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Tokyo Olympics: Redefining the boundaries of gender in sport

The Tokyo Olympics was a path breaking event for the world of sports in so many ways. Be it the Covid disaster that preceded it and how Japan still delivered,Japan’s resolve to make the games environmentally sustainable, the introduction of new sports like skateboarding, or India’s great performance both in the Olympics and the Paralympics. There is a long list of things and so much to be in awe of.

For me the Games were truly also path breaking for two important reasons- first the representation of the LGBTQIA + community in these games was the highest at around 185 athletes, and secondly the first ever representation of a transgender woman in the Olympics history, by weight lifter, Laurel Hubbard from New Zealand. In this list of athletes India had only one representative in Dutee Chand, who is India’s first openly LGBTQ athlete.

Over 180 LGBTQIA+ athletes in Tokyo Olympics

Laurel Hubbard of New Zealand at the Tokyo Olympics

In the Indian sports ecosystem the LGBTQIA + community is absolutely unrepresented. While there is no official data on the LGBTQIA+ population in India, the world’s largest democracy, the government estimates there are 2.5 million gay people. Elite Indian sport has only one athlete representing this community in Dutee Chand.

Do we really not have any more athletes from the community in sport, or is it just that we have been unable as a people to make athletes feel comfortable with their sexuality or gender and be open about it?

In terms of initiatives and policy to include transgender population in sport, we have only the Karnataka Sports policy that at least accepts the fact that there are genders other than male and female. Having said that, there has hardly been any progress in terms of implementation of the policy initiatives. There has been an attempt in Kerala to hold separate games by the state for the transgender population in 2018. While Manipur has an all transgender men football team in the country, ll these initiatives are too sparse and isolated to really lead to tangible changes in the world of Indian sport.

Pic Courtesy: Scroll- Kerala Transgender Games

For me as a former woman athlete, the most fascinating development and debate has been the inclusion of transgender women athletes in the women’s category in sport. There are valid points to make on both sides of the debate- a section of people that support transgender woman participation and a section that does not support it in women’s sport.

In this issue the struggle seems to be to balance inclusivity, fairness, and safety.

Who is a transgender woman athlete?

Transgender is an umbrella term. The LGBTQIA Resource Center states that if a person identifies as transgender, their gender identity differs from the traditional expectations of the sex that a doctor assigns someone at birth. For example, a ‘trans woman’ may refer to a person whom a doctor assigned as male at birth, identifies as a woman. The term ‘transgender’ may also include those people who are non-binary or gender-queer. Intersex persons on the other hand refer to individuals who are born with certain sex characteristics, such as chromosome patterns or genitals, which do not fit normative binary notions about male and female bodies.

In women's sports the debate is mainly about athletes who transition from male to female.

What are the international policies around transgender and intersex athletes in elite sport?

For several years now, sports authorities have regulated trans-women and intersex women’s participation in sport through a policy termed ‘sex testing.’ Sex testing, which seeks to identify athletes whose hormone levels are abnormal in comparison to others of their sex, is premised on the notion that testosterone levels are the primary driver of athleticism. It was first introduced at the European Athletics Championships in 1966 in response to some allegations that some female athletes were actually male. In response to this, the IOC (Indian Olympic Committee) became the first sporting organization to establish a medical commission. This policy of gender testing continued until 2000, when it was widely criticized as discriminatory and intrusive. It was looked upon as a violation of the right to privacy. The targets for this testing were invariably women, who were made to undergo visual testing, as well as testing of their DNA and bodily fluids.

In 2000, the IOC discontinued this policy of Gender Testing because medical experts could not reach an agreement on what determines a female to be genetically, a female. In response to pressure regarding what had occurred at the 2000 Olympics, the IOC decided to allow transsexuals to participate in the Olympics. The IOC, after long consideration of medical issues has also ruled that as long as an athlete's gender is legally recognized and he or she has completed at least two years of post-op hormone therapy, she or he could legally compete in the games. In addition to this, IOC's regulations says trans women can compete if their testosterone levels in serum are at 10 nanomoles per liter for a year for at least 12 months prior to their first competition. Besides this, particularly for trans women, the IOC states, “The athlete has declared that her gender identity is female. The declaration cannot be changed, for sporting purposes, for a minimum of four years.”

This map shows the stance various states have taken on transgender participation in US sport.

What are some arguments for and against the participation of transgender women in women’s sport?

Critics of inclusion of transgender women in women’s sport contend that doing so would jeopardise competition. Insofar as men can rely on physiological advantages that make them faster, stronger, or bulkier, transwomen, too, can benefit thereby making women’s sport unfair. Another argument put forth is that cisgender males can misuse the provision, participate and win medals in women’s sport fraudulently by undergoing hormonal treatment.

In response, some argue that the theoretical possibility of fraud is not reason enough to deny genuine trans women the opportunity to compete in women’s sport. Journalist Alex Azzi argues that including transwomen in women’s sport hardly jeopardises equality because transwomen are women. To say that it is unfair to include them is not only transphobic but also logically fallacious because women’s sport is not fair in the first place - inequalities with respect to access to resources, sports opportunities, financial support and so on are undeniable. Canadian trans woman cyclist Rachel McKinnon reinforces this view in saying that “there is no such thing as a level playing field” anyway. If athletes who have other natural characteristics that provide a competitive edge in sport (take Michael Phelps, for instance, whose height, ankle and shoulder flexibility prove to be huge benefits for him as a swimmer) are permitted, denying trans and intersex women participation in the women’s category is unfair, not permitting them. Further, at a sociological level, some scholars argue that is it incorrect to distinguish one sex from another merely on the basis of chromosomal or hormonal composition for there are several difficulties in doing so. Sex, much like gender, is a category which is constructed by culture and history and highly subjective.

What do scientific studies say about the issue?

The notion of transgender girls having an unfair advantage comes from the idea that testosterone causes physical changes such as an increase in muscle mass. But transgender girls are not the only girls with high testosterone levels. An estimated 10 percent of women have poly cystic ovarian syndrome, which results in elevated testosterone levels. They are not banned from female sports. As Katrina Karkazis, a senior visiting fellow and expert on testosterone and bioethics at Yale University explains, “Studies of testosterone levels in athletes do not show any clear, consistent relationship between testosterone and athletic performance. Sometimes testosterone is associated with better performance, but other studies show weak links or no links. And yet others show testosterone is associated with worse performance.”

There have been few studies opposing this view as well. One study, published in 2020, looked at US military personnel who transitioned while in service and found that trans women maintain an edge after one year of feminizing hormone therapy, which usually includes suppressing testosterone levels and boosting estrogen.and maintain the lower levels during their careers.

For Tommy Lundberg, whose research at Sweden's Karolinska Institute focuses on skeletal muscle strength of trans people receiving hormone therapy, the advantages for trans women in strength are to the point where fairness cannot be ensured in most sports.

In another paper Lundberg co-authored that looked at untrained trans women, Lundberg and his colleague found that "muscular advantage enjoyed by transgender women is only minimally reduced when testosterone is suppressed."

"Pretty much any way you slice it, trans women are going to have strength advantages even after hormone therapy. I just don't see that as anything else but factual," said Joanna Harper, a medical physicist at Britain's Loughborough University.

One major factor is also hemoglobin levels — which is the most important physiological factor when it comes to endurance sport. Hemoglobin in the blood transports oxygen throughout the body, including to the muscles. Since hemoglobin levels follow testosterone levels, non-transgender men tend to have higher hemoglobin levels than cisgender women. But Harper's study found that testosterone suppressants reduced hemoglobin levels in trans women to that of cisgender women, thus eliminating the advantage.

To sum it up, sports scientists and researchers will continue to debate on what the best steps forward will be, though it is too early in terms of science to take a stance one way or the other. There is not much information out there and data is inadequate to decide if transgender women have an advantage or not physically over cisgender women.

What are the questions we still need to answer?

If transgender women can’t compete with women currently, there is no other way for them to play sport. Thus how can one deny the fundamental right of a human to participate in sport?

Should there be a separate vertical introduced for transgender sport? Is separate really ever equal?

By allowing transgender athletes to participate in women sport when science is not clear one way or the other, are we jeopardizing women sport altogether and making it unsafe and unfair?

Is this also a question of equality in sport? As women are constantly needed to prove their gender and sex in sport, but men are not?

As there seem to be specific advantages to transgender women athletes in terms of strength or muscle mass. A lot of experts and scientists suggest that each sport should have their own set of rules and guidelines. Will this really work and how realistic is it?

Finding answers is necessary

As more and more athletes become more empowered and aware of their own bodies and sexuality, the more will be the onus on sport bodies to find the answers to all the above questions. There are no easy answers, but we need to strive towards finding them. To play is a fundamental right, and nobody should be denied that right. We need to be fair to women- cis or trans, and I believe the only way to do that is through science and rationality. Not emotion or our own fear of the unknown.

About Simply Sport

Simply Sport is a sports policy research & development organization based out of India. Simply Sport’s vision is to promote sports as an effective tool for the development of the nation. It focuses on policy research, grassroots development and the use of technology in sports. To subscribe to Simply Sports Newsletters, Research & Articles, please write to You can follow Simply Sport on the Twitter handle @_SimplySport for more sports-related content.

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