World Athletics Bans Transgender Women, Extends DSD Restrictions to All Events

March 23, 2023

World Athletics announced significant changes on Thursday that will determine who gets to compete in elite track & field moving forward. As part of this week’s World Athletics Council meeting, WA banned all male-to-female transgender athletes who have been through puberty from competing in international events. In addition, WA severely tightened its restrictions on athletes with differences of sexual development (DSD), which could mean the end of the elite careers of athletes such as Olympic medalists Francine Niyonsaba and Christine Mboma. WA also reinstated the Russian Athletics Federation, which had been suspended since 2015 for its role in a massive doping scandal. Russian athletes, however, still remain banned from World Athletics Series events due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

The decisions made today in Monaco will have a big impact on the sport for the 2020s and beyond. Here’s what you need to know.

The new DSD restrictions and how we got here

A little refresher on how we reached this point: back in 2014, sprinter Dutee Chand was dropped from India’s Commonwealth Games squad because she had hyperandrogenism – naturally elevated levels of testosterone above the typical female range. World Athletics’ (then known as the IAAF) hyperandrogenism policy prevented Chand and others competing in the female category.

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Chand challenged the IAAF’s policy at the Court of Arbitration for Sport, and in 2015, CAS suspended the hyperandrogenism policy, clearing the way for athletes with DSDs such as Chand to compete in the female category. What this meant in practice is that a number of intersex athletes – which included athletes who have XY chromosomes and internal testes but no ovaries – were able to compete in the female category. Some of those athletes, no longer forced to lower their testosterone, now enjoyed a massive advantage and began to win a lot of races in the female category. DSD athletes Caster Semenya, Francine Niyonsaba, and Margaret Wambui swept the Olympic podium in the women’s 800 in 2016.

In 2019, World Athletics came up with a new policy that served as a middle ground: DSD athletes could no longer compete in the female category in events from 400 meters through the mile without lowering their testosterone to below 5.0 nmol/L. The restrictions only applied in those events because those were the only events in which WA could prove that DSD athletes had a significant advantage.

Some DSD athletes chose not to continue competing but others moved to events in which they were not required to lower their testosterone, and a number continued to find success: Namibia’s Christine Mboma earned an Olympic silver in the women’s 200m in 2021, while Niyonsaba moved up in distance and won four Diamond League distance races that year and set a women’s world best for 2000 meters.

However, as those athletes continued to win, they also started to prove that DSD athletes had an advantage in events beyond the 400 through mile.

Now, World Athletics says it “has more than ten years of research and evidence of the physical advantages that these athletes bring to the female category.” So, on Thursday, it announced big changes to its DSD policy.

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The new policy says that before being able to compete internationally in the female category, DSD athletes must keep their testosterone levels below 2.5 nmol/L for a minimum of 24 months (the normal level for women is considered to be between  0.3 and 2.4 nmol/L). Under the previous DSD policy, athletes only had to keep their testosterone levels below 5 nmol/L for six months before competing.

In addition, the new policy applies to all track & field events – not just the 400 through mile.

DSD athletes are unlikely to be competitive in the women’s category moving forward

Under the new rules, it would be very surprising if DSD athletes such as Niyonsaba, Mboma, and Aminatou Seyni of Niger (4th in the 200 at Worlds last year) continue to rank among the world’s best in women’s events. Remember, after Semenya burst onto the scene in the late 2000s, the IAAF created a DSD policy setting testosterone limits at 10 nmol/L for female events in 2011. The new level is 1/4th of that.

Francine Niyonsaba in 2021. Courtesy Diamond League AG

Semenya continued to enjoy success in 2012 and 2013, but the longer she had to stay below the limit – which is still well above the typical female testosterone level – the slower she became. In 2014, her 800m season’s best was 2:02.66; in 2015, it was 2:04.19 until the DSD policy was suspended at the end of July, at which point she immediately started running faster.

Likewise, Niyonsaba burst onto the scene in 2012 as a 19-year-old, running 1:56 for 800, but by 2015 she was running 2:05. Then the DSD policy was suspended and she started running fast again.

It is telling that, after the DSD regulations were restored in 2019, no notable known DSD athletes tried to continue competing in the restricted events. To do so would have required two options, and neither was appealing: undergoing genital surgery (a delicate and otherwise unnecessary medical procedure) or taking medication to lower their testosterone levels. Semenya had tried the medication in the past and claimed it made her feel “constantly sick” and gave her fevers and abdominal pain.

In addition, DSD athletes had a better chance at being competitive by moving up or down in distance and competing with their natural testosterone levels rather than trying to compete with typical female testosterone levels in the restricted events. Not every athlete found success by moving up or down, but a number remained world-class. Mboma and Seyni demonstrated incredible closing speed compared to their non-DSD peers, while Niyonsaba emerged as one of the world’s top women’s distance runners in 2021.

It is yet to be seen how many DSD athletes will attempt to continue competing in the women’s category. Athletes such as Niyonsaba who were already competing in previously unrestricted events will benefit from interim provisions that allow them to return to competition after suppressing their testosterone levels below 2.5 nmol/L for just six months. But even if they decide to go that route, it will rule them out of this summer’s World Championships in August. And when they return, they will have merely a fraction of the testosterone previously available to them.

Quick Take: This is the fairest solution to an uncomfortable situation

We’ve long said at that it made no sense for World Athletics to have DSD rules that only applied to a few events. The impact of testosterone is the primary reason why we have separate male and female categories in elite sport in the first place. The idea that testosterone only helps in a couple events never made much sense and as Niyonsaba, Mboma, Seyni, and others began excelling, evidence was piling up to show the benefits of elevated testosterone in the sprints and distance events.

Of course, there is a reason why WA’s prior DSD rules only applied to the 400 through mile. Back in 2019, those are the only events in which WA had the data to show a clear advantage for DSD athletes – and without that data, WA’s policy would have been overruled by CAS as common sense doesn’t work as an argument in a court of law. Now WA has four years of data of DSD athletes competing in other events and it must believe it has the data to support its new policy should an athlete(s) challenge it in CAS.

To say that what athletes such as Niyonsaba and Semenya have had to endure – public scrutiny of their private medical details and all of the attention and inappropriate comments that come with it – is unfortunate would be a grand understatement. And it’s admirable that Niyonsaba, after being prevented from running her best event, totally reinvented herself by training as a distance runner with no guarantee of success (Semenya tried the same thing and failed to qualify for the Olympics). But you can have sympathy for DSD athletes while still believing that they should not be allowed to compete in the female category.

“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,” said World Athletics president Seb Coe, speaking on the new DSD and transgender policies. “We will be guided in this by the science around physical performance and male advantage which will inevitably develop over the coming years. As more evidence becomes available, we will review our position, but we believe the integrity of the female category in athletics is paramount.”

Coe and World Athletics got it right. The needs of the thousands of XX women to compete on a level playing field outweigh the needs of a handful of XY women to compete in the female category.

Transgender women who have gone through male puberty are now banned from women’s events

World Athletics also announced that, as of March 31, no male-to-female transgender athlete will be able to compete in the female category in World Rankings competition if they have gone through male puberty. This is a departure from the “preferred option” World Athletics was considering in July 2022, which would have allowed athletes to compete after keeping their testosterone levels below 2.5 nmol/L for 24 months. But WA ultimately opted to follow the lead of World Aquatics (the global governing body for swimming) and proceed with a total ban for anyone MTF trans athlete who had gone through male puberty.

“It became apparent that there was little support within the sport for the option that was first presented to stakeholders,” World Athletics wrote in its press release announcing the new policy.

World Athletics said that because there are currently no transgender athletes in international track & field, there is no data on the advantage those athletes receive.

“In these circumstances, the Council decided to prioritize fairness and the integrity of the female competition before inclusion,” the World Athletics release stated.

However, WA will establish a working group to further study the issue of transgender inclusion over the next 12 months.

Quick Take: Forming a working group is the politically correct thing to do, but it’s unnecessary

While we’re pleased that World Athletics went farther than it looked like they were going to go last summer, this isn’t that complicated. You simply explain to people we have two categories of sport based on sex, not gender, which is a social construct. Did you know scientists can tell what sex someone who has been dead for hundreds of years was by examining the amount of magnesium, sulfur, strontium and zinc in their hair? If World Athletics revises the rules, we hope they simply announce that all athletes will compete in the category based on their sex — not gender.

Russia reinstated (sort of)

The Russian federation had been banned since 2015 for its role in one of the biggest doping scandals in the history of the sport, which involved a widespread scheme to dope athletes and cover up cases by bribing IAAF officials. During that time, Russian athletes had to receive special clearance to compete in international competition, and even then only as “Authorized Neutral Athletes” – meaning they could not compete under the Russian flag.

World Athletics set strict guidelines for Russia to return to the sport, including a total overhaul of Russia’s anti-doping federation, and after more than seven years, WA’s Russia Taskforce, headed by Rune Andersen, finally recommended the Russian federation be reinstated.

However, that doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll be seeing Russian jerseys at World Championships anytime soon. Russian athletes have been excluded from World Athletics Series events since March 2022 as punishment for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and that policy remains in place for the foreseeable future.

“The death and destruction we have seen in Ukraine over the past year, including the deaths of some 185 athletes, have only hardened my resolve on this matter,” Coe said.

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