Testosterone Levels in Olympics: No Level-playing Field for Trans Women?

·5 min read

A recent ban of CeCé Telfer, a trans woman, from women’s 400 meters hurdles at US Olympic trials, has started the debate about the nuances and challenges of regulating sports in a manner that is inclusive of transgender and intersex people.

The reason behind the ban is that she did not meet the testosterone level requirement set by World Athletics, the international governing body for running sport.

According to their eligibility conditions, the testosterone level must be below 5 nanomoles per litre for a period of 12 months for an athlete to participate in international women’s events of between 400 meters and a mile.

Is it justified to exclude trans and intersex women from athletic sports on the ground of endogenous testosterone limits?

The Primary Reason Attributed For Exclusion

The primary reason given behind excluding them is that the increase in testosterone level gives them an unfair advantage over ciswomen. To support this, the proponents for exclusion cite previous scientific research, which state that cismen, on an average, tend to have 8-12 percent performance advantage over ciswomen.

However, comparing the performance between cismen and ciswomen should not be relevant for the simple reason that trans and intersex women are women as they identify their gender identity as such.

It is important to highlight that gender identity refers to each person’s deeply felt internal and individual experience of gender, which may or may not correspond with the biological sex.

Regardless, it is also not clear whether the performance gap between the cismen and ciswomen should be attributed to differences in testosterone level and how much role sociological factors such as gender oppression play in relation to the same as they tend to discourage athletic development in girls and women.

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Do Trans Women Have Advantage Over Ciswomen?

However, the question remains: whether trans and intersex women have an unfair advantage over ciswomen?

According to the press release of World Athletics, there is “broad medical and scientific consensus” that high levels of endogenous testosterone circulating in athletes can significantly improve their athletic performance.

However, a review of the scientific literature on the relationship between testosterone level and athletic performance tells us that there is no clear and consistent relationship between testosterone level and athletic performance.

There are credible reports that relate testosterone with better performance but at the same time there are scientific studies that show weak connection or no connection at all.

Moreover, there are scientific reports which also link testosterone with worse performance. However, for the sake of argument, let us assume that there is some advantage to the trans women over ciswomen.

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Why No Ban on Those With Marfan Syndrome?

In the case of Dutee Chand vs Athletics Federation of India and The International Association of Athletics Federations, the admitted position of World Athletics was that hyperandrogenic women have approximately 3 percent performance advantage.

But World Athletics permit much larger competitive advantages than is being attributed to testosterone, such as height, metabolic levels, socioeconomic privileges, nutrition, training, access to sporting equipment, etc.

For instance, there is no attempt to bar or restrict players with Marfan syndrome. The long limbs and flexible joints related with the syndrome give swimmers, basketball players, and volleyball players a clear edge over other athletes.

If there is no morally relevant difference between benefits that arise from endogenous testosterone and those which are an outcome of biological and genetic variations, for what ‘fair’ reason should testosterone levels be restricted when other such variations determining athletic performance are not.

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Inclusivity Must Move Beyond Fairness

It is also interesting to note that the ciswomen with the polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) and congenital adrenal hyperlapsia (CAH) are exempted from the testosterone-level requirements, even though the World Athletics maintain that higher testosterone level in the women give these women performance advantage.

Such discriminatory standard reinforces the myth that trans and intersex women are not really women.

The idea of fairness in sports is an unruly horse and the rationale for inclusion of trans and intersex women must move beyond the idea of fairness. Sports is about meaningful narratives and should include and promote gendered narratives.

In addition to ensuring that there is a level-playing field, it must also be ensured that the field is accessible to everyone in the first place. In other words, sport should be inclusive of all gender identities.

The Olympic Charter itself recognises that “playing sports is a human right and every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind”.

Moreover, while we talk about level-playing field, we should also talk about how forcing trans and intersex women to reduce their testosterone level affect them physically and psychologically and how it affects their fundamental right to privacy and dignity as the whole procedure is medically intrusive and causes significant health issues.

Respecting the gender identity of trans and intersex women and protecting the rights of ciswomen in sports is not a contradictory but a dialectical process. Perhaps the sports is a zero game.

Somebody wins, somebody loses. However, the dynamics of the society is not a zero-sum game.

We all get to lose if someone from our community is discriminated and deprived of their rights. We all get to win if the society moves forward to a more egalitarian society, inclusive of all identities.

(The author Mayank Labh is a graduate of NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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