Sport is shifting its focus to trans athletes

Two major international sports federations have recently adopted new restrictive measures to regulate the participation of transgender athletes (that is, those who identify as female even though they were born male) in female professional circles. In water sports, FINA has excluded from the competition trans athletes who have not started transition therapy at the age of 12, while the Rugby League (rugby at the age of 13) has completely excluded them until they have completed the transition. still in progress.

Previously, the international cycling federation had also changed its rules, while FIFA – the governing body of men’s and women’s football – is reviewing its rules and will evaluate on a case-by-case basis until more or less definitive conclusions are reached. In athletics, on the other hand, we are talking again about Caster Semenya, a South African cross-country runner who has lived as a woman since birth and is identified as such, but who has high levels of testosterone in her blood and enters within the definition. of intersexuality. Semenya – at the center of one of the most complicated cases in this regard – recently revealed that as a young man she offered to show off her female genitals in order to compete.

The many issues raised by the participation of trans athletes in women’s competitions are constantly changing, because they still represent a novelty in a world, that of sport, which has traditionally been divided according to the biological sex of people and that precisely in this binary division, and from the physical differences that depend on it, it has articulated disciplines, regulations and federations.

The dissemination of sensitivities and reflections on the rights of trans people has advanced more rapidly than the formation of shared opinions, based on scientific data, on how best to include trans women in competitive competitions without penalizing women who are ‘identify as such and are born female (cisgender). In the absence of certain and unequivocal regulations, this situation is creating various divisions, especially in the areas of youth and especially in North America, where the cases are more than elsewhere. At the highest levels of professionalism, however, cases are still rare, although the few who are there argue. In the two federations that have recently adopted new measures, there are no trans athletes, as there have been none so far in Italian elite sport.

(Kathryn Riley / Getty Images)

The main argument behind the latest restrictions relates to the benefits that trans and hyperandrogenic women would have – that is, overproduction of androgens, especially testosterone – over cisgender women. As for trans athletes, there are studies that believe that these benefits inherited from male puberty, such as bone and muscle density, limb size, lung and heart capacity, have lasting and decisive effects when inserted into women’s competitions.

These studies, however, still do not find unanimous scientific confirmation, because there is little research on the subject and there are still few cases that have complete answers, as evidenced by the temporary measures adopted by the federations. What has not yet been accurately quantified is the impact, large or small, that these benefits may have on different types of performance and under different conditions, which has long been established in terms of levels of testosterone in the blood. .

To influence this potential advantage for trans athletes is obviously the age, more or less advanced, at which hormonal therapies began to modify their body, and this is one of the criteria most used by federations to determine who can compete in which category. In sports where physical supremacy determines results and achievements in general, setting rules for fair competition is an essential goal for federations, and continuous reflection is fundamentally on whether this can be done and how to do it from a way too. inclusive for trans athletes. The problem of any biological advantage, needless to say, does not really refer to trans athletes, that is, born with a female body and not corresponding to their male gender, that if something according to the same reasoning would be disadvantaged in cisgender competitions. men.

In the last year we have mostly talked about two cases that have given an idea of ​​the complexity of the issue. One involved Laurel Hubbard, a New Zealand lifter who became the first trans athlete in the history of the modern Olympics at the Tokyo Olympics. Hubbard’s rating – which had begun the path of transition into his thirties – had been particularly criticized by other lifters, who considered his presence unfair, as well as his successes from 2013 onwards. with the masculine step. in female categories. In Tokyo, however, Hubbard had been one of the first athletes eliminated from her class, and later retired.

The latter case is also the most discussed at present, and may have provoked the intervention of the swimming federation as the regulations did. Lia Thomas is a trans-American athlete who, since 2020, after moving from the men’s to women’s categories in college swimming, has made headlines for her often overwhelming victories wherever she goes: for example, she has become in the first trans swimmer to win a national title in the history of American college sports. His story is talked about nationally in the United States, so much so that last February Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis had proclaimed the winner (Florida-born) runner-up of a race actually won by Thomas.

(Photo by AP / John Bazemore)

After his college successes, Thomas was aiming to qualify for the upcoming Olympics. With the new rules introduced by FINA, it will no longer be able to do so, because it began its path of transition to hormone replacement therapy only in 2019, around the age of twenty. However, you may continue to compete in college, as different rules still apply, established autonomously by the NCAA, the organization that manages college sports programs.

The recent decisions of the federations, on the other hand, come from the new guidelines introduced by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which last November updated the ones in force since 2016. Over the years, the IOC has eliminated the obligation of genital surgery. then the most invasive. tests and finally the centrality of testosterone values, no longer binding.

Until last year, to compete in the women’s categories, athletes had to show that they had had blood testosterone levels below 10 nanomoles per liter for twelve months (the value of testosterone for a cisgender man between 20 and 40 years is between 10). and 37 nanomoles per liter, while for a cisgender woman it is less than 2). However, each federation could reshape this limit to make it more appropriate to its own discipline, lowering it overall. From now on, however, testosterone levels will be taken into account along with other case-by-case parameters and assessments.

With the IOC’s freedom of action to federations, other restrictive decisions similar to those recently taken in the near future are expected, as suggested by Sebastian Coe, president of the International Athletics Federation. : “If there is a conflict between equity and inclusion, we will always choose equity.”

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