7 min

Golden opportunity

Olympics open up to transsexual athletes

taking the podium, if not the olympics. Trans athletes like Michelle Dumaresq, who recently took first at the Canadian Mountain Bike National Championships, are slowly being accepted in competitive sport. Credit: Rob Jones - Canadian Cyclist

After a rocky history of exclusion, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) recently announced that athletes who have undergone sex reassignment surgery (SRS) will be eligible to compete in the Olympic Games. This summer’s event in Greece will be the first to implement the new by-laws, but so far there are no trans athletes clamouring to be out in Athens.

After dithering for close to seven months, an IOC medical commission ratified new by-laws on May 17 that outline specific parameters for transsexual wannabe Olympiads. Comprised of a panel of medical experts from the United States, Sweden and France, the commission concluded that Olympic trans competition hinges on a legal nod of approval both from the athlete’s home country and independent sport federations (such as the Canadian Soccer Association for a trans soccer player). A confirmation that hormonal therapy has been administered in a “verifiable manner and for a sufficient length of time to minimize gender-related advantages in sport competitions” will also be a prerequisite to compete. The IOC considers a sufficient length of time to be no less than two years.

But, as usual, the proof is in the pudding. Only post-operative athletes – those with external genitalia changes and gonadectomies under their belts – will be eligible for a spot on an Olympic roster.

The by-law changes did not happen overnight. The IOC has been struggling with the genders of its athletes for decades, engaging in some questionable methodology to determine whether female athletes were woman enough to compete. The announcement of the new by-laws has rekindled the old debate, illustrating the suspicion that trans athletes continue to face in organized sport.

Since SRS has become more commonplace for athletes and nonathletes alike, the IOC found itself hard pressed to resolve its stand on the issue. “The increase [of SRS] has become particularly significant after the introduction of legislation with respect to sex reassignment in many countries,” writes IOC medical commission chair Arne Ljungqvist on the IOC website, and “the increasing number of cases of sex reassignment has also come to affect sport.”

Following the lead of the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) – which in 1990 was the first sport federation to allow all athletes who had undergone SRS before puberty to compete under their assigned gender and considered post-pubescent SRS athletes on an individual basis – the IOC has taken the bull by the horns and picked up where its counterpart left off. Now both male-to-female (MTF) and female-to-male (FTM) trans athletes are free and clear to compete in amateur sport if they meet the above criteria. MTF competitors have long been accused of wielding an unfair competitive edge because of their physiology and sports-heavy socialization. The IOC’s new parameters will hopefully nullify these accusations of foul play and, at the very least, expose the finger-pointers as backroom bigots and sore losers.


But things were not always so hunky dory in amateur sporting land, and the sudden tolerance demonstrated by the IOC does not erase decades of questionable testing practices. Beginning in 1966, the IOC sanctioned tests that intensified the rigid male-female dichotomy in sport, all but rejecting the idea that gender might fluctuate.

By the 1950s and ’60s, female athletes began engaging in more vigorous training programs and developing more muscular bodies, closing the gap between male and female Olympic performances. This raised some eyebrows, and pretty soon women who excelled at sport were pressured to prove that they were in fact biologically female. The IAAF thus introduced “femininity” or sex testing, ushering in an era of mistrust in the world of amateur sport.

Sex testing was first implemented at the European Track And Field Championships in Budapest in 1966. All athletes entered in women’s events were made to parade naked, shirts lifted and pants dropped, in front of a panel of female physicians. At the Commonwealth Games in Kingston, Jamaica that same year, women were subjected to a mandatory gynecological exam.

But concerns of impropriety proliferated and soon the nudity tests were replaced by a less intrusive chromosomal test. Cells were scraped from the inside of the female athlete’s cheek to ensure that she carried two X chromosomes – the genetic marker of a typical biological female, versus one X and one Y chromosome of the typical biological male. Though less intrusive, the new tests were also served up with their own share of skepticism and hypocrisy.

In 1968, Polish sprinter Ewa Klobukowska was the first woman to fail the chromosome test, after having passed a visual inspection of her body the previous year. It was declared that she had “ambiguous genitalia,” and she was stripped of her Olympic medals – a bronze in the 100-metre dash and a gold in the 100-metre relay, both from the 1964 games – and barred from competition. Klobukowska, like approximately six bio women in a thousand, has an extra Y chromosome along with her two X chromosomes, a condition called Klinefelter syndrome.

The IOC used chromosome testing to confirm athletes’ genders well into the 1990s. Now, medical professionals are crying foul, calling the chromosomal tests discriminatory and inaccurate. In an article published by the Yale School Of Medicine in 2000, Myron Genel, a pediatric endocrinologist at the school and a sitting member of the IOC’s Medical Commission wrote, “[Sex] tests fail to exclude all potential impostors, are discriminatory against women with disorders of sexual development and may have shattering consequences for athletes who fail a test.”

Sex testing is now banned by both the IOC and the IAAF. According to the Canadian Academy Of Sport Medicine (CASM), sex testing is irrelevant since the development of Spandex. “The use of communal dressing rooms and showers, as well as the clothing currently worn in competition by women athletes, significantly reduce the possibility of men posing as women,” reads their position statement on gender tests. So too does the current Olympic screening protocol for performance enhancing drugs: a supervised urine test. As a means of ensuring that the athlete’s urine is truly their own, every competitor must pee into a cup under direct supervision of an IOC official – a hard test to fake for a man pretending to be a woman.

But charlatans be warned. Though no clear-cut case of a male athlete competing in a women’s event has ever been documented, a handful of sensational gender identity scandals have rocked the athletic community. In 1980, an autopsy revealed that Polish sprinter Stella Walsh – who won silver at the 1932 Olympics in the 100-metre race and 41 amateur titles – had male genitalia. German high jumper Dora Ratjen, who competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, was later examined and discovered to have ambiguous genitalia. She was disqualified from further competition. After the war, Ratjen – then living as Hermann – acknowledged that the Nazi Youth Movement had forced him to compete as a woman.

Flash forward to the present day, and still there are no out transsexual athletes set to compete in the Athens Games. Michelle Dumaresq, a member of Canada’s mountain biking team and the first publicly transsexual athlete on any national team worldwide, says there’s still a long way to go before trans people will be accepted and included in sport.

“After the turmoil that I’ve dealt with and the media coverage, I don’t think that too many will be out in sport in the near future,” she says. “I had no choice, if I didn’t go public with my history then I don’t believe that anything would have changed. Someone had to be first.”

The fear and misconception is that trans athletes, particularly MTFs, have a decided advantage over the competition: larger bones, more testosterone, larger lung capacity and greater muscle mass. Dumaresq, who underwent SRS in 1996, argues otherwise. “We all have advantages and disadvantages. In sport we try to increase our natural advantages and decrease our disadvantages. I do not believe that trans athlete’s have an advantage – hormones take care of that.” When Michelle was Michael, she stood at six feet tall and weighed 210 pounds. Eight years of hormone therapy later, her frame measures 5’9″ and she weighs 180 pounds.

Dumaresq says that the IOC’s criteria for trans competition is “fair,” and that “they have opened the door by this decision.”

The sporting community, for its part, is beginning to reconsider its previously narrow definitions of gender. “Women athletes who have developed greater than average muscle mass,” says CASM, “whether due to extreme training programs or to genetic abnormalities… should be accepted as part of the normal range of variation, similar to individuals who have grown to extreme heights. Male hormone levels may vary by 100- fold within normal females and do not ensure athletic prowess, emphasizing the essential role of skill, intensive training and other factors in achieving athletic success.”

Being a man, currently or formerly, is not a free ticket to the Olympics. What the CASM report hints at is that, in the case of a MTF transsexual, athletic prowess is not guaranteed by virtue of having been a man. In fact, while Dumaresq often clobbers the competition on her home turf (she recently took her second consecutive title), at the 2002 world mountain biking championships in Austria she placed 24th in the field – hardly a decisive win for somebody with a presumably decisive advantage.

With sex testing banned and the self-determination of gender considered a legal right by the IOC, the next step in the process is acceptance from a wide range of athletic and nonathletic bodies – including those within the gay, lesbian and bisexual communities.

“We are aware of problems in Sydney [Gay Games 2002] – accusations of discrimination by trans athletes,” says Jean-Yves Duthel, public relations director of Rendez-Vous Montreal 2006. “We want them to be integrated in the games as everybody else. Our policy is that all our sports are open to everyone – GLBT [gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans].”

One way of answering the question of how to avoid discriminatory practices is simply not to ask. “When you write down to come to Montreal no one asks you if you are gay, lesbian, trans, okay?” says Duthel. “You just register for a sport.” At Rendez-Vous Montreal, competition is not decided by gender, but, as in the case of swimming, by age.

Stephanie Johnstone, co-chair of the Federation Of Gay Games’ sports committee, says there were no official reports of discrimination against trans athletes stemming from the Sydney event. She says that to participate in the Gay Games, “all you have to do is pay your participation fee and you’re in. We truly believe in inclusion, regardless of sexual orientation.”

Inclusion might be the name of the game for Rendez-Vous and the Gay Games, but a jump across the Atlantic opens up a whole other can of worms. A warm welcome is probably the last thing waiting for trans (or gay, lesbian and bi) athletes in Athens at this summer’s Olympic Games, as recent developments in the host country indicate. In October 2003, a Greek television station was fined $117,000 for showing two men kissing. Greece’s National Radio And Television Council claimed the scene “could damage young people by making them too familiar with vulgarity.”

It goes to show that the IOC’s inclusion of transsexual athletes is only as good as the rights of transsexuals in their home countries. “Unfortunately,” says Dumaresq, “legal recognition is only possible in countries that recognize human rights.”