The new IOC rules about transsexual athletes being able to compete as the gender they identify as are a massive improvement on the previous rules.

As sex reassignment techniques have improved and more transsexuals are both choosing to transition and being legally recognised as the gender that they identify themselves as the question of whether to exclude them from competition entirely or to find a set of criteria by which to decide whether they can compete has to be answered. So, as arguably the most visible sporting organisation in the world, the IOC has no choice but to have a position on the issue.

The fact that this decision has been in the news this week has caused some people to worry about the differences between women and transsexual women and the effect that this may have on future Olympic competition. Before getting into what the rules actually say I would like to point out that the number of people who are transsexual is absolutely tiny, and the number of people who are willing and able to train at a level where they are capable of competing at the Olympics in any sport is, if anything, even tinier. So, no matter what, the effect on the Olympics is likely to be negligible. If it ends up being huge then the rules may need to be re-examined, as this may be an indication that men are posing as transsexual in order to gain an advantage. However, this is not the issue in question at the moment.

The issue is, are the IOC taking their rules in a direction which fits the role of the IOC as an organisation which ensures fair athletic competition? The only way to answer this is to compare the old rules to the new.

The new guidelines state that any male to female transsexual athlete is eligible to compete in the female categories as long as she has declared that her gender identity is female and can “demonstrate that her total testosterone level in serum has been below 10 nmol/L for at least 12 months prior to her first competition (with the requirement for any longer period to be based on a confidential case-by-case evaluation, considering whether or not 12 months is a sufficient length of time to minimize any advantage in women’s competition)”.

So, the new rules base eligibility for competition for male to female transsexuals on two things. The first being that the athlete identifies themselves as female and the second being that they have maintained a specific level of testosterone for long enough to remove any advantage that a higher level off testosterone would have provided.

Compare this to the old rules which stated “Surgical anatomical changes have been completed, including external genitalia changes and gonadectomy, Legal recognition of their assigned sex has been conferred by the appropriate official authorities, Hormonal therapy appropriate for the assigned sex has been administered in a verifiable manner and for a sufficient length of time to minimise gender-related advantages in sport competitions “.

So, the only real difference between the old and the new rules is that eligibility is now based on specific hormone levels rather than on whether the athlete in question has a specific type of genitals, or surgery. In other words, the new rules are focussed on something that may in fact give an athlete an advantage rather than something that wouldn’t. The only advantage which could be provided by the presence of testicles is the influence that they have on hormone levels. However, the rules have explicitly addressed hormone levels and so the potential advantage disappears.

By focussing on one of the reasons that men have an advantage over women in sports rather than what amounts to an aesthetic difference the IOC has taken a step in the right direction. The presence of transsexual women has not been a major problem in the Olympics between 2003 and now and the new rules are extremely unlikely to make anything worse. So, rather than a justified worry about performance, current concerns about the new IOC rules are literally just about bollocks.

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