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New Olympic Guidelines Aim for Greater Trans Inclusion

Olympian Laurel Hubbard
Via Stanislav Krasilnikov/Getty Images

The International Olympic Committee's new framework scraps blanket testosterone limits in favor of letting each sport's governing body determine eligibility for trans and intersex athletes. 

The International Olympic Committee Tuesday released a new framework for regulating competition by transgender and intersex athletes, with the IOC saying the guidance is aimed at fostering inclusion and equality.

Among other things, the IOC has dropped a blanket limit on athletes' testosterone levels, which determined trans women's eligibility to compete with cisgender women. Now the governing body for each sport is tasked with determining eligibility, and the IOC is urging those bodies to avoid pressuring athletes "to undergo medically unnecessary procedures or treatment to meet eligibility criteria," as the framework document states.

The document, titled "IOC Framework on Fairness, Inclusion and Non-Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity and Sex Variations," says the IOC recognizes "both the need to ensure that everyone, regardless of their gender identity or sex variations," can participate in sports without discrimination or harassment and the need to ensure that "no participant has an unfair and disproportionate advantage over the rest."

At times, gauging such an advantage may involve "testing of an athlete's performance and physical capacity," but "no athlete should be subject to targeted testing because of, or aimed at determining, their sex, gender identity and/or sex variations," the framework notes. There also should never be "invasive physical examinations," it continues.

Sports' governing bodies should develop their eligibility requirements in consultation with a cross-section of athletes affected and prioritize all athletes' physical and mental well-being as well as their privacy, the IOC recommends. Any restrictions "should be based robust and peer reviewed research," it says.

When the IOC adopted the testosterone limit in 2015, it replaced a policy of requiring trans athletes to undergo gender-affirmation surgery if they wished to compete under their gender identity. That move represented progress, but testosterone is not always a reliable indicator of athletic performance, and testosterone levels vary greatly even in cisgender women.

LGBTQ+ activists generally welcomed the new framework but with a bit of caution. "As with any set of guidelines, the success of this new framework in ensuring a safe and welcoming environment within the Olympic movement will largely depend on the education and implementation process with national governing bodies, international federations, and other key stakeholders," said a statement issued by Anne Lieberman, director of policy and programs at Athlete Ally.

Trans bicycle motocross athlete Chelsea Wolfe told Axios the guidelines "are a reassuring sign that sports will continue to move toward equal opportunity and human rights," but "given that these are only guidelines and adherence isn't required of sporting federations, they fall short of a guarantee that discrimination against intersex and trans athletes will not be tolerated."

GLAAD, however, expressed optimism that the framework will help fight anti-trans bills like those that were introduced in many states this year and passed into law in several. "This is a victory for all athletes and fans, who know the power and potential of sports to bring people together and make us all stronger," said a statement from Alex Schmider, GLAAD's associate director of transgender representation. "Sports are for everyone, and fairness in sports means inclusion, belonging and safety for all who want to participate, including transgender, intersex, and nonbinary athletes. While these guidelines are intended for the most elite athletes in the world, the International Olympic Committee makes it clear that the same guidelines should apply at every level. On the heels of the most anti-LGBTQ legislative session in history with the majority of bills targeting trans youth in sports, every state and lawmaker should listen to the experts from the world of sports, medicine, and athletes themselves to allow transgender youth the same opportunities to play with their friends, have fun, learn, grow, and benefit from the lasting life lessons and supportive community sports can provide."

Trans and nonbinary athlete Quinn, who as the first out trans Olympian helped Canada's women's soccer team win a gold medal in Tokyo this year, also sounded a hopeful note. "Far too often, sport policy does not reflect the lived experience of marginalized athletes, and that's especially true when it comes to transgender athletes and athletes with sex variations," Quinn said in a statement. "This new IOC framework is groundbreaking in the way that it reflects what we know to be true -- that athletes like me and my peers participate in sports without any inherent advantage, and that our humanity deserves to be respected."

IOC policy will likely continue to evolve. "I think we can clearly say we have not found the solution to this big question," IOC corporate communications director Christian Klaue told reporters, according to Axios. "This is a topic which will be with us for a long time."

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