On 5th September 2019 Fair Play For Women sent a private letter to the executive board of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) asking them to suspend the IOC’s transgender guidelines pending further scientific study and analysis. Olympic medallist Sharron Davies MBE obtained support and signatures from over sixty British Olympic medallists, world-class sports men and women.
You can read a copy of the letter here (signatories redacted)
Dear members of the IOC Executive Board,
This is a private letter signed by over sixty British Olympic medallists, world-class sports men and women, and leading scientists. We have come together because we share a single purpose: to help ensure the integrity and fairness of the Olympic games.
We believe the IOC’s revised (2015) transgender guidelines do not guarantee safe and fair competition for female athletes.
These recommendations are based on flawed science.
IOC guidelines recommend that male-born transgender athletes demonstrate their testosterone level has been below 10 nmol/L for at least one year before their first female competition. However, there is currently no scientifically robust, independent research showing that all male-like performance advantage is eliminated under these conditions.
There is no list of reference works or papers that were consulted that can be made available to other researchers. It appears the only published research underpinning the guidelines is the unscientific, small retrospective study performed by two of the twenty members of the consensus meeting. The study size is tiny but the impact it may have on both women’s sport and the Olympics is enormous.
Put simply, there’s more to male performance advantage than testosterone.
The legacy effect of exposure to high levels of testosterone in early life and puberty is well known. Growing up male will give transgender athletes a lifelong edge that simply cannot be fully negated by a period of testosterone suppression.
Higher testosterone levels after birth mean males have larger hearts and lungs, on average. Females have a wider pelvis, altering hip rotation and making them inherently slower. Males have longer and stronger bones from puberty. Longer bones allow for increased reach and a wider articular surface, allowing them to put down more skeletal muscle. Muscle memory resulting from a male physiology prior to transition provides the permanent ability to regain or maintain muscle. Only females face the problems of managing a menstrual cycle and the effect on performance and training.
Let’s not change the rules without proper evidence.
Such an important subject demands proper research of a significantly large population and using robust scientific measurements. Only then will we be able to have a true understanding of whether a transwoman has an unfair sporting advantage over her fellow competitors. Properly-designed intervention studies are urgently required to investigate the effect of transition on trainability and performance.
We ask the IOC to listen to other, well-informed voices and consider commissioning studies that look at muscle physiology and strength adaptations pre- and post-transition.
These guidelines were never meant to be mandatory.
We note that the guidelines were designed as recommendations – not rules or regulations – for sporting bodies to take into account. They were published after a consensus meeting of Olympic officials and medical experts in November 2015 in Lausanne, Switzerland, but they were not approved by the IOC Executive Board. However, they have now been widely used as the justification for opening the female category to athletes who were born male by most national and international sport governing bodies throughout the world.
Therefore we ask the International Olympic Committee to suspend its transgender guidelines regarding the eligibility of male-born transgender athletes into female competition pending further scientific study and analysis.
If based on the IOC guidelines, the sporting world changes its rules prematurely and transwomen are found to unfairly dominate, it will be to the detriment of sport, women and the Olympics.
On 17th September we received this reply from Dr Richard Budgett, the IOC Medical and Scientific Director. He told us that:
“Currently, an IOC working group is developing a new framework that balances fairness, safety and non-discrimination, and which allows for the realities of each sport to be considered. We have liaised already in the last four years with affected athletes, lawyers, scientists, medical doctors and human rights experts, and are further broadening our consultation process in the coming weeks. Your letter is an important contribution to this consultation”.
“The framework, which will contain a set of new guidelines, will replace the previous consensus which represents scientific, medical and legal opinion in 2015 and is not a regulation”.
In reply we requested a meeting with him and his team to discuss our concerns in more depth, emphasising the urgent need for this to be addressed before Tokyo 2020. You can read our full reply here.
“There is now an urgent need for the IOC guidance to be revoked before Tokyo 2020 with a clear acknowledgement that the principle of testosterone suppression as a method of levelling the playing field between males and females has no credible scientific backing.”
We were then invited to be part of a confidential consultation process. Dr Nicola Williams and Sharron Davies MBE met with Dr Richard Budgett and the IOC working group members via video conference on 1st November 2019.
“The International Olympic Committee is working on developing a new framework to advance inclusion and non-discrimination in sport, while balancing the need for safe and fair competition among all athletes. This framework of voluntary guidelines will acknowledge the differences that exist between sports, and encourage each International Federation to find suitable mechanisms, policies and approaches to ensure inclusion, non-discrimination, fairness, proportionality and safety for all athletes. It will be subject to periodic review in order to take account of relevant developments in the area, in consultation with all stakeholders concerned”.
Since then? Crickets. In March 2020, Dr Richard Budgett said it was too close to the Tokyo Olympic Games to change the guidelines as that would be unfair on competitors. Those games were postponed by twelve months to August 2021 due to the pandemic. But still no action has been taken. Rules in sport are under constant scrutiny and review, with a particular focus on safety and fairness, as we pointed out in this recent letter to World Athletics. They are able to move fast when it affects fairness for men, it seems. The planned checking of running shoes at the Tokyo Games has been brought in very quickly. Yet the IOC seems to have let this one slip. Surely that couldn’t be because it hurts only females?