council.

The World Athletics Council also voted to reduce the amount of blood testosterone permitted for athletes with differences in sex development (DSD) such as South Africa’s Caster Semenya and Olympic 200-metre silver medallist Christine Mboma of Namibia who are not transgender, although the two issues share similarities when it comes to sports.

Such athletes were legally identified as female at birth but have a medical condition that leads to some male traits, including high levels of testosterone that World Athletics argues gives them the same kind of unfair advantage as transgender athletes.

Semenya has been running in longer events. She finished 13th in her qualifying heat at 5,000 metres at world championships last year. In a recent interview, she said she was aiming to run in the Olympics at a longer distance.

“I’m in the adaptation phase, and my body is starting to fit with it. I’m just enjoying myself at the moment, and things will fall into place at the right time,” the South African runner said.

In order to compete at next year’s Olympics, she would have to undergo hormone-suppressing treatment for six months, something she has said she will never do again, having undergone the treatment a decade ago under previous rules.

Mboma, who won her silver in Tokyo two years ago but was out of worlds last year because of an injury, has not publicly stated whether she would be willing to undergo hormone therapy.

Another athlete, Olympic 800-metre silver medallist Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi, also has said she would not undergo treatment. While Semenya struggled at longer distances, Niyonsaba had relative success, winning Diamond League titles at 3,000 and 5,000 metres and running in the 5,000 at the Tokyo Olympics.

DSD is a group of rare biological conditions whereby a person’s hormones, genes and/or reproductive organs may be a mix of male and female characteristics. Some of those affected prefer the term “intersex”.

DSD athletes will be required to reduce their blood testosterone level to below 2.5 nanomoles per litre, down from five, and must remain under this threshold for two years before being able to compete internationally in the female category in any track and field event.

Under previous regulations, DSD athletes were only restricted in events ranging from 400m to a mile.

Interim provisions will be introduced for DSD athletes already competing in previously unrestricted events, requiring them to suppress their testosterone levels below 2.5nmol/L for a minimum of six months before they are allowed to compete again.

Coe said this will impact 13 DSD athletes, seven (55%) of whom compete in running events above a mile, with six (45%) in sprinting events below 400m.

He added none of the 13 will now be able to compete in the World Athletics Championships in Budapest in August, but will be eligible for future events, including the Paris 2024 Olympics, “if they maintain their testosterone at the required level”.

Semenya, who refuses to take testosterone-reducing drugs, won 800m Olympic gold in 2012 and 2016 but has not been able to compete in the event since 2019, when World Athletics introduced the previous restrictions. World Athletics recently opined that its “preferred option” was to continue to allow transgender women to compete in the female category but to tighten the sport’s eligibility rules, still using testosterone limits as the basis for inclusion.

It had proposed that transgender women would have to reduce their blood testosterone level to below 2.5nmol/L for two years, bringing it in line with amendments made last year by the UCI, cycling’s world governing body.

World Athletics said there was minimal support for this option when it was presented to stakeholders, who included member federations, athletes, coaches, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC), as well as representative transgender and human rights groups.

The issue remains divisive.

Many argue that transgender women should not compete in elite women’s sport because of any advantages they may retain – but others argue that sport should be more inclusive.

The debate centres on the balance of inclusion, sporting fairness and safety in women’s sport – essentially, whether transgender women can compete in female categories without an unfair biological advantage.

The IOC’s framework on transgender athletes – released in November 2021 – states that there should be no assumption that a transgender athlete automatically has an unfair advantage in female sporting events, and places responsibility on individual federations to determine eligibility criteria in their sport. In February, UK Athletics said it wanted a change in legislation to ensure the women’s category is lawfully reserved for competitors who are recorded female at birth.

The governing body said all transgender athletes should be allowed to compete with men in an open category to “ensure fairness” in women’s competition.

In June 2022, Coe welcomed the move by Fina – swimming’s world governing body – to stop transgender athletes from competing in women’s elite races if they had gone through any part of the process of male puberty, insisting “fairness is non-negotiable”.

Fina’s decision followed a report by a taskforce of leading figures from the world of medicine, law and sport that said going through male puberty meant transgender women retained a “relative performance advantage over biological females”, even after medication to reduce testosterone.

Fina also aimed to establish an ‘open’ category at competitions, for swimmers whose gender identity is different than their sex observed at birth.

In 2022, British Triathlon become the first British sporting body to establish a new ‘open’ category in which transgender athletes can compete.

The Rugby Football League and Rugby Football Union also banned transgender women from competing in female-only forms of their games.

It followed World Rugby becoming the first international sports federation to say transgender women cannot compete at the elite and international level of the women’s game in 2020.

Some critics have said that these rules are discriminatory.

Olympic diving champion Tom Daley was particularly scathing of Fina’s decision to stop transgender athletes from competing in women’s elite events, saying: “Anyone that’s told that they can’t compete or can’t do something they love just because of who they are, it’s not on.”

With such a difficult issue, it is perhaps not surprising that biology becomes the reductionist way of measuring fairness and eligibility.

“All the decisions we’ve taken have their challenges,” Coe said. “If that’s the case, then we will do what we have done in the past, which is vigorously defend our position. And the overarching principle for me is we will always do what we think is in the best interest of our sport.”


Image via The Mirror

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