Fairness over inclusion?: World Athletics Council Implements Controversial Ban on Transgender Women in Women’s Sports

The world of athletics has been rocked by the recent decision of the World Athletics (WA) to ban transgender women from participating in women’s sports. On March 23, 2023, World Athletics Council released its updates on eligibility regulations for transgender and differences-in-sex-development (DSD) athletes which bans male-to-female transgender athletes who have been through male puberty from female World Rankings competition. The ban will take effect on March 31, which, ironically enough, is also the International Transgender Day of Visibility. 

The new regulation also puts stricter restrictions on DSD athletes, requiring them to keep testosterone levels below a limit of 2.5 nmol/L for a minimum of 24 months to compete internationally in the female category in any event. Previously, the requirement was under 5 nmol/L for 12 months and only applied to events ranging from 400 m to one mile. This means DSD athletes such as Caster Semenya will have to undergo hormone-suppressing treatment in order to compete in future events. 

The ban was announced after months of consultation with various stakeholders including coaches, athletes, member federations, representative transgender, and human rights groups. According to WA president Sebastian Coe, the decision is made to maintain the “fairness for women athletes” and “the integrity of the female category in athletics.” Coe also claims that the decision is guided by “the science around physical performance and male advantage which will inevitably develop over the coming years.” Nonetheless, since there are currently no transgender athletes competing in international athletics, World Athletics admits that there is currently “no athletics-specific evidence of the impact [transgender] athletes would have on the fairness of female competition in athletics.” 

World Athletics is not the first sports governing body to impose bans on transgender athletes. In 2022 June, FINA, the world swimming’s governing body, banned transgender women from competing in women’s events. International Rugby League (IRL) also announced last year that male-to-female players will be unable to play in women’s unions and league matches until “a formal transgender inclusion policy” is implemented. Foreseeably, WA’s ban is likely to impact other sports governing bodies and raises a new wave of debates over transgender people’s athletic participation. 

The ban has raised polarized reactions among athletes and society. Supporters of this decision regard it as a protection of female athletes. Emily Diamond, British runner and Olympic medalist, thanked WA for “following the science” and said the ban is “a big step for fairness and protecting the female category.” 

On the other hand, human rights groups and the LGBTQ+ community have criticized the decision. LGBTQ+ human rights organizations Equality Australia and the Trans Justice Project condemned the ban for violating fundamental human rights. Meanwhile, transgender athletes such as Australian runner ​​Ricki Coughlan and Canadian cyclist Kristen Worley have expressed their disappointment towards the decision. Coughlan wrote on her Twitter that the ban “singles out a minority group and ascribes certain characteristics about us which lead to unfairness.” Other criticisms of the ban including its neglect of real threats to women’s sports such as sexual abuse and unequal pay, its detrimental impact on the next generation of transgender youths, and its bowing to political pressure. 

With all the controversies, the decision is not completely settled and still has chances to be changed in the future. The council agreed to establish a Working Group for 12 months to review the decision and evaluate the issue of transgender inclusion. “We are not saying ‘no’ forever,” Coe said. 

Regardless of one’s position on the issue, it is clear that the world of athletics will continue to grapple with questions of gender, identity, and fairness in the years to come. The hope is that, at least, there should be robust evidence that proves transgender athletes do have advantages compared with female athletes before they are banned from athletic participation. 


Elaine Zhang is from Hangzhou, China, studying Public Policy.

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