The UCI recently announced its first major revision to transgender competition participation rules since 2020. The policies went into effect today, July 1st 2022, increasing the amount of time required to transition and lowering the maximum plasma testosterone level permitted for transgender female athletes.
In a June 16th press release
reporting from the UCI's regular meeting session with its management committee in Arzon, France, the UCI wrote that it had decided to change its rules following new research in 2020 and 2021. Now, athletes who have transitioned from male to female will be required to prove that their blood testosterone has been below the permitted level for 24 months - doubled from 12 - before competing in the women's category. The release cites findings that while markers of endurance ability lower to "female level" after six to eight months, the decreases in muscle mass, strength, and power take longer.
The UCI will also be halving the maximum permitted plasma testosterone for transgender female athletes in competition, lowering the limit from 5 nmol/L to 2.5 nmol/L. In early 2020, the UCI lowered the limit from 10 nmol/L and introduced the 12-month transition period. In addition to meeting these new requirements, athletes will have their requests to participate in the women's category assessed and decided by a panel of international experts independent of the UCI and must regularly undergo serum testosterone tests for their entire time in women's competition.
The UCI Press Release Section Relating to Transgender Athletes:
In March 2020, the UCI published rules governing the participation of transgender athletes in events on the UCI International Calendar in the category corresponding to their new gender identity. Although these rules are stricter and more restrictive than those published by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 2015, the UCI has begun consideration on their adjustment following the publication of new scientific studies in 2020 and 2021. The principle of eligibility of transgender athletes (in particular female athletes, ie those who have made a transition from male to female) is based on the reversibility under low blood testosterone (the level commonly observed in “born female” athletes) of the physiological abilities that determine sports performance, and on the time needed to achieve this reversibility.
The latest scientific publications clearly demonstrate that the return of markers of endurance capacity to “female level” occurs within six to eight months under low blood testosterone, while the awaited adaptations in muscle mass and muscle strength/power take much longer (two years minimum according to a recent study). Given the important role played by muscle strength and power in cycling performance, the UCI has decided to increase the transition period on low testosterone from 12 to 24 months. In addition, the UCI has decided to lower the maximum permitted plasma testosterone level (currently 5 nmol/L) to 2.5 nmol/L. This value corresponds to the maximum testosterone level found in 99.99% of the female population.
This adjustment of the UCI’s eligibility rules is based on the state of scientific knowledge published to date in this area and is intended to promote the integration of transgender athletes into competitive sport, while maintaining fairness, equal opportunities and the safety of competitions. The new rules will come into force on 1st July. They may change in the future as scientific knowledge evolves.
Moreover, the UCI envisages discussions with other International Federations about the possibility of supporting a research programme whose objective would be to study the evolution of the physical performance of highly trained athletes under transitional hormone treatment.
On fairness & balance
Previously, some cisgender - i.e. not transgender - female athletes have raised concerns about the testosterone levels of their transgender competitors. Conversely, some advocates believe that a testosterone-centric approach is too simplistic, that testosterone alone isn't a clear determinant of athletic performance, and that unnecessarily invasive testing and policing could have unintended consequences for access to the sport, especially at grassroots levels.
Several professional mountain bikers we spoke to say the UCI has struck an appropriate balance here. Professional downhill racer Kate Weatherly, who is transgender, told us she feels the new rules are fair, as they allow room for trans women to participate while setting reasonable physiological limits as we learn more about any advantages trans women may have compared to the rest of the women's field.What does the research say right now?
As trans athletes remain relatively unstudied, most sports have relied on plasma testosterone levels to determine which athletes are allowed to compete with cisgender women. As part of the medical transition process, trans women take medications that suppress testosterone, typically leading to testosterone levels well below the average for cisgender women. What follows is a decrease in strength, mass, bone density, and recovery. Studies have yielded mixed results on just how much performance dips, and it seems to vary across sports - transgender runners
appear to maintain little to no advantage, while athletes in strength-based sports may maintain some strength- and mass-based benefits.
Estimates vary when it comes to the athletic performance difference, on average, between men and women. At the Fort William World Cup DH race this year, the top five women's times averaged 16% slower
than those of the top five men, with the gap decreasing toward the top riders. Nina Hoffmann's winning time was 13% behind Amaury Pierron's. However, the role of testosterone appears to only account for a small part of the athletic difference between men and women. Other factors include physical size and shape as well as socialization - factors that differ on average between men and women, but include significant overlap between the sexes. The topic is further complicated, too, by the fact that sex isn't as easily defined in the binary, genetically, as it's easy to believe: a commonly estimated 1.7%
(though other estimates range from 0.018%-4%
) of people are born outside of the common "XX = female and XY = male" configuration: XXX, XYY, XX but showing a typical male phenotype, XY but showing a typical female phenotype, and other possibilities. The binary paradigm accurately describes most - but not all - assignment of birth sex, and it's around the edges that that simplification becomes problematic.
It appears, too, that women with genetic variations from the average sometimes have athletic advantages: The prevalence of 46 XY - a typical male chromosomal arrangement displaying typically female physical characteristics - among female athletes is about 7 per 1000 adults
, which is 140 times what is seen in the general population. Much like genetic variations from the average in height, strength, mass, and other physical factors - not to mention variations in socioeconomic factors that generate advantage - biological variation affects athletic performance, too, on a very broad spectrum. It's an understatement to say that the issue is complex, and with that much gray area, the black-and-white line becomes a bit arbitrary. That line, restricting those outside of the most common 46 XX female chromosomal genotype and testosterone limit, has affected not only transgender athletes, but athletes born and raised female, who happen to fall outside of the norms, like Olympic track runner Caster Semaya
, who has effectively been banned from racing unless she decides to medically lower her testosterone.
Chromosomal definitions aside, scientists are also divided on whether having experienced male puberty affects post-transition athletic performance for transgender women. In 2019, the International Olympic Committee met to try to create new guidelines for the inclusion of transgender athletes at the 2020 Olympic Games, but ended up leaving its previous guidelines in place until late 2021. The IOC had long limited athletes' testosterone levels to 10 nmol/L and had proposed halving that figure, for a similar policy to the UCI's former one. However, some members of the discussion honed in on transgender women being, on average, bigger and stronger than cisgender women, and argued that even with suppressed testosterone, trans women would still have an advantage. The discussion was abandoned because there was no consensus.
by Xavier Bigard cited by the UCI in its recent update, titled "The current knowledge on the effects of gender-affirming treatment on markers of performance in transgender female cyclists," concludes that 12 months of testosterone suppression is not long enough to erase the physical strength advantages, thus the change to a 24-month transition period. Above all, the paper emphasizes the need for more research. Bigard is a previous scientific advisor of the French anti-doping agency and former president of the French Society for Sports and Exercise Medicine (SFMES) and is currently the medical director of the UCI.The broader context of trans athletes in women's sports
The new UCI rules come at a time when multiple sports governing bodies are reassessing their guidelines for transgender athlete participation. The world swimming governing body, FINA, recently approved new regulations that effectively ban any transgender women who have gone through any stage of male puberty from participating in elite women's swimming competitions, currently the strictest policy from any Olympic sports body.
FINA also plans to introduce an 'open' category, in which trans and nonbinary athletes can compete regardless of assigned birth sex, testosterone level, or puberty history. A similar category has been suggested for bike racing, but the extremely small number of transgender women racing mountain bikes means that such a category would take away a competitive element that, for most athletes, is at the heart of racing. Some advocates also say that such a category would also continue to 'other' trans people, who already face numerous social and emotional barriers to acceptance within their communities.
Following FINA's decision, world soccer federation FIFA announced that it, too, is reassessing its rules for transgender athlete participation, but has declined to reveal the specifics.
The IOC, for its part, has moved in the opposite direction. Rather than restricting athletes' testosterone levels, as was the policy from 2015 until late 2021, the IOC has shifted the decision-making to sports' individual global governing bodies, meaning that the regulations are likely to vary significantly across sports. The organization did, however, add an emphasis on inclusion over exclusion: "Until evidence determines otherwise, athletes should not be deemed to have an unfair or disproportionate competitive advantage due to their sex variations, physical appearance and/or transgender status." Still, revision to FINA's, FIFA's, and the UCI's regulations may signal turning points for more governing bodies, and the ripple effect will likely affect not only elite sports but national, local, and scholastic leagues, too.
The United States has reckoned with gender inclusion in sports for decades, but tensions have bubbled over in the last two years, during which nine states have enacted rules
that bar transgender girls and women from competing in women's sports at public schools. Some advocates have expressed worry that FINA's new regulations will set a precedent to make other such bans more likely in the future.
This discussion is complex, and there are no easy answers - for anyone. Physiological and biological factors are just some of many factors that affect athletic performance, especially alongside similarly impactful sociological factors. Enduro racer and freerider Blake Hansen, who is transgender, supports the UCI's new legislation as "balanced and science-based" while also prompting us to look beyond the racing itself: "We should be talking more about the real world implications of inclusion vs exclusion when we talk about transgender people." Alongside the scientific discussions, "can you imagine what that must make a child feel like who can't participate on their swim team anymore? Not to mention everything else they're already up against. We should all be doing everything we can to change that."
Regardless of how we make sense of the many competing elements at play, one thing is clear: as Bigard suggested, we need more research. Given the very small number of transgender elite athletes, study is slow, but the more we learn the more we can understand how to move forward in a way that is as inclusive and fair as possible. In the meantime, let's remember that we're all trying to uphold the pursuit of excellence, challenge, and camaraderie that's at the heart of competitive sports.