IOC admits transgender athlete policy outdated, will change after Tokyo Olympics

TOKYO — International Olympic Committee officials admitted here at a roundtable with reporters that the guidelines governing the participation of transgender women in Olympic sports are outdated.

They also confirmed that the IOC will announce a new policy soon after the Tokyo Games.

The IOC made the admission as New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard prepared to become the first openly transgender athlete to compete at the Olympics. Hubbard, who lifts in the 87+kg division here on Monday, is allowed to compete alongside women under guidelines established in 2015 by the IOC and adopted by the International Weightlifting Federation.

But in recent years, many medical experts and policymakers have come to the conclusion that those rules were no longer fully supported by science. Experts who spoke with Yahoo Sports, some of whom have consulted with the IOC, identified two main shortcomings: That testosterone-related rules were too lenient, and that one set of guidelines should not apply to dozens of different sports.

The current guidelines require a transgender woman to undergo hormone therapy and suppress her testosterone “below 10 nanomoles per liter for at least 12 months prior to her first competition.” Two scientists who’ve consulted with the IOC said that, based on recent evidence, they believed the 10-nanomole-per-liter threshold to be too high. It was set “based on old data, and not on the most sophisticated ways of measuring testosterone,” said Myron Genel, a Yale endocrinologist who has studied the topic and consulted with the IOC for two decades.

Genel and Joanna Harper, a transgender runner-turned-scientist who is actively studying retained physical advantages in trans athletes, and who has also consulted with the IOC, both said they believed 5 nanomoles per liter to be a reasonable threshold.

Richard Budgett, the IOC’s medical and scientific director, acknowledged here at the roundtable that "agreeing on another number is almost impossible and possibly irrelevant. You can debate that endlessly.”

The other point several experts made was that a one-size-fits-all policy on trans inclusion fails to consider that the advantages retained by women who’ve gone through male puberty are far more impactful in some sports than others. “The difference between male and female performance varies from sport to sport,” Genel said. “Even within a sport, like in track and field, the male to female advantage may be anywhere from 5 to 12, 13%, depending upon the activity.”

The changes that occur in a trans woman’s body during hormone therapy also have more impact in some sports than in others. Harper gave an example: “We've found that hemoglobin levels in trans women, when they go on hormone therapy, will go from male to female levels of hemoglobin within four months. And hemoglobin's the single most important physiological factor in endurance sports. On the other hand, it's abundantly clear that trans women won't lose all their strength advantages.” Research that Harper has reviewed suggests that those persisted after three years of therapy and beyond.

“How much is retained is still largely in doubt,” she says, “but certainly there is some advantage retained.”

The IOC currently allows each international sports federation to set its own rules, but many have simply adopted the IOC’s guidelines. IOC spokesman Christian Klaue said the IOC is now focused on “[providing] a framework” to help sport-specific federations develop their own regulations. Because, as he said, echoing the scientists: "It is different from sport to sport, and sometimes even from discipline to discipline, and sometimes even from event to event.”

Officials said that the IOC’s new approach will be announced later this year, but also stressed the need for more science. To date, most, if not all relevant studies on retained advantages in trans women have not specifically studied athletes, just trans women in general. “The research needs to be more contextualised,” said Katie Mascagni, the IOC’s head of public affairs. "What might be true for rowing and this specific discipline — where potentially testosterone or other aspects come into play in order to justify the reasons there is a disproportionate advantage — might be totally irrelevant in another context.”

Budgett also said that, in addition to balancing inclusion and fairness — which is how these policy decisions have been considered — the IOC would consider safety, especially in contact sports.

The new guidelines, he said, will be a “balance between safety, inclusion and fairness.”

Budgett, like many experts, also downplayed the idea that the inclusion of trans women is a broad threat to women’s sports.

"[Given] there's been no openly transgender women at the top level, until now, I think the threat to women's sports in general is probably overstated," he said.

"And the other important thing to remember is transgender women are women. So you’ll include all women, if you possibly can.”

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