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Transgender Track And Field Athletes Can't Compete In Women's International Events

A man with light-tone skin wears a suit jacket with no tie. Beyond him are logos for World Athletics
President of World Athletics Sebastian Coe at a World Athletics Council meeting in Oregon last year.
(Andy Lyons
Getty Images)
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World Athletics Council, the governing body for international track and field, will bar transgender women athletes from elite competitions for women.

The council's policy, which will be in effect starting March 31, largely targets athletes who transitioned from male to female after going through puberty as a male. It will also tighten rules for athletes with disorders of sexual development, cutting in half the level of testosterone athletes can have to compete in women's events.

The council said it ultimately decided to prioritize "fairness and the integrity" of the female competition over inclusion. Though the council says there are no transgender athletes currently in international track and field competition, the ruling could hinder several people who've won Olympic medals in the past.

"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," Sebastian Coe, the council's president, said in a statement Thursday.

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The World Athletics Council plans to form a working group to consider the issue of transgender inclusion over the next year. The committee will speak with transgender athletes to seek their perspective, review research on the matter and submit recommendations to the council.

World Athletics Council acknowledges that there is limited research on elite transgender athletes

At the center of the issue is whether transgender women athletes have a physical advantage over other female competitors, even after lowering their testosterone levels. But there is limited scientific research involving elite transgender athletes — which the council also acknowledged.

World Athletics Council said it has found through its own research over the past decade that there can be an impact in performance. Several international groups, including Human Rights Watch, have called the council's evidence flawed.

Even without strong evidence of an advantage, the council has scrutinized the performance of athletes such as South African runner Caster Semenya, the world's fastest woman in the 800 meters. Semenya, who was raised female and is legally female, was born with XY chromosomes and has a naturally high testosterone level.

In 2018, World Athletics required athletes with differences in sex development to lower their testosterone levels with birth control pills, hormone shots or surgery. Semenya refused, saying such treatments had left her feeling like she would have a heart attack. She took her case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which ruled against her in 2019. Semenya is currently appealing the ruling in the European Court of Human Rights.

The ban is part of a growing resistance to transgender women and girls in female sports

International track and field is not the only sport to be moving away from trans inclusion.

Last year, the world governing body for swimming, FINA, prohibited transgender women from participating in female swimming competitions. In 2020, World Rugby also ruled that transgender women could not play rugby internationally out of "safety and fairness" concerns for non-transgender women.

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Meanwhile in the U.S., 19 states have so far banned transgender athletes from playing on girls or women's sports teams. In statehouses across the country this year, there are dozens of new and proposed laws that further curb transgender rights.

NPR's Melissa Block contributed reporting for this story.

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