Olympic Committee Struggles With Transgender Issues, Men Competing as Women

From true genetic abnormalities to those declaring themselves transgenders, the International Olympic Committee doesn't really know what to do.

By Nancy Flory Published on July 3, 2016

Even after issuing new guidelines last November, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) still doesn’t know how to handle gender issues for athletes competing in the games, reports FiveThirtyEight. And the trouble isn’t just about transgenders. The IOC seems to be getting down to the bare bones of what makes a woman female and what makes a man male.

As the IOC explained before the 2012 Olympics, “intersex female athletes with elevated androgen production give rise to a particular concern in the context of competitive sports.”

… In general, the performances of male and female athletes may differ mainly due to the fact that men produce significantly more androgenic hormones than women and, therefore, are under stronger influence of such hormones. Androgenic hormones have performance enhancing effects, particularly on strength, power and speed, which may provide a competitive advantage in sports.

As a result, according to the new guidelines, “Those who transition from female to male are eligible to compete in the male category without restriction.” Those who move the other way have to compete as women — but defining what that is has proved to be a problem.

Olympic Guidelines

The IOC presented new guidelines on gender last November, changing the way athletes’ gender was confirmed for years. Up until the 1960s, said FiveThirtyEight author Christie Aschwanden, female judges inspected female athletes in a “nude parade,” all in the name of fair sport.

Then, in 1968, sports authorities began chromosomal testing to determine gender. At the moment, they test testosterone levels, a guideline that may soon go by the wayside pending required scientific proof that an increase in testosterone constitutes an “unfair advantage.” Following November’s rule change, a male athlete is now allowed to compete as a woman, without sex reassignment surgery, if he meets a few minor requirements.

The requirement at issue currently is that transgenders and biological women must submit to a test that measures their testosterone levels, which must be below a set level. Aschwanden said this threshold (10 nmol/L), established in 2012, derives from averaging a sampling of female athletes and adding five standard deviations to it, hoping to catch only those who were dopers or those with hyperandrogenism. A recent decision by the Court of Arbitration of Sport in a related case now requires the IAAF (track and field’s governing body) to provide evidence within two years that women with hyperandrogenism, or naturally elevated testosterone levels, have an unfair advantage. If they cannot do so, the guideline will be scrapped. That will still leave the question of where to place the testosterone threshold going forward.

Hormone Abnormalities

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Caster Semenya at the 2011 Bislett Games

Hyperandrogenism is problematic because those athletes naturally produce supranormal levels of testosterone that exceed acceptable levels of the hormone for participation in the Olympics as a female.  In some cases athletes have been asked to undergo therapy to lower serum testosterone levels, said Aschwanden. This happened most recently with Caster Semenya, a South African 800-meter runner in 2009 when she was questioned for being too masculine following her world championship win.

Complex problems arise when athletes present with atypical genitalia, or bodies that don’t match their chromosome type. In 1968 the “nude parade” tests were replaced with chromosome tests. However, that proved ineffective as some participants with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome had male chromosomes with female genitalia, said Aschwanden.

In 1986, Spanish runner Maria Jose Martinez-Patino was shocked to find out that, while she had a female body, she was genetically male. Although she was initially disqualified and could not compete in the 1988 Olympics, she successfully appealed her disqualification and was able to try out for the 1992 Olympics. Now a member of the Faculty of Sport Sciences of the University of Vigo, she served on the IOC Consensus Meeting on Sex Reassignment and Hyperandrogenism that created the new rules.

According to The New York Times, the IOC decided to test testosterone levels in place of chromosome tests, as the difference between male and female could be tricky to ascertain when chromosomes and bodies don’t match.

Transgenders

Not surprisingly, not everyone is happy with the 2012 testosterone threshold. A man who calls himself Joanna Harper said some transgenders think the new rules are unfair. “The transgender community is split over the question of whether to use T or to use gender identity for eligibility for women’s sport,” he said in an interview with sport scientist Ross Tucker. “Many intersex activists thought it was wrong to force women to alter their bodies to compete in sports,” he added.

Women are not forced to alter their bodies to compete, only insure that their bodies align with their gender claims as determined by the test being used at the time. That changed when the IOC released the new guidelines. What’s more, if athletes are ineligible to compete as women, they are eligible to compete as men.

Bruce Jenner, now calling himself Caitlyn Jenner, broke the world record in 1976 to win gold in the Olympic decathlon. Aschwanden asked Jenner, as a transgender, whether the new guidelines on hormone limits were fair.

“I have seen no indication to this point that trans people, male or female, have any advantage whatsoever at that level,” he said. “There’s no trans person out there, male to female, that’s out there dominating. It just doesn’t happen.” Jenner also said that the idea that men would transition from male to female just to win sports competitions is just “a big N-O, no.”

Men Competing As Women

But men participating in sporting events as women — and winning — isn’t unheard of. In fact, German Heinrich Ratjen, born Dora Ratjen, apparently because of ambiguous genitalia, did just that. Inserted into the team to replace a Jewish athlete, Ratjen placed fourth in the women’s high jump in the 1936 Summer Olympics and won the high jump competition with a jump of 1.63 meters at the 1937 German Athletics Championships. Dora’s story is featured in the 2009 film Berlin 36.

In 1939 a high-jumper named Dorothy Odam broke the world record with a jump of 1.66m, but almost immediately saw her record obliterated by Ratjen. Shortly thereafter, when Ratjen’s true gender became known, Odam’s record was reinstated. The German government gave Ratjen new papers identifying him as a male and he lived the rest of his life as Heinrich.

Going Forward

There’s no doubt that the IOC will continue to struggle with how to handle gender questions, whether from those diagnosed with hyperandrogenism, athletes possessing atypical genitalia, or transgendered individuals. Testosterone limits are still in flux and are being challenged. If the IAAF (track and field’s governing body) cannot scientifically support the claim that higher testosterone levels present an unfair advantage, the 2012 testosterone limit will be scrapped and men will be able to compete as women with no hormone requirements or surgery.

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