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Change In Olympic Regulations Offers New Opportunies For Transgender Athletes

The 2016 Summer Olympics logo
Panther Print
The 2016 Summer Olympics logo

When the Olympics kick off in Rio de Janeiro this August, thousands of athletes will put years of training to use in hopes of bringing home a medal. Now, due to an issue brought into the limelight by former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner, a change in Olympic legislation will diversify the field of competitors even more.

For many, the dream of becoming an Olympic athlete is just that: a dream. For transgender athletes, this rings especially true. Or at least, it used to. The International Olympic Committee announced a change in regulations stating that transgender athletes will no longer need sexual reassignment surgery in order to compete.

Curt Hamakawa is a former Director of International Relations for the United States Olympic Committee and Associate Professor of Sport Management at Western New England University.

"Previously, um the International Olympic Committee did have gender testing based on chromosomal tests and that has been discredited and discontinued. They no longer do that. But in the case of male to female transgender athletes, there is basically a one year waiting period because they want to ensure that the male hormone testosterone is below a certain standard.  For a female to male transgender, they can compete immediately. Their eligibility applies to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro."

The reason behind the rule modification is to reduce discrimination within the Olympics, while keeping the competition fair.

"We have records and history of records that the males perform at a higher level. They’re faster, they can jump higher, in some cases they’re quicker. That would be an unfair competitive advantage, and the International Olympic Committee is looking to not necessarily level the playing field. It cannot be um perfectly equal, but in the interest of not denying athlete participation including that of transgender athletes, the International Olympic Committee’s trying to arrive at a policy that makes it fair, inclusive to a broad swath of athletes seeking to participate. At the same time, focusing on this notion of fairness."

While the IOC does not oversee the governing bodies of every Olympic sport, the two work in conjunction. Dale Neuberger, Vice President of the International Swimming Federation, explains.

"The IOC sets direction for the Olympic movement but each of the international federations um carries out its business, its affairs in the way that it deems best for its sport. But I think you will see consistency across the Olympic movement in important issues that have become better known and I’m going to say also better understood um as a result. So I think that’s the key element."

In the past year, awareness of the transgender movement has spiked, thanks in large part to Jenner. At the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, Caitlyn Jenner, then known as Bruce Jenner, took home a gold medal in the men’s decathlon. Since her very public transition into a woman last year, Jenner has become an advocate for transgender rights and awareness. Someone striving to shed the same light on the issue is triathlete Chris Mosier, who in 2015 became the first transgender athlete to make a U.S. National team. In a feature for ESPN, Mosier speaks candidly about his personal struggles of being a transgender athlete.

"I’ve worked hard. I think that I belong at the starting line as much as any other person who’s there, and no one else can say whether or not I belong there."

Although this year’s games in Rio de Janeiro will mark the next step forward in the transgender movement, there have already been cases where the question of an athlete’s gender and eligibility were raised. Again, Curt Hamakawa.

"What comes to mind is Caster Semenya, a track and field athlete from South Africa, who had a abnormally high testosterone level for a female track and field competitor and she went through many rounds of testing and exclusions, and case went to the court of the International Court of Arbitration for sport. She was finally cleared to participate. She did win a medal at the London Olympics. There are cases. I don’t want to say it’s isolated."

Kelly Byrnes is with the radio reporting class at Western New England University. 

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