The International Olympic Committee (IOC) held a meeting in November 2015 to reassess guidelines determining the eligibility of athletes to compete in competitions. The new guidelines were implemented to prevent discrimination against athletes transitioning from one gender to another. When I learned of this recent development, I was surprised given the IOC’s controversial history with discrimination — particularly being accused of concealing Germany’s anti-Semitism in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The IOC has previously required “sex-testing,” a practice that was discontinued in 2000, according to Sheila L. Cavanagh and Heather Sykes’ paper, “Transsexual Bodies at the Olympics: The International Olympic Committee’s Policy on Transsexual Athletes at the 2004 Athens Summer Games.” This is a crucial decision for a community of people who otherwise would face greater opposition when trying to compete in the sports category under the gender with which they identify.

According to the IOC’s assertion in 1933 and 1934 — several years prior to the Berlin Olympics — they reaffirmed the belief that the Olympics avoids discrimination directed toward race or religion. Despite providing a smoke screen for the anti-Semitism in Germany in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the IOC’s statement has largely been maintained over the years. However, while the IOC has made a concerted effort to prevent discrimination against gay athletes, Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia — while not preventing the athletes or spectators from attending the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi — made it clear that those who “violate the country’s new anti-gay law” by having public displays of affection will be fined, arrested and deported, according to ABC News. This shows how archaic the beliefs held in Russia are as late as 2014. It was time for gender identification to be added to the list of non-discriminatory features of a person. There is no reason for anyone to feel like they cannot be themselves in a manner that is respectful and appropriate to the environment that they are in.

According to The Guardian, “athletes who transitioned from male to female or vice versa were required to have reassignment surgery followed by at least two years of hormone therapy in order to be eligible to compete.” These guidelines were approved in 2003 and were upheld over the past decade, and further marginalized these specific athletes. Although it was understandable to be concerned over certain hormonal level changes and how they would affect athletes placed under strenuous activity, competitive fairness and balance was also a consideration. Anatomy does not dictate a person’s gender and the IOC never should have used that as a measurement of physical ability. The recent removal of the surgery requirement was an important step taken by the IOC toward recognition that body parts don’t define athletic ability.

The timing of the change is interesting considering Caitlyn Jenner’s 2015 transition from male to female. Jenner is a retired Olympic gold medal-winning decathlete, which perhaps inspired the IOC’s reevaluation of the past guidelines. Jenner could become the catalyst for more athletes to feel comfortable to be who they truly are and not fear exclusion from an Olympic-level career. A statement from the IOC said, “To require surgical anatomical changes as a precondition to participation is not necessary to preserve fair competition and may be inconsistent with developing legislation and notions of human rights.” As awareness for transgender rights increases and more transgenders are able to vocalize their rights, progressive decisions such as the latest by the IOC are possible because the committee members will be more informed of how to take fair, yet respectful measures to ensure that no one is excluded from competing.

It is unfortunate that the guidelines from 2003 remained in place until late last year. However, sports tend to be last in implementing progressive thinking. It wasn’t until 2013 that Jason Collins became the first openly gay active NBA player. The IOC’s latest decision may influence athletes to exhibit greater acceptance toward transitioning competitors. It could be argued that transgenders were not part of the conversation a decade ago like they are today, but the reality of it is they still could have existed. A lack of constructive conversation about them shows their history of marginalization. While people are becoming more aware of their presence now, it is not that they are suddenly important or deciding to identify as a different gender. Therefore, the IOC — and all of us — should be held accountable even though the topic of discussion is still relatively new. The fault lies with those who did not consider that not all people define themselves by the societal standards assigned at birth and are expected to maintain throughout their lives.

Overall, I do not think that the decision to change the guidelines with the hope of preventing discrimination will have a negative impact on the Games; if anything, the guidelines will create a more inclusive environment. We live in a time when many young people support changes in values that will prevent further discrimination and express their beliefs on social media and in demonstrations — commonly on school campuses. Therefore, when we raise our voices for social justice issues, we should also acknowledge the positive changes that are happening, for even if they do not directly affect us, the decision will affect future generations of Olympians and the way that the public perceives them.

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-- Online Editor-in-Chief Emeritus-- Digital Journalism

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