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2024 Paris Olympics: Understanding IOC framework on transgender athlete participation

The participation of transgender athletes in women’s sports has been a hotly debated topic that gained significant attention in the media in 2021 following the emergence of former University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas, a transgender woman.

The discussion has since prompted several sports governing bodies to re-examine their existing policies and, in some notable cases, make sweeping changes.

The Olympic logo is reflected in the windows of the headquarters of the International Olympic Committee in Lausanne, Switzerland, on March 18, 2020. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)

Changes were initiated when, in November 2021, the International Olympic Committee released a revised policy recommendation in which individual sports bodies were asked to apply certain parameters with a particular focus on “foster[ing] gender equality and inclusion” when establishing their own policies.

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As the 2024 Summer Games in Paris quickly approach, here’s a look at the IOC’s latest policy and the changes that followed. 

The Framework

The IOC released the “Framework on Fairness, Inclusion and Non-Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity and Sex Variations,” commonly referred to by the IOC as the “Framework,” in November 2021 following a “two-year consultation process” that included insight from more than 250 athletes, human rights, legal and medical experts.

The Framework, consisting of a 10-principle approach, sought to lay out recommendations for each sport to consider when creating their own policy for eligibility requirements, instead of creating a blanket policy.

“In issuing this Framework, the IOC recognizes that it must be in the remit of each sport and its governing body to determine how an athlete may be at a disproportionate advantage against their peers, taking into consideration the nature of each sport,” the document reads. 

“The IOC is therefore not in a position to issue regulations that define eligibility criteria for every sport, discipline, or event across the very different national jurisdictions and sports systems.”

International Olympic Committee HQ

The International Olympic Committee released a revised policy recommendation in November 2021, asking individual sports bodies to apply certain parameters with a particular focus on “foster[ing] gender equality and inclusion” when establishing their own policies. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images/File)

Instead, the IOC’s new Framework offered “a principled approach to develop their criteria that are applicable to their sport,” asking that each individual sports governing body take a “comprehensive approach grounded on respect for internationally recognized human rights, robust evidence and athlete consultation,” according to a press release issued at the time.

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“This Framework recognizes both the need to ensure that everyone, irrespective of their gender identity or sex variations, can practice sport in a safe, harassment-free environment that recognizes and respects their needs and identities, and the interest of everyone – particularly athletes at elite level – to participate in fair competitions where no participant has an unfair and disproportionate advantage over the rest,” the document continues.  

The 10 principles, which the IOC recommended be considered as a whole and not selectively, include inclusion, prevention of harm, non-discrimination, fairness, no presumption of advantage, evidence-based approach, primacy of health and bodily autonomy, stakeholder-centered approach, right to privacy, and periodic reviews.

It replaced a 2015 policy that required athletes transitioning from male to female to declare their gender identity as female, which could not be changed for a minimum of four years, and show testosterone levels below 10 nmol/L for “at least 12 months prior to her first competition.”

The previous policy replaced the IOC’s first policy on transgender athlete participation established ahead of the 2004 Games in Athens, which required athletes to undergo surgery in order to compete in events in-line with their gender identity.

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Wave of change

Several sports governing bodies did make changes following the release of the IOC framework. 

In June 2022, World Aquatics effectively banned transgender athletes from competing in women’s events after establishing their criteria to only include those who have “not experienced any part of male puberty beyond Tanner Stage 2 or before age 12, whichever is later.” The organization also announced plans to establish an “open category” as an alternative.

Swimmer competes

A swimmer competes in the women’s 4×100-meter medley during the World Aquatics Championships in Doha, Qatar, on Feb. 18, 2024. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

The following year, the governing body for cycling (UCI) followed suit, updating its policy to bar any transgender athletes from competing in women’s events if they “transitioned after (male) puberty.”

The decision followed a July 5 meeting where the governing body found that the current “state of scientific knowledge” could not guarantee that any physical advantage would be eliminated after undergoing hormone therapy treatments.

Earlier that year, World Athletics, which governs track and field, adopted the same policy as World Aquatics.

World Athletics President Sebastian Coe recently addressed the organization’s policy, telling CNN in an interview last month that it remains the “right decision.” 

“Those regulations are here to stay, and if we have to defend them, we will, and we’ll defend them on the basis that it is absolutely vital that we protect, we defend, we preserve the female category,” he said.

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