World Athletics (WA) has made a strong point in an era of political correctness. It has followed World Rugby and World Swimming by banning transgender women from competing in the women’s category, prioritizing fairness over inclusion.
Specifically, WA has banned male-to-female transgender athletes who have gone through male puberty from entering women’s World Ranking events. It has also updated the eligibility rules for athletes who have DSD (Differences of Sexual Development).
DSD athletes are those who have XY sex chromosomes (typically found in males) and, in some cases, internal testes instead of ovaries. They have a blood testosterone level in the male range and the ability to use testosterone circulating within their bodies.
There are no transgender athletes competing in women’s categories at the international level. But there are DSD competitors. Their physical advantages compared to women are obvious to the naked eye. But such is the complexity of the subject that scientific proof of the physical advantages remains under debate. It is also a sensitive topic with a human rights angle. But while there is empathy for DSD or transgender athletes for the challenges they face, many female athletes feel it is not fair that they have to compete with rivals who often have significant physical advantages over them.
Transgender sympatisers have criticized the WA decision. But it is telling that most sportswomen welcome it.
In fact, PT Usha, the Indian track legend and current IOA (Indian Olympic Association) President, has in the past suggested a separate competition for DSD athletes.
“There should be a separate category for DSD athletes, apart from men and women divisions. Because their numbers seem to be increasing and it is a problem for real women to compete against them,” Usha said in a recent interview. She estimated there were eight to ten DSD athletes in India, who, if they failed a gender test, could bring disrepute to the nation.
In 2006, Santhi Soundarajan was stripped of her Asian Games 800m silver after failing a gender test. She was found to have androgen insensitivity syndrome, meaning she was genetically male (with one X and one Y chromosome), but with the physical characteristics of a woman.
Manisha Malhotra, former tennis player and now Head, Sports Excellence and Scouting, JSW Sports, also supported the WA’s move.
“Personally, I agree with the decision,” Malhotra told ‘Outlook’. “While there is no perfect solution to this problem, it was really not fair for the women. I do believe hyperandrogenism (a condition present in India’s Dutee Chand and some DSD athletes) gives significant strength advantage even after the so called testosterone suppression therapy (mandated by WA for DSD athletes) because that only happens in the higher level competitions.”
British athlete Emily Diamond endorsed the WA decision. “Thank you for following the science,” she tweeted. “A big step for fairness and protecting the female category. Hopefully this will be the rule across all levels now, not just elite ranking events.”
DSD athletes can still compete in women’s events. But they will need to reduce their testosterone levels below a limit of 2.5 nmol/L for a minimum of 24 months to compete internationally in any event, and not just the events that were restricted (400m to one mile) under the previous regulations. (DSD athletes were prohibited from competing in the 400m to one mile events because their higher testosterone levels were deemed to hand them an optimal advantage in these distances).
“Biological reality trumps gender identity,” World Athletics had said earlier in the context of this issue. And now, it has categorically said that a level playing field for women is their priority.
Sebastian Coe, the WA chief and winner of two 1500m Olympic gold medals, said, “Decisions are always difficult when they involve conflicting needs and rights between different groups, but we continue to take the view that we must maintain fairness for female athletes above all other considerations.”
However, Coe said that they would gather more data on the subject and be open to reviewing rules.
“We will be guided in this by the science around physical performance and male advantage which will inevitably develop over the coming years,” he said. “As more evidence becomes available, we will review our position, but we believe the integrity of the female category in athletics is paramount.”