Sederquist: Inclusion or Fairness?
IOC’s 2021 Frameworks another cowardly kick of the can down the road
On Nov. 16, the IOC released their Framework on Fairness, Inclusion and Non-discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sex variations.
The aim of the framework is “to offer sporting bodies — particularly those in charge of organizing elite-level competition — a 10-principle approach to help them develop the criteria that apply to their sport.”
The three primary takeaways from the framework are that transgender women no longer need to lower testosterone to compete in the women’s category (a reversal from the 2015 guidelines), “athletes should not be deemed to have an unfair or disproportionate competitive advantage due to their sex variations, physical appearance, and/or transgender status,” and individual sport governing bodies can restrict athletes if peer-reviewed science demonstrates “disproportionate advantage” exists and for safety.
Basically, in this ongoing debate between inclusion or fairness, the IOC deferred.
“The IOC has basically said, ‘this isn’t our problem anymore – transgender women can compete however they are – but if individual sports want to take steps to prevent them from competing, they can do it, if it’s backed by science,” Letsrun.com journalist Jon Gault said on the running mecca’s weekly podcast this past Wednesday. World Athletics, which governs track and field, has stated they will not alter their rules regarding testosterone in shorter distance races, something the IOC expects and is OK with.
“The framework is not legally binding. What we are offering to all the international federations is our expertise and a dialogue, rather than jumping to a conclusion,” said IOC director of the athletes’ department Kaveh Mehrabi in an Irish Post article by Conor O’Donoghue.
In laying out their framework, the IOC, like other leagues and corporations struggling to balance the concept of operating on the basis of objective, absolute standards while navigating the turbulent sea of a constantly evolving, socially determined moral compass, demonstrated they are not going to make a clear, definitive statement on a contentious issue until the “powers that be” – basically, the minions in charge of cancel culture – show which route is the most traveled. In failing to be firm, they failed to be fair – both to women’s athletics and to transgender and intersex athletes who genuinely just want to compete and enjoy their sport.
Back in September of 2019, the Guardian’s Sean Ingle reported on the struggles of the IOC in establishing guidelines for transgender athletes. The primary debate hovered over what is a permissible level of testosterone for athletes transitioning from male to female. At the time, Ingle reported that “the IOC’s draft guidelines have been parked, for now, because the whole subject is so politically charged and sensitive.”
Ingle has been at the fore of the discussion, releasing numerous articles in September of this year about how competitive sports in Great Britain, from grassroots to national level, have navigated new guidelines apart from the IOC’s.
The United Kingdom’s sports councils, after an 18-month review which included conversing with 300 people, 175 organizations, current and former athletes, transgender people, and LGBT+ and women’s groups, as well as thoroughly examining the latest research, determined that ultimately, there is no easy solution, but that individual national governing bodies would have to “find innovative and creative ways to ensure nobody is left out.” While this may appear synonymous with the IOC’s recent frameworks, one thing the UK council noted was the scientific research that pointed to physical advantages for trans women even after a year of reducing testosterone levels, stating, “suppressing testosterone for 12 months cannot guarantee fairness.”
“In reviewing the latest science, the guidelines say adult male athletes have on average a 10-12% performance advantage over female competitors in swimming and running events, and that increases to a 20% advantage in jumping events, and 35% greater performance in strength-based sports such as weightlifting for similar-sized athletes,” Ingle wrote.
To further the point, the UK council brought the advantage to life using some of Great Britain’s Olympic heroes.
“The difference in performance, even at the lower range of 10-12%, is not small in terms of competitive outcomes,” they added. “It would result in Adam Peaty being beaten by half the pool length in a short-course 100m breaststroke competition, Dina Asher-Smith by more than 20m in the 200m track sprint, and Sir Mo Farah being lapped twice in the 10,000m track race.
On Nov. 16, Ingle provided one of the more fair, nonpartisan reports of the IOC’s framework, including an important quote from a member of the transgender community.
Joanna Harper, a medical physicist, avid distance runner, the only person in history to publish a peer-reviewed article on the performance of transgender athletes, and the only transgender person ever to be an adviser to the International Olympic Committee on matters of gender and sport, sees a problem with the IOC’s frameworks. While the idea of inclusion is a breath of fresh air for her, she sees the attempt to diminish the athletic advantages of transgender women as a mistake.
“It is important that the IOC has come out in favor of inclusion of trans and intersex athletes, but I think sections five and six of the framework are problematic,” said Harper in Ingle’s article.
“Transgender women are on average, taller, bigger, and stronger than cis women and these are advantages in many sports. It is also unreasonable to ask the sports federations to have robust and peer-reviewed research before placing restrictions on trans athletes in elite sport. Such research will take years if not decades.”
Gault, a polished journalist and former Ivy league distance runner who has covered multiple Olympics and World Championships, tweeted Harper’s quote last week, and in agreement wrote, “The idea that we need robust, peer-reviewed research to determine transgender women who have not reduced their testosterone have an advantage is ludicrous. Is the entire history of competitive sports not enough evidence?”
By definition – with the creation of two separate (male and female) sporting categories, the IOC seems to recognize the physiological differences between the two biological sexes. If larger and taller skeletal structures, higher hemoglobin and testosterone levels and increased lean body mass and strength – all athletic advantages Harper and other scientists attribute to men – don’t constitute as “competitive advantages” based on “robust research,” I’m not sure what would.
Harper released Sporting Gender: The History, Science, and Stories of Transgender and Intersex Athletes in 2019 in anticipation of the probable contention which could – and did – surround the first transgender athletes competing in the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. She continues to be more in front of the issue than the IOC, which hinted in September that the transgender guidelines would be delayed until after the Beijing Olympics but would “prioritize inclusion and avoidance of harm,’ two statements which lack a foundational standard and thus demonstrate, again, how an issue swirling with ambiguous and metamorphosing definitions all but guarantees conflict. The lack of rhetorical clarity seems intentional – and provides the IOC to maneuver as soon as the right – or wrong – publicity around this issue comes hunting for them.
While I’ll be the first avid Olympic fan to admit the lack of a smooth solution to this problem, I do think the guidance laid out by the UK council is one the IOC may wish to consider. They proposed three potential courses of action, according to Ingle: first, the prioritizing of transgender inclusion. The second option: protecting the female category by having an “open” and a “female-only” section. Finally, coming up with new formats for sport so that they can be played by everyone safely and fairly.
Is there a right choice? By what standard is it going to be determined? Do I think the IOC will pick any of those options? I would venture to say they won’t – at least not until they walk outside, lick their fingers, and check to see what way the wind is blowing.
Currently, it seems the storm we’re in is one of those where the wind can’t seem to make up its mind.