Why Should Transgender Athletes Compete in Sports

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Transgender individuals are often characterized as female to male (FTM) and male to female (MTF). The term gender identity speaks to people’s internal, deeply felt sense or identification with their gender, which may or may not match the sex assigned at birth (APA, 2015). Cisgender is when a person’s gender identity matches the sex assigned at birth (APA, 2015); The assignment of biological sex is based on the appearance of external sex organs.

Nevertheless, sport remains one of the most sex segregated aspects of society, and people whose gender identities do not match their sex assigned at birth can face significant barriers when attempting to participate in sport settings (Krane, 2014; Lucas-Carr & Krane, 2011).

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With opinions of sex segregation at the forefront of the debates in women’s athletics the importance of ethical analysis is essential. Therefore, the discussion of inclusion is framed differently, should transgender athletes compete in sports ( the category of their gender identity)? Currently at all levels of sports gender is categorized based on the strict female/male gender binary classification. In a sporting environment where physical advantages can determine the outcome of a contest and competition. MTF transgender athletes receive criticism for competing in female categories because they are viewed as still retaining physical attributes from their biological sex that undoubtedly gives them the competitive edge against female-born athletes.

The categorization of gender has prompted ethical debates regarding the moral practices involving transgender individuals. One key argument against allowing transgender women to compete is that they possess high levels of testosterone in comparison to women. Typically, additional testosterone gives them an advantage to perform vastly better than cisgender athletes. The reason why this advantage is interpreted as unfair is because there’s no possibility for cisgender women to naturally produce similar amounts of testosterone through exercising or dieting to opposed to pure skill. Sports enthusiast will contend that it would allow unfair, imbalanced competitions which would ultimately harm the purity of women’s sports. It’s a common understanding that women are physically petite compared to biological males. In most male athletes their physical characteristics is a factor which may give them a clear competitive edge. Depending on the sporting event the advantage in athletic performance can dominate a women’s league.

In 2008, a 17-year-old South African middle-distance runner Caster Semenya finished seventh in the 800-meter race at the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) World Junior Championships. Just one year later she set meet records for the distance at the Commonwealth Youth Games (CYG) in India and the African Junior Athletics Championships, where her winning time of 1:56.72 also set a National Record and the world’s fastest time of 2009 for any age category (African Athletics, 2009). During the 2009 IAAF World Championships in Berlin, Germany then 18-year-old Caster Semenya won a gold medal in the women’s 800-meter race. Semenya dominated her competition by finishing two and a half seconds ahead of her competitors and beating her personal best record by over one second (1:55.45). Several of her competitors argued that Semenya had an unfair advantage. ‘‘Just look at her,’’ Mariya Savinova (a Russian who finished in fifth place) told journalists after the race. Italian runner Elisa Piccione was even more direct, saying, ‘‘For me, she’s not a woman. She’s a man’’ (Clarey, 2009; Sawer & Berger, 2009).

During live, televised coverage of the event, sportscasters read from an official International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) statement confirming “concerns that she does not meet the requirements to compete as a woman.” Never clarifying what those particular requirements are, the organization subjected her to a process of “gender verification” (Berlin, 2009). This rapid ascent, accompanied by rumors about her deep voice, “masculine” facial features, and muscular build considered more typical of male 800m runners, attracted the attention of the IAAF who appeared initially to suspect doping violations (Cooky, Dycus, and Dworkin, 2012). The IAAF suggested that the results would provide scientific evidence to verify if Semenya was a cisgender woman, hence eligibility to continue to compete at the Olympics. However, the test results were never published officially. Rumors were circulating that her tests displayed unusually high levels of testosterone resulting in claims about having intersex traits. The combination of Semenya’s appearance and the improvements in her race times instigated the calls for a gender examination.

The President of IAFF Lamine Diack stated, “There was a leak of confidentiality at some point and this led to some insensitive reactions (IAFF, 2011).” Also, President Diack clarified that the incentives for gender testing was not accusing Semenya of cheating but to determine if she had intersex traits giving her a competitive advantage. The IAAF established the sex verification test denying allegations of racism and expressing their motives for why the tests are being conducted. The President of Athletics South Africa (ASA) Leonard Chuene admitted on September 19, 2009 to having subjected Semenya to gender testing. Mr. Chuene had beforehand lied to Semenya about the purpose of the tests. A suggestion made by team doctor Harold Adams was to withdraw Semenya from the 2009 World Championships over confidentiality issues in regards of her medical records.

The IAAF have implemented gender testing since the early 1960s, but the mishandling of the Semenya’s case sparked controversial debates about how to determine gender identity and whether gender testing is essential in sports. The Semenya case would eventually lead the IAAF to set explicit regulations regarding females with hyperandrogenism the overproduction of testosterone (IAAF Athletics, 2011). An alternative technique in determining gender is chromosome testing which is a hormonal analysis to evaluate testosterone levels. Semenya’s exclusion from competition reflects on the sports industry’s lack of knowledge about intersexed individuals that don’t identify with gender binaries.

The International Olympic Committee was at the forefront in creating policy related to TGNC athletes (IOC, 2003) but was also widely criticized for mandates related to sex reassignment surgery and legal recognition in accordance with an athlete’s gender identity (Buzuvis, 2012; Krane, 2014; Lucas-Carr & Krane, 2011). They place unnecessary financial and medical obstacles in athletes’ career when training and performance are demanding thus significantly hinder training and recovery time. Transgender athletes may undergo a transitioning process including expensive surgical procedures and hormone therapy. When a transgender individual is transitioning the person is in hormone therapy to match the hormone levels, of a cisgender woman. Then which they must demonstrate postoperative or post-therapy conformity with their cisgender peers before the sporting organization will declare the athlete eligible for competition. The outline of the policy is that athletes can participate if they can demonstrate physiological equivalency with cisgender athletes.

Sex verification started in 2003 when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Medical Commission gathered a group of gender experts to draft the statement of the Stockholm Consensus on Sex Reassignment in Sports (Stockholm policy). The policy outlines the conditions transsexual athletes would need to meet to compete at the Olympics. The ideas about cheating, equality, gender identity, and the inclusion of transgender athletes has reopened debates of the purity in women’s sports. Released in 2011 and adopted by the IOC prior to the London 2012 Olympics, the guidelines specify that women whose functional testosterone levels exceed a specific level, which was determined by scientists consulted by the IAAF, must lower their testosterone, presumably using testosterone-blocking drugs, to be eligible to compete in the women’s events. The level of 100 mg/ml now serves as the threshold for distinguishing men and women (Bostick and Joyner 2012). Policies for the inclusion of transgender athletes have been applied to help ensure competitors do not benefit from hormone-based advantages.

In 2016, the International Olympic Committee updated their original policies, 13 years after first establishing them. Questions about the fairness of women’s category policies are focused on the issues whether the policies are fair and how the policies can be applied and enforced fairly. The current International Olympic Committee (IOC) policy addresses many earlier concerns and states that female to male athletes may participate in male sports without restriction and male to female athletes can participate in female sports if their identity is declared as female and testosterone levels are (and continue to be monitored as being) below set levels for 12 months prior to competition (Ziegler, 2016). If the IOC and IAAF women’s inclusion policies are acceptable the question becomes how to implement these policies in respectful non discriminatory approach.

The most recent test was introduced in the 1990s, where sex testing was performed via a gene amplification technology called polymerase chain reaction. This technology is still used today, where its purpose is to search for the presence of Y chromosomes. If someone has a Y chromosome, then further testing is pursued to determine its region. If the Y chromosome is located in the sex chromosome region, then the athlete is often ineligible to compete in female categories (Schultz 2011, 232).” Drug testing for testosterone helps sort out the cheaters but it is not a reliable indicator of who should be competing. It’s impossible to define a female, there will always be individuals who fall outside the established norm. Proponents argue that sex testing is a practical (though imperfect) way to insure the safety, competitiveness, and fairness of women’s sport, by “accurately” sorting competitors into appropriate categories according to convention, science, and humanitarian values (Caplan, 2010; Qinjie, Fangfang, Yuanzheng, and Qinsheng, 2009). For transgender athletes this is viewed as gender discrimination because of the lengths of testing is uncomfortable. Athletes particularly members of minority groups struggle to gain support to protest sex testing. The outcome of the Semenya case was that it renewed attention to sex testing in women’s sports.

Amid uncorroborated reports that Semenya’s IAAF examination revealed some variety of intersexuality (anachronistically and pejoratively identified as “hermaphroditic” in the popular press), her father produced her birth certificate that indicates her sex as female, a designation typically assigned according to a newborn’s external sexual anatomy. (Bearak, 2009). The IAAF suggested a sex test to be scheduled because they believed it’s necessary considering her masculine body and the importance of maintaining fairness in sex-segregated sport. According to (Schultz, 2011; Sullivan, 2011), ‘The Semenya controversy brought renewed attention to “gender verification,” the tradition and methods by which women athletes have been required to “prove” themselves as biologically female to satisfy the expectations and demands of sex segregation in dominant sporting culture.’ Many believe that testing an individual for gender identity is degrading and inhumane to society.

Ultimately it took nearly a year for IAFF officials to review the results and eventually allow Semenya to compete again. Since her inclusion into the Olympics she has won a silver medal in the 2012 London and gold medal in 2016 Rio de Janeiro 800-meter race. Indeed, although Semenya earned a silver medal in the women’s 800m in London (a remarkable achievement, especially if it followed the rumored hormone therapy), she has not matched the time she ran in Berlin in 2009 (IAAFb), suggesting that gendered inequalities in sport are not only reproduced through sex-based eligibility policies, but are also “enfleshed” in women’s bodies and performances (Woodward, 2012, p.7). Having Semenya’s body examined by medical specialists to verify her gender identity it’s publicly humiliating and dehumanizing. The case of Semenya became a scientific curiosity because her body was visually inspected and dissected by media outlets to expose her gender identity. Inappropriately, the media fabricated their opinions of Semenya by manipulating the pictures and examinations then relaying it to the public as facts. This study offers a variety of depictions for exploring how gender identity is categorized through visual and verbal dissertation.

Transgender athletes may find sports to be unreceptive because of the traditional gender roles that isolate those who do not identify with. It’s challenging for transgender athletes to be socially accepted in their community because their gender identity doesn’t match their biological sex. The growing acceptance of gender equality in the sports industry has encouraged transgender athletes to compete in athletics.


  1. American Psychological Association. (2015). Guidelines for psychological practice with transgender and gender nonconforming people. Retrieved from guidelines/transgender.pdf
  2. Krane, V., & Barak, K. S. (2012). Current events and teachable moments: Creating dialog about transgender and intersex athletes. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance, 83, 38–42.    

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