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This week, British Triathlon became the latest sports governing body to announce new rules restricting the participation of transgender athletes. British Triathlon’s policy, which effectively bans trans women and nonbinary athletes from competing as women, comes on the heels of a similar policy announced by FINA, the world governing body for swimming, and one from UCI, the cycling governing body.
World Triathlon officials confirmed they are also in the process of crafting their own new policy and will present it to the executive board on Aug. 3.
“Once approved, it will be implemented at the international level (World Triathlon) and also distributed to all national federations for their implementation at a local level when they don’t have their own rules,” said Olalla Cernuda, spokesperson for World Triathlon.
USA Triathlon, however, said they won’t be changing anything. USAT will be sticking with their existing rules for now, which are considered more welcoming for trans athletes because they allow recreational age-group athletes to compete in the category of their gender identification.
Per USAT rules, elite athletes, NCAA athletes, and athletes attempting to qualify for and compete in World Triathlon races (such as the Age Group World Championships) must adhere to stricter international rules regulating testosterone limits and gender identity in order to ensure “competitive fairness,” but a USAT spokesperson said that for domestic age-group races “athletes may participate in these events in a manner consistent with their gender identity and expression, regardless of the gender assigned at birth.” And that won’t change regardless of the new World Triathlon rules.
Until now, most triathlon governing bodies followed some version of the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) rules. Since 2015, those rules required athletes who wanted to compete in the women’s category to have testosterone levels below certain limits for at least one year. This allowed the first openly trans woman to compete at the Tokyo Olympics, but it also came under scrutiny when some cisgender women had naturally occurring testosterone levels above those limits. The research that set the specific 10 nanomoles/liter level itself has also come under criticism for how it was chosen and whether testosterone is the appropriate determinant of sex categories. Many sports governing bodies, though, had already followed with some version of these rules, requiring a certain period of time on hormone replacement therapy for a trans woman to be allowed to compete in the women’s category and, in some cases, requiring female-identifying athletes to be living and competing as that gender for a certain amount of time.
Then, this past spring, the IOC announced a new framework that did away with testosterone limits and put the onus on individual sports to come up with their own rules (with the urging that those individual sports could not start from the assumption that trans athletes inherently have an advantage).
And that’s why we’re now seeing a spate of new rules spring up with highly differing approaches. World Triathlon, for instance, said Cernuda, did not have its own separate rules previously—but they will have those rules once they go all the way through the current process of review from the medical committee, the women’s committee, and the equality, diversity, and inclusion committee.
What are the new rules for transgender athletes?
While most of these rules are aimed at elite and college athletes, they also trickle down to regulate amateur, recreational, and youth sports. The British Tri policy announced this week, for instance, will apply to all British triathletes over the age of 12 and to all triathlon races in the U.K. that have timing and results (defined as “competitive” races).
The new British Tri policy, which goes into effect Jan. 1, 2023, is far more restrictive than previous policies in triathlon. It will create two categories for all triathletes over 12 years old: the female category (“for those who are the female sex at birth”) and an open category (which will apply to all other athletes—male athletes, trans women and men, and nonbinary athletes “who were male sex at birth,” according to the policy). Those in the open category are also eligible for a male pro license.
This initially created some confusion regarding trans men—i.e., athletes who were assigned female at birth and later transitioned. However, British Tri has clarified that both trans women and trans men will compete in the open category, but trans men who have undergone hormone treatment would need to submit a therapeutic use exemption for their testosterone therapy. (It’s not clear what this means for trans men who were assigned female at birth but have not medically transitioned.)
FINA’s policy created a similar two category system for swimming, but applied the open category only to those athletes who transitioned after the age of 12—and would potentially then have gone through puberty as a teenage boy. British Tri makes no such distinction and creates no pathway (through medical transition, hormone replacement therapy, or gender reassignment surgery) for a trans woman to compete as a woman.
The new UCI policy, by comparison, simply extends the amount of time an athlete is required to be on hormone replacement therapy.
World Triathlon has not hinted at what its new rules will ultimately be. “We really hope that the new guidelines will provide a fair and inclusive competition for all athletes, including transgender, cisgender, and non-binary athletes,” Cernuda said.
It is also not clear, yet, how these policies will be enforced at the amateur level, given that the vast majority of mass participation events rely on self-registration—i.e., athletes enter their own date of birth, sex, race category, and address, which is then confirmed at check-in with an ID. In both the U.K. and in the U.S., there are also rules around the release of private medical records.
The British Tri policy hints at this challenge, noting that they’ll work with other sports to “establish a system that enables the regulation of the policy whilst respecting the privacy of individuals concerned. If this isn’t possible, we will establish our own system of implementation.”
In many ways, this is one of the reasons why USAT’s policy treats age-group athletes differently than elite athletes. “The goal of USA Triathlon’s gender inclusion policy is to ensure equal opportunities for all age-group athletes and the ability for them to participate without discrimination,” wrote spokesperson Stephen Meyers.