Michael Pavitt

One storyline from last year’s Pacific Games turned a normally low-key continental event into an international talking point.

Laurel Hubbard’s double gold in the women’s over 87-kilogram competition at the Games, prompted further discussions over whether it was fair for the transgender weightlifter to compete.

Personally, the competition had proved an eye opener to the reaction Hubbard received at events, albeit a flavour had come a year earlier when debate centred around the New Zealander’s participation at the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast.

There had been animosity from the local crowd, who cheered a failed lift by Hubbard which enabled a Samoan lifter to take the clean and jerk title, prompting the Kiwi to blow a kiss and wave in reply.

The image of Hubbard on top of the podium after winning snatch and the overall titles garnered a vast response online, with the two Samoan lifters bowing their heads to the side. The response was so vitriolic that the New Zealand Olympic Team removed the tweet celebrating Hubbard’s success from its account.

Columns were produced worldwide on the Pacific Games and months later I remember being surprised when seeing part of my report examining Hubbard's potential participation in the Olympic Games, having been reproduced in a women’s magazine, which I saw open on a train.

Hubbard has certainly become a lightning rod for the debate surrounding transgender athletes. Transgender athletes have, arguably, become a very visual part of a wider debate in society – particularly in the UK recently – around trans rights and women’s spaces that politicians are struggling to navigate.

Trans athletes have argued they should not be prevented from participating in sport, while several prominent former athletes have spoken of concerns that people born biologically male who transition after puberty could retain a physical advantage.

Others have gone further in suggesting transgender athletes would effectively be cheating, with an extreme claim that countries could potentially “manipulate” the rules to pursue medals.

Amid concerns that trans athletes may pose a threat to women’s sport in general, there are calls for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to introduce stricter criteria.

The IOC have been undertaking a consultation process which they say aims to provide a framework for athletes and International Federations, which would be based upon data research and the latest information in the scientific and human rights sectors.

Laurel Hubbard's success at last year's Pacific Games due international attention ©Twitter
Laurel Hubbard's success at last year's Pacific Games due international attention ©Twitter

“This is a very difficult and sensitive process and there is no easy answer,” Richard Budgett, the IOC medical and scientific director said in Lausanne earlier this week.

“Whatever is put in place will undoubtedly upset a lot of people and the views are very different.

“Finding that balance between inclusivity and the fairness of sport, as well as safety in there and the role of testosterone.”

Budgett spoke to reporters shortly after confirmation from the IOC that their existing consensus statement from 2015 would remain in place for Tokyo 2020.

The logic seems reasonable. With qualification underway for Tokyo 2020, forcing International Federations to adopt new regulations during the process was considered “neither ethically nor legally admissible”.

As it stands, only three trans athletes are pursuing places at the Games. Along with Hubbard, whose potential qualification remains in the balance, American BMX freestyle rider Chelsea Wolfe and Brazilian volleyball player Tifanny Abreu potentially could be among the expected 11,000 athletes at the Games.

They could each make history, with the IOC saying there have been no known transgender athletes competing at the Olympics since 2003.

Regardless of your position on the eligibility debate, pulling the rug from underneath athletes would no doubt have inflamed discussions and would have been unfair. Albeit, the IOC could potentially have announced this earlier, allowing for an understanding the protocol would be in place for Tokyo 2020 and potentially cooling some of the pre-Games debate.

The current consensus was adopted in 2015. The IOC say the consensus changed to include athletes undergoing hormonal treatment in keeping with medical practice, whereas the previous statement in 2003 enabled only athletes who have undergone surgery to compete in their sport?

Under the existing consensus statement, athletes who have transitioned from male to female are eligible to compete in the female category under a series of conditions.

Athletes have to have declared that their gender identity is female with the declaration unable to be changed for a minimum of four years.

A key part of the consensus is that athletes are required to demonstrate that their total testosterone level in serum has been below 10 nanomoles per litre for at least 12 months prior to their first competition.

This has proved particularly controversial, with women’s testosterone levels ranging from 0.12 and 1.79 nmol/l. Men’s are typically between 7.7 to 29.4 nmol/l.

Richard Budgett, the IOC medical and scientific director, acknowledged the outcome of the consultation will likely upset a lot of people ©Getty Images
Richard Budgett, the IOC medical and scientific director, acknowledged the outcome of the consultation will likely upset a lot of people ©Getty Images

“There has been a lot of concern and debate about the level that was suggested in the guidelines in the consensus statement in 2015 as being 10,” Budgett said. “Now the scientific consensus is it should be five, some people say 2.5 and others 7.5.

“Actually, it is probably an irrelevance to the main debate, which is trying to get a structure in place that allows these transgender athletes to compete fairly and safely.

“Testosterone may be one of the answers to this, but in fact for us to go and change the level of testosterone without getting the proper framework in place would be wrong, we have got to put out something that is correct.

“It is much better to get this as right as we can, rather than rushing something out before the Games.”

The IOC are keen to stress their consultation process is aimed at producing guidelines for federations, rather than enforcing rules. The consultation is claimed to have involvement from around 100 groups ranging from human rights organisations to scientists and medical professionals.

Budgett said the IOC had also heard from people at both ends of the debate, ranging from trans athletes and detailing what they had been through in terms of harassment, abuse and the struggles with life and attitudes of others, through to those athletes who passionately believe trans athletes participation in women’s events is unfair.

The IOC hope to introduce a new consensus statement shortly after Tokyo 2020, but it will ultimately be down to international federations to determine their rules.

Some have currently pressed ahead, with World Athletics and the International Cycling Union announcing concentration of testosterone in an athlete must be less than five nanomoles per litre continuously for a period of at least 12 months to be eligible.

World Rugby is looking to develop a rugby-specific policy for transgender participation ©World Rugby
World Rugby is looking to develop a rugby-specific policy for transgender participation ©World Rugby

World Rugby last month launched their own consultation process with a workshop as they seek to establish a rugby specific transgender policy.

The governing body said the latest research had suggested a reduction in testosterone does not lead to a proportionate reduction in strength and power, while adding it was important for contact sports to find an appropriate position for player welfare.

World Rugby chairman Sir Bill Beaumont said their consultation is designed to enable a fit-for-purpose policy in the modern sporting and societal landscape, balancing inclusivity, while promoting fairness and welfare.

Sport specific policies are being encouraged by the IOC, with the acknowledgement that the situation in each sport differs regarding aspects like performance, while encouraging federations to be as inclusive as they can be.

Regardless of the outcome of the consultation process, there is an awareness it will likely prove unpopular with one side of the debate. Undoubtedly more research is needed in this area and the next consensus statement, you imagine, will not be the last.

Away from its impact on the elite level of sport – which currently will be marginal given the handful of athletes involved – the grassroots is perhaps an area we do not consider enough.

International Federation rules generally trickle down to national level, so ensuring athletes are protected at the grassroots level and inclusion is promoted needs to be examined carefully.