World Rowing adopts tighter rules for transgender women athletes

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Lausanne, Switzerland, 15 March 2023

Recently, World Rowing reviewed the regulations for participation of women athletes in international competitions. The review was based on current scientific evidence highlighting the significant performance differences between males and females in Rowing, with the core objective of guaranteeing fair competition and participation for women in sport.

The matter presented is not solely a scientific question but involves ethical, social, cultural and legal aspects. Members of the rowing community hold views as a matter of sincerely held principle at both ends of the spectrum, from those who believe that competitive classification should be determined solely by the gender identity as expressed by the athlete, to those who believe that classification should be based solely on biological sex as determined at birth.

Our precept regarding transgender athletes requires reconciliation of principles of inclusion and non-discrimination on the one hand, and also fairness to all competitors and the protection of women’s sports on the other. These principles sometimes are in tension, and some will say, are in irreconcilable conflict.

The World Rowing Statutes and Rules of Racing may only be altered by the Quadrennial Congress, following the staging of the Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games. Rule 13, related to Men’s and Women’s Events, was adopted at the World Rowing Extraordinary Congress in Tokyo, Japan, 10-11 February 2017 and the next opportunity to modify it will be the Quadrennial Congress following Paris 2024.

However, changes to the Bye-Laws are discussed and approved by the World Rowing Council every year. In a spirit of continuous improvement, discussions about this matter have been ongoing ever since this rule was enacted and the Bye-Laws to Rule 13 have been consistently reviewed in light of current scientific evidence and considering the significant performance differences between males and females in Rowing.

The changes to the Bye-Law adopted in 2023 were developed and recommended after extensive discussions and reviews by members of the World Rowing Rules Working Group, Sport Medicine Commission and Gender Advisory Panel.

The responsibility for the appropriate gender declaration when entering a World Rowing event lies with the athlete and the National Federation. World Rowing´s Executive Committee has the authority to make decisions on entries when a question of eligibility arises. In making its decision, the Executive Committee may rely on the evaluation of an independent body named the Gender Advisory Panel. This panel reviews each case and provides a recommendation on eligibility the individual athlete to the World Rowing Executive Committee. This pathway allows the utmost privacy for the athletes in what is a very sensitive and personal matter.

The principle of eligibility of transgender athletes (in particular transgender women athletes, ie those who have made a transition from male to female) is based on the reversibility, under low blood testosterone (the level commonly observed in cisgendered women athletes), of the physiological abilities that determine sports performance, and on the time needed to achieve this reversibility.

The previous standards for competition at a World Rowing regatta or a qualification regatta for the Olympic, Paralympic, or Youth Olympic Games required that:

  • rowers compete in the gender category consistent with the gender on their passport or national identity card; and
  • rowers competing in the women’s category maintain a continuous serum testosterone level of 5 nmol/L or less for at least 12 consecutive months prior to the relevant competition.

The World Rowing Council decided to update the existing Bye-Law to Rule 13:

  • A rower who was identified as and assigned woman and/or female at the time of the rower’s birth and did not transition to any other gender than woman by the time that the rower reached puberty shall, unless the Executive Committee determines otherwise, be eligible to compete as a woman. All other rowers can row in the men’s events.
  • One criterium in case of a gender transition is that the rower’s serum testosterone concentration has been less than 2.5 nmol/L continuously for a period of at least the previous 24 months.

This revision of World Rowing’s eligibility rules is based on the state of scientific knowledge published to date in this area and is intended to promote the integration of transgender athletes into competitive sport, while maintaining fairness, equal opportunities and the safety of competitions for all.

The rule may continue to evolve in the future, as education and discussions with a wide range of stakeholders is ongoing, and scientific knowledge continues to evolve.

The World Rowing Council will start a consultation process regarding the full rule change in anticipation of the organisation’s next Quadrennial Congress. The process will involve World Rowing’s specialist commissions, panels and member federations, athletes, and all other relevant stakeholders.

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