Transgender Olympians

The Rio Olympics have come and gone and no openly transgender athlete competed in the Games.  Leading up to the Olympics, there were two different news stories suggesting that two or more trans women might compete in Rio, and each story generated a substantial amount of press. Despite, or perhaps, because of the press generated by these stories, there were no reports of trans athletes at this year’s Games.

Despite the lack of news, however, there were undoubtedly several transgender Olympic athletes in Rio, just as there have been in every Olympic Games. But, just as in previous Games, the vast majority of these athletes competed in their birth gender.

With 10,000 Olympic athletes in the 2016 Games, one would expect there to be approximately 50 trans athletes competing. Even given the ostracism faced by those who exhibit gender non-conforming behavior, there would still be several athletes who would be successful enough to make their nation’s Olympic squads; all the while hiding their true nature, as Balian Buschbaum and Caitlyn Jenner did.

There may even have been a few transgender athletes competing in Rio in their true gender. It’s just that as long as these athletes aren’t out, then we will never know about it. And that’s a shame. For, as long as trans athletes continue to compete in secrecy, then most people will continue to believe that any attempt to include trans women, in particular, will lead to the end of women’s sport.  

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) first allowed transgender women to compete in the 2004 Olympics provided they had completed genital surgery, two years of post-operative hormone replacement therapy (HRT), and all legal gender changes. At the time, many in the sports world claimed that trans women would soon dominate women’s sport; leaving cisgender women out in the cold.

It didn’t, of course, happen that way. Over the past twelve years there have been a few trans women who have had some success at the professional level of women’s sport; golfer Mianne Bagger, cyclist Natalie Van Gogh, and MMA fighter Fallon Fox to name three. None of these women have dominated their sport, in fact all three of them only managed to make it to the minor-league professional level. And despite fears to the contrary, no openly transgender woman, anywhere in the world, has competed openly in the Olympics since 2004.

In January 2016, the IOC came out with new transgender guidelines that replaced the surgical requirement for trans women with an upper testosterone limit, reduced the length of time on HRT from two years to one year, and replaced the legal requirements with a simple declaration of gender identity. Despite the past twelve years of history, there were still many who proclaimed that the new IOC guidelines were the beginning of the end for women’s sport.

Once again, the fear mongers have proven to be wrong. Even if a few female trans athletes competed secretly on their nation’s women’s teams, they didn’t make any noticeable impact at all in Rio. Instead of dominating, trans women were not even discernible.

And, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, the reason that trans women and cisgender women can compete equitably in sport, is the transformative nature of HRT. In a previous article, I outlined the athletic changes that trans women undergo as a result of HRT, and I’ll not repeat them here. But, one can imagine a large car with a small engine competing against a small car with a small engine, and that summarizes the playing field.

The last point I would like to make is that although there were not any openly transgender athletes in Rio, the time is coming soon when some world-class athlete who happens to be transgender, steps out of the shadows and into the spotlight. I seriously hope that when that first brave man or woman appears, the world is ready to look upon this athlete with an open mind.

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