New York, NY.

Since 2018, Shift has been advising the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on a range of topics related to the organization’s responsibility to respect human rights. Today, the IOC released its new Framework on Fairness, Inclusion and Non-Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity and Sex Variations, which is the result of an extensive research, consultation and design process carried out by the IOC over the last three years involving inputs from many stakeholders, as described here. Importantly, this included consultation with transgender and intersex athletes whose experiences and insights were essential in informing the IOC’s approach. Shift has provided expert advice to the IOC throughout each step of this process.

The Framework provides guidance to sports bodies within the Olympic Movement on how to draft and implement eligibility criteria for men’s and women’s categories in competitive sport. Historically, the creation of gender categories has played an essential role in helping to break down the structural barriers that excluded and unfairly discriminated against women and prevented their equal participation in sport. At the same time, the design and implementation of eligibility criteria for these categories has led in some instances to significant human rights harms to individual women, in particular transgender women and women with sex variations.

The Framework seeks to safeguard the rights of all athletes, in particular, the rights of transgender athletes and women athletes with sex variations who have historically faced hostile sporting environments, including discrimination and abuse, and in some cases have experienced irreversible impacts on their health, privacy, safety and livelihoods.

Shift welcomes the progress made by the IOC through this Framework in:

  • Recognizing that eligibility criteria for sex-segregated sports may lead to harm to some athletes and calling on sports bodies to conduct due diligence to identify and prevent negative impacts on all athletes’ health and well-being.
  • Acknowledging and respecting the concept of gender autonomy in line with evolving international human rights standards, which recognizes that individuals should be able to define their own gender identity.
  • Seeking to prevent discriminatory assumptions (for example, based on an individual’s physical appearance) in the development and implementation of eligibility criteria, which have disproportionately affected transgender women and women of color from the Global South.
  • Confirming the rejection of invasive physical examinations and other scientifically unfounded “sex-testing” methods as ways to determine eligibility, which have in the past led to grave forms of abuse.
  • Aiming to prevent eligibility criteria from infringing on the right to bodily autonomy, including ensuring that such criteria do not directly or indirectly pressure athletes to undergo medically unnecessary treatment or procedures of any kind.
  • Strengthening the role of informed consent as a prerequisite for the collection and use of personally identifiable information, in order to protect the privacy and safety of all athletes.
  • Ensuring that eligibility criteria set by sports governing bodies are informed by the perspectives and lived experiences of affected stakeholders, as the development of the Framework was.

The success of this new Framework in ensuring respect for the rights of transgender and intersex athletes will depend heavily on how it is implemented by sports governing bodies. The IOC will need to play an active and ongoing role in this regard. Moreover, adoption of a forward-looking Framework does not, on its own, address harms that have occurred in the past, which sports bodies will also need to consider. 

While this Framework marks an important change in the Olympic Movement’s approach to the issue of eligibility, it continues to be founded on a binary notion of gender; further work will be needed on the inclusion of athletes who are non-binary or have gender non-conforming identities.

Finally, the adoption of eligibility criteria that take greater account of human rights standards is only one element in meeting the broader responsibility of sports bodies to prevent and address all forms of abuse and harassment towards athletes and others participating in sport, particularly towards those who may be most vulnerable or marginalized.

“The rules set by sports bodies, and particularly by the IOC as the global steward of the Olympic Movement, can have an immense impact on the lives of athletes and also on the perceptions of everyone who follows competitive sport. When a sports body adopts rules that are grounded in inclusion and the prevention of harm, it is not only recognizing its human rights responsibilities; it is also sending a powerful social message about respecting the dignity of all athletes.”

Rachel Davis Shift Vice President and Co-Founder

“This is an unprecedented step in the world of sports. The IOC’s new Framework helps break the myth that fairness and inclusion are mutually exclusive; that eligibility has to be a zero-sum game between including trans athletes and protecting the female category. Rather, it is sending a strong message to the world of sports that eligibility rules cannot rely on placing unfair burdens on transgender and intersex athletes, which often lead to grave impacts on their health, careers and livelihoods.”

Daniel Berezowsky Shift Advisor who led Shift’s support to the IOC’s consultation and design process

For media inquiries regarding this statement, please contact communications [at] shiftproject [dot] org.

Photo courtesy of the IOC.