Olympics have long included gender-diverse athletes

  • by Lu Calzada
  • Wednesday July 10, 2024
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Polish track runner Stanis?awa Walasiewicz, also known as Stella Walsh, was one of the first intersex Olympians. Photo: Public domain
Polish track runner Stanis?awa Walasiewicz, also known as Stella Walsh, was one of the first intersex Olympians. Photo: Public domain

Although trans and gender-diverse folks' participation in college and professional sports has been a common political talking point recently, it's not necessarily a new controversy. With the Summer Olympics just around the corner, let's look back at the history of queer folks in the games.

It's been a long journey for trans and gender-diverse Olympians, with the first intersex athlete competing nearly 90 years ago in 1936. However, the International Olympic Committee didn't officially allow transgender folks to participate until 2004.

It's estimated that around 16 intersex athletes have competed in the modern Olympics, but with strict cultural views on the gender binary, there's a chance others may have slipped through the historical cracks. The first one on record, Polish track runner Stanisława Walasiewicz, also known as Stella Walsh, won gold in 1932 and silver in 1936. Walsh's intersex identity wasn't publicly discovered until an autopsy many years later.

Heinrich Ratjen, a German Olympian who competed in women's high jump, was also at the 1936 Olympics - though Ratjen's later story is a bit darker. In 1938, Ratjen was forcibly examined by the SS and forced to stop competing in sports and assume a male identity.

There were no gender regulations for the Olympics in the 1930s, with physical gender examinations being mandated beginning in 1960. In 1967, the IOC introduced chromatin testing for female athletes for gender verification.

The first openly intersex Olympic athlete was Edinaci Silva, who competed for Brazil in judo in 1996, 2000, 2004, and 2008. Most sports had stopped enforcing overarching gender exams by then, but judo was not one of them. However, Silva had undergone surgery prior to Olympic appearances, which allowed her participation in women's sports.

The first official guidelines by the IOC for transgender people was established in 2003, going into effect at the 2004 Athens Games.

The regulations stated those who went through gender reassignment surgery prior to puberty were free to compete as their gender with no restrictions, but those who surgically transitioned after would be under stricter guidelines - full gender reassignment surgery, legal sex change and a "sufficient length" of hormone replacement therapy. It recommended eligibility for the latter group to begin "no sooner than two years after gonadectomy."

This initial policy was updated again in 2015 to remove the gender reassignment surgery requirement, and to allow trans male athletes to compete in the male category with no barriers. Trans female athletes, however, were required to declare their female gender - and could not change it for four years - and keep testosterone levels to a specific regulation for at least 12 months prior to competition. Despite these policies existing for nearly 20 years, the first openly transgender athletes competed at the 2020 Tokyo Games, which were held in 2021 due to the COVID pandemic.

Quinn, who uses one name, is a nonbinary midfielder for Canada's women's soccer team. They became the first openly transgender person to compete and the first to win a medal - gold - in the Olympics at the 2020 Tokyo Games. For team U.S.A., Alana Smith became the first openly nonbinary athlete to represent America when they competed in women's street skateboarding. American triathlon and duathlon athlete Chris Mosier also became the first trans man to compete alongside other men in an Olympic trial, but was unable to finish due to injury.

One of the biggest names at the 2020 Tokyo Games was Laurel Hubbard, a New Zealand weightlifter and the first trans woman Olympian. Although she couldn't complete her first three lifts on the Monday of competition, therefore putting her out of contention for medals, she is still a pioneer for trans Olympians.

Hubbard had faced backlash for her spot on the team, but was met by support from fellow competitors and folks all over the world for her role as a trans athlete on the world's biggest stage.

Heading into Paris 2024, trans athletes are facing more regulations than in 2021. Heading into Paris 2024, trans athletes are facing more regulations than 2021. The IOC now allows each individual sports' governing body to set its own regulations, which has led to some sports being harsher on trans folks than others. Under these regulations, athletes such as American trans swimmer Lia Thomas are being pushed out - the Court of Arbitration in Sport said trans women who've fully gone through male puberty cannot compete in women's swimming.

With rising anti-trans sentiment against trans athletes, the 2024 Summer Olympics and its new guidelines are shaping up to be a more difficult battle for trans competitors than Tokyo. The games are set to kick off July 26 in Paris, with soccer and rugby sevens (seven players) as the first competitions.

Lu Calzada is a Chicago-based freelance journalist covering LGBTQ issues and culture around the city. As a former Division 1 sports editor at Loyola Chicago, they especially enjoy reporting on the intersection between athletics and marginalized identities.

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