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How the 2021 Olympics exposed the ways elite sports are failing at trans inclusion

Backlash against transgender and non-binary competitors in Tokyo has highlighted the problems preventing inclusion in sports at all levels.

01 Sep 2021

This piece was originally published by Open Democracy.

When Grace Mckenzie decided to undergo gender transition and live openly as a woman three years ago, she resigned herself to giving up team sports. 

As a child, she played everything from baseball and soccer to karate, and these communities were crucial to her well-being. But transphobia is rife in mainstream sports, and she didn’t see how she could be accepted as a transgender woman. 

“I was convinced I would lose access to that [part of my life],” Mckenzie, now 27 and based in the United States, told me. “For a long time, it was enough to keep me from transitioning.”

So when, a year into her transition, she was asked at a queer tech conference if she wanted to join was a community-level women’s rugby team, she was shocked – and overjoyed. 

Since then, she’s become a committed player for the Golden Gate Women’s Rugby Club in San Francisco, and a fierce advocate for trans-inclusion in sports.

“The community let me in, affirmed me and showed me I can define womanhood for myself and not let it be defined for me,” she said. “It’s one of the most beautiful gifts I’ve been given.”

Controversy at Tokyo Olympics

Across the world, evolving gender norms are challenging and reshaping the way we approach competitive sports, which have traditionally been segregated into ‘male’ and ‘female’ categories. 

This was evident in this year’s Tokyo Olympics, when transgender and non-binary athletes competed openly for the first time. Their presence inspired many, but also triggered intense backlash from critics who opposed their participation.

New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard, a transgender woman who competed in men’s contests before taking a 15-year break and transitioning, was accused of having an unfair physical advantage over cisgender women, from the moment her participation in the Games was announced. 

After Hubbard was eliminated for failing to achieve the opening lift, there were widespread comments on social media about her being “a man who can’t even beat a woman”, Mckenzie said. 

“I watched the Games with bated breath,” she said. “No matter what the results were, our community would have come under fire.”

“The trans misogyny is evident. It’s only trans women who are ‘unfair’ and ‘shouldn’t compete’”

While the participation in Tokyo of non-binary athletes, such as American skateboarder Alana Smith and Canadian soccer player Quinn, were deemed less controversial, they were also repeatedly misgendered by commentators.

“If you compare the conversation around Laurel to [that around] Quinn, the trans misogyny is evident,” Mckenzie said. “It’s only trans women who are ‘unfair’ and ‘shouldn’t compete’, Quinn is [deemed] fine because cisgender women don’t necessarily support or believe in non-binary [identities].”

The Tokyo Olympics may be over, but debates about how to build fair practices and policies for gender inclusion in sports are still raging. A recent US survey shows that more than a third of respondents believe transgender athletes should only be allowed to compete in the gender they were assigned at birth.

New rules for transgender athletes

Within the next two months, the International Olympic Committee (IOC – the governing body for the summer and winter Olympics but not the Paralympics) is set to release a new framework for transgender athletes, after admitting that its current guidelines are not fit for purpose.

Dr Richard Budgett, the IOC’s medical and science director, told The Guardian that the framework “would focus on safety as well as fairness” and allow for individual sports federations to make their own decisions. This means the rules for rugby, say, could be different from those for marathon runners.

The IOC has historically policed the “female division” of the Games in order to strictly impose the gender binary of male and female. In 1968, the committee began gender-testing women athletes to prevent “men posing as women” from participating. 

In 2003, it allowed transgender athletes to compete, but trans women were required to have “sex reassignment surgery” (now known as gender affirming surgery) to qualify. Since 2015, transgender women have been allowed to participate if their testosterone levels remain below a certain threshold.

Yet this requirement too is flawed. Some Black female track athletes with naturally elevated testosterone levels have had to artificially decrease the hormone in order to qualify for certain races. Some have refused to do this – South African 800m Olympic champion Caster Semenya being the most famous example.Others, including Namibian 400m runners Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi,​​ have been banned from competing at all.

Shiv Paul from the Federation of Gay Games (FGG), says such discussions shine a spotlight on the difficulties – and, perhaps, futility – of defining what it means to be a woman. They also expose the inherent sexism in sports; for instance, there are cases of female athletes being asked to “prove” their gender because they have a “masculine” appearance, he said.

“Sports is all about you competing at your best, in terms of whoever and whatever you naturally are, so with these debates you’re already tampering with who people are physiologically,” Paul said. “Surely that goes against sports and what the Olympics stand for.”

Such inequalities are what spurred the creation of the Gay Games, which launched in San Francisco in 1982. Featuring many of the same sports as the Olympics, the Gay Games aim to provide a platform for people of all genders and sexual orientations to compete authentically, without fear of persecution.

“Everyone talks about creating a level playing field. But actually, if competitive sports were level, it would be so boring,” said Jamie Hopper, chair of the FGG’s diversity and inclusion committee. “We love sports because of the tight edges, how you might get a Michael Phelps that will dominate. Not because people are equally pitched at each other.”

Exclusion or inclusion?

Now, the IOC is coming to terms with the fact that there are no definitive parameters for deciding whether an individual is biologically female or male. Yet for better or worse, the committee’s next steps are likely to create a ripple effect and set the bar for inclusion in competitive sports worldwide.

According to Hopper, allowing individual sports federations to make up their minds on gender participation could potentially create more inclusion than is currently seen in elite sports. However, it could also lead to stagnation at policy level, with governing bodies not knowing where to start and therefore delaying action.

Different sports need to decide when they think it’s appropriate to separate female and male competition, and provide alternative opportunities such as a mixed option when they feel they’re unable to be fully inclusive, Hopper said. 

Gender sensitivity training as well as policies to prevent and manage negative behaviour – such as bullying – must also be implemented, to ensure that sport is a safe space for all, he added.

“The Olympics say it’s a human right to play sport, but they will take an exclusionary stance as opposed to an inclusive route,” Hopper said. “Some sports may be able to be more inclusive than others depending on factors around fair and safe competition. For example, newer sports like roller derby have been able to be fully inclusive.”

As governing bodies assess their gender policies, it’s essential that more transgender and non-binary people are involved in the decision-making process, Mckenzie said. The IOC, in particular, needs to take the lead on building more inclusive, fair policies, and should fund more scientific research on transgender athletes, she added.

“It’s exhausting and I’m tired. But progress is a spiral, not a staircase”

Mckenzie’s love of rugby stems from the game’s ability to connect different people, as well as the joy of playing the sport itself. In light of this, she found World Rugby’s decision last year to ban transgender women from elite women’s competition extremely disappointing. 

“It’s exhausting, and I’m tired,” she said. “But progress is a spiral, not a staircase.”

Despite the challenges, she plans to not only keep playing, but also continue fighting for policies that will allow everyone to be able to participate comfortably as their authentic selves.

“Rugby is designed in a way that makes it possible for folks of different body shapes and sizes to share the pitch,” Mckenzie said. “That’s what makes the game so beautiful.”