Guest Post: Trans Athletes In the Olympics

This post was written by my whip-smart friend and fellow Olympics fan (and USC grad student), Lena Hoober! Another great article to read in tandem with this one is Sports Illustrated’s “The Transgender Athlete,” by Pablo S. Torre and David Epstein.

The recent post “Female Olympians: A Strange Phenomenon, Apparently” got me thinking about how transsexual and transgender athletes are viewed by the IOC, and by the professionally competitive athletic world in general. If the IOC is already policing testosterone levels in women to make sure that they are “female” enough, how do they decide when a person is “post-op” enough to be in their new gender category? (The IOC says athletes can compete as their newly assigned gender two years after the sex change surgery – a decision made in 2004). Additionally, how do pre-op trans athletes feel about competing in the gender role that society has assigned to them?

Also, how much would hormones really change the physical aspects of an athlete? Usually the sex change operations involve the sexual organs that identify each gender, muscle definition, height, and other genetic factors are not dealt with when trying to physically change from one gender to another. Hormones, however, make a huge difference and if a woman started to take testosterone, or a man started to take estrogen, would this really alter their athletic ability?

So it comes down to this: if an athlete is a post-op female, with the “right” levels of estrogen and the correct female anatomy, would she be able to compete as a woman, or would she be required to compete as a man? Additionally, would she still technically have an unfair advantage because she would most likely still have the height and muscle definition that men are born with that make it so much harder, biologically, for women to compete with them. Says Jill Pilgrim, general counsel and director of business affairs for USA Track and Field Inc., the lower testosterone levels really do decrease your muscle mass and thus your physical advantage goes away. Most people do not understand that part of the transition and believe that “once a man always a man” and that biologically they will always beat women, which is untrue in post-op cases.

These are simply a few of the questions that I had about this complicated and delicate issue. There have been no openly transgender athletes to compete in the Olympics to this date, but that is not for lack of trying.

Keelin Godsey

Keelin Godsey

This June, Keelin Godsey, (born as the female Kelly) became the first openly trans athlete to compete in the Olympic trials. He is competing as a woman in the hammer throw, and missed being one of the three athletes to go to London with his fifth-place finish. Even though he is openly trans, he has not started any of the sex reassignment procedures, including hormones. Keelin is, of course, disappointed that he is did not qualify for the Olympics, but he threw at his personal best, 231 feet, 3 inches.

Kristen Worley

Kristen Worley

Kristen Worley was one of the first athletes after the 2004 IOC ruling to try to compete in the Olympics as an openly trans post-op athlete. Unfortunately, she did not make any of the qualifying times that Canada said were required for her to be able to compete in the Olympics. She believed that she was capable of being very competitive in the Beijing Olympics of 2008 as a cyclist, but also believed that it was unfair for the IOC to force her to come out in such a public way, when all she wanted to do was be recognized for the woman that she is.

Are the guidelines that they have set up give all trans athletes (either pre or post op) the fair treatment that they desire? Or is simply more of sex-testing that is unnecessary and embarrassing, as it forces sometimes somewhat reluctant people to come out very publicly in a way that they may not want to or be ready for.

No matter your thoughts, it is a huge step that sports committees all around the world and in a wide variety of events are giving this important issue the attention that it, and the athletes, deserve.