In 2004 the International Olympic Committee (IOC) permitted transgender athletes to participate in the Olympic Games for the first time. This followed almost three decades of debate over the inclusion of gender-reassigned athletes as participants in either male or female sporting contests.
However, it was not until 2021 that the first transgender woman, Lauren Hubbard (she), competed in the Summer Olympics in weightlifting. At the same Olympics, non-binary soccer player Quinn (they) competed for the Canadian women’s soccer team, ultimately becoming the first openly transgender person to become an Olympic gold medalist.
In November 2021, the IOC issued updated guidelines aimed at influencing the rules adopted by international federations in relation to gender-transitioned and intersex athletes.
The IOC guidelines are not legally enforceable, rather they are aimed at encouraging sporting bodies to adopt policies and practices requiring evidence that transgender athletes have a competitive advantage before any exclusion or restriction policies are applied based on gender identity. The guidelines place the onus on the sporting bodies to “determine how an athlete may be at a disproportionate advantage against their peers”. This is a considerable shift from previous guidelines which required testosterone testing.
The responsibility for making gender policies has been pushed to the global governing bodies of individual sports, with the IOC offering to give those organisations assistance in creating ‘fair rules’.
Significant latitude is provided to sporting bodies in developing criteria considered relevant to the ‘particular ethical, social, cultural and legal aspects of their sport’. The IOC has gone so far as to state (in its official guidelines) that it is “not in a position to issue regulations that define eligibility criteria for every sport, discipline or event…”.
The overriding principle of the IOC framework is that all people, irrespective of gender identity or sex variations, can practice sport in a safe, harassment-free environment that respects their needs and identities. The framework also highlights the need for fairness in the rules governing sports – particularly in ensuring fair competitions where no participant has an unfair or disproportionate advantage over others.