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Olympics grapple with policies on transgender athletes

TOKYO — After 125 years of having no openly transgender competitors at the Olympics, there are several transgender and nonbinary athletes at this year's Games.

Between the lines: While still small in number, the presence of trans athletes has been a major point of controversy at these Games, coming up repeatedly at IOC press conferences and in newspaper headlines around the world.

  • Even the cover of the magazine of AIPS, a trade group for global sports journalists, is devoted to “the transgender issue."

Driving the news: There are at least four trans and nonbinary athletes in Tokyo: Canadian soccer player Quinn; U.S. skateboarder Alana Smith; BMX Freestyle rider Chelsea Wolfe, an alternate for Team USA; and Laurel Hubbard, a New Zealand weightlifter set to compete on Monday.

  • Quinn competed previously for Team Canada, winning a bronze medal in Rio in 2016, but only shared their transgender and nonbinary identities in 2020.
  • Smith, meanwhile, had their gender misidentified on television even though they literally wrote “they/them” on their skateboard, a slight that prompted an apology from NBC.
  • But the controversy has really centered on Hubbard, who competed in male weightlifting for years before transitioning at age 35.
  • Hubbard qualified for the Tokyo Games after completing the sport's rules for trans athletes, including suppressing her testosterone levels below a proscribed level (10 nmol/L) for at least a year.

The big picture: Most of the objections to trans participation in sports centers on transgender women and the belief by some that trans women retain an unfair advantage even after taking hormones to lower their testosterone.

  • The science on that is inconclusive, not to mention the fact that non-transgender women have a wide range of naturally occurring testosterone levels.

Flashback: The IOC set guidelines on transgender athletes back in 2003, and updated them in 2015 to remove a requirement that athletes undergo gender confirmation surgery, which required transgender female athletes to have gender confirmation surgery to change the outward appearance of their genitals.

  • But it has left specific rule making up to individual sport governing bodies.

What they're saying: Olympic officials have praised Hubbard as an individual and defended her right to participate, but have also said the organization is continuing a review of its policy on transgender athletes.

  • “There is lots of disagreement across the whole world of sport," IOC medical and scientific director Richard Budgett said at a press conference this week.
  • However, he said Friday that he also believes the concerns about trans women dominating women's sports are over likely overblown, noting that the IOC has had policies allowing transgender athletes for nearly 20 years and Hubbard is the first transgender woman to reach the Olympic field of play.

Budgett said it makes sense to have different rules for different sports and even different disciplines within a sport.

  • A new framework from the IOC to help guide international federations in crafting their policies has been in the works since 2019, and is expected in the coming months.
  • “It would have been inappropriate to come out with a new framework or guidelines just before the Olympics," Budgett said.

Between the lines: While some are calling for the IOC to tighten the rules in the wake of Hubbard’s presence, others say that such an effort would be less about ensuring trans women don’t have an advantage and more about excluding them entirely.

  • Budgett noted that while there is no question that men have advantages over women, there is not enough research to really understand what advantages transgender women may retain over non-transgender women.

What they're saying: Wolfe, a transgender woman and an alternate in BMX freestyle at the Tokyo Games, told Axios that much of the controversy stems from a lack of trust that trans people are who they say they are.

  • "They don’t trust our lived experiences that we describe," Wolfe said. "They don’t trust us to know for sure that what we are doing puts us on a relatively equal footing with cis [non-transgender] athletes when we compete.
  • Hubbard, who has been the target of attacks on social media and criticism from a number of fellow athletes, issued a statement Friday commending the IOC for "its commitment to making sport inclusive and accessible.”
  • “The Olympics are a global celebration of our hopes, our ideals and our values," she said in the statement, conveyed via New Zealand Olympic officials.

What's next: Hubbard is set to compete in weightlifting on Aug. 2. As an alternate, Wolfe is now set to return home as training for her sport has concluded and her teammates are ready to begin competition today.

  • Quinn played for Canada in the quarterfinals on Friday, while Smith has already completed their competition in Tokyo.

Go deeper:

Trans athletes see the Tokyo Games as a watershed moment

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