Now Reading
Sochi might be over, but the Olympics must stop failing trans athletes

Sochi might be over, but the Olympics must stop failing trans athletes

Much to the dismay of Russia, the Sochi games will not be remembered for its extravagant spending but for the opposition to Russia’s continuing human rights abuses against LGBTI people. 

In the run up to the games, principle 6 of the Olympic Charter has been widely quoted.

It reads: ‘Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement’.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has come under fire for continuing to allow Russia to host the games. However this willingness, on the part of the IOC, to ignore human rights abuses is nothing new for transgender or intersex athletes.

Never in the entire recorded history of the Olympic games has an openly transgender person competed.

Some have come close and others have transitioned after retiring but still we are waiting. Several intersex athletes have competed but most of those competing in women’s events have been stripped of their medals once their intersex status was ‘discovered’.

It is easy to dismiss this as because transgender and intersex people are comparatively rare, but the IOC itself has created huge barriers for them to overcome.

In 2003 the IOC outlined its rules for transgender people to compete in what is known as the Stockholm Consensus.

The IOC requires three things “Surgical anatomical changes have been completed”, “Legal recognition” and “Hormonal therapy… for a sufficient length of time”, recommending that “eligibility should begin no sooner than two years after gonadectomy.”

Rules on intersex athletes competingare even worse, requiring athletes to undergo ‘treatment’ if they wish to compete.

A recent UN report concluded that forced gender reassignment surgery or forced sterilisation of transgender people, in order to be recognised as their gender, constituted “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” a sentiment that Amnesty International has also echoed.  Despite this the IOC has held fast to its rules.

For most transgender people around the world, access to medical treatment is non-existent or prohibitively expensive and even where it is available, meeting the IOC’s standards is a lengthy process likely to take upwards of five years.

This, along with the knowledge that the average age of an Olympian is a mere 26, leaves all but a select few who transition young, past their peak and likely out of the competition.

 Even rarer then medical treatment is easily accessible legal recognition and so only a few countries are left able to field transgender athletes at all. For those with non-binary gender identities, this requirement will force them into accepting a label they do not want.

While the IOC’s goal of maintaining fair competition is a noble one, their rules do not achieve this. Studiesinto the effects of hormone therapy on transgender people suggest that within one year ‘haemoglobin, subcutaneous fat content and muscle cross-sectional areas are similar to those values in [cisgender] men and women’.

Side effects of treatment, such as weight gain, may actually place transgender athletes at a disadvantage to their cisgender counterparts.  

A key crux of sport is to praise and reward those who have achieved victory through fair and natural means, however this is incompatible with the IOC’s pathologisation of intersex athletes. Intersex bodies are fundamentally a natural part of human variation, a fact that society has done its very best to ignore.

Our attempts to reduce all humans down to the easily digestible categories of male and female shroud the real factors that can help us determine whether competition between two individuals will be fair.

Indeed some sports already attempt to do this, creating categories based upon weight or age. 

Advancements in the UKand the USA mean that sports governing bodies are beginning to disregard the outdated and overly restrictive IOC rules and base their rules for national competition solely on hormone therapy.

With two of its highest medal winners leaving it behind, the IOC will become increasingly under pressure to drop the barriers holding transgender and intersex athletes back.

How long the IOC will be able defend its ever-weakening position is a matter for speculation, but when these changes come, they will have been long over-due.