The World Athletics president, Sebastian Coe, has hailed swimming’s decision to ban transgender women from elite female competition as in “the best interests of its sport” – and hinted that track and field could soon follow suit.
Lord Coe was in Budapest on Sunday as swimming’s governing body, Fina, voted to bar from women’s events trans athletes who have experienced any part of male puberty. Within 24 hours he announced that the World Athletics council would also be reviewing its transgender and DSD (differences in sex development) athletes policies at the end of the year.
“My responsibility is to protect the integrity of women’s sport. We take that very seriously and, if it means that we have to make adjustments to protocols going forward, we will,” Coe said. “And I’ve always made it clear: if we ever get pushed into a corner to that point where we’re making a judgment about fairness or inclusion, I will always fall down on the side of fairness.”
Under World Athletics rules transgender women can compete in the female category provided they suppress their testosterone to below 5nmol/L for 12 months. That rule was also followed by Fina until Sunday, when it changed its regulations after scientific evidence showed trans women retain an advantage even after reducing testosterone.
When asked what he made of Fina’s new policy, Coe was clear. “We see an international federation asserting its primacy in setting rules, regulations and policies that are in the best interest of its sport,” he said. “This is as it should be. We have always believed, and repeated constantly, that biology trumps gender and we will continue to review our regulations in line with this.”
As things stand there are no elite‑level trans track and field athletes, although CeCé Telfer became the first openly transgender person to win an NCAA title in 2019 in the women’s 400m hurdles.
Any toughening of the rules will also affect DSD athletes such as the double Olympic and three-times world championship 800m gold medallist Caster Semenya, the 200m silver medallist from Tokyo 2020 Christine Mboma and Francine Niyonsaba, who won the women’s 5,000m Diamond League final last year.
DSD athletes – who have male testes but do not produce enough of the hormone Dihydrotestosterone (DHT), critical for the formation of male external genitalia – have proved a hugely controversial area for athletics.
In 2019 World Athletics went to the court of arbitration for sport to stop DSD athletes running internationally at events between 400m and a mile, unless they take medication to reduce their testosterone levels. They can, however, run in other events. Cas ruled that 46 XY DSD athletes “enjoy a significant sporting advantage … over 46 XX athletes without such DSD” due to biology.
There has been a great deal of sympathy for athletes such as Semenya, who have been raised as women from a young age and want to compete as one, and any changes to World Athletics’ DSD policy would reignite the controversy.
When asked whether the governing body would consider adopting a similar policy to Fina, Coe said: “We have always said our regulations in this area are a living document, specific to our sport and we will follow the science.
“We continue to study, research and contribute to the growing body of evidence that testosterone is a key determinator in performance and have scheduled a discussion on our DSD and transgender regulations with our council at the end of the year.”