Opinion: 2024 Olympics, you’re 10, decided now — male or female?

Although we’re still two years away from the 2024 Summer Olympics to be held in Paris, controversies have already started. The headline grabber so far concerns transgender swimmers. The question before the IOC (International Olympic Committee) is whether men who transition to women may compete against other swimmers who were born female.


The answer, as of mid-summer 2022, is “Yes, but….”


A boy’s story


Ten-year-old Billy Jackson is an exceptional swimmer. His affluent parents have had an in-ground swimming pool in their yard since before Billy was born. Because they were concerned about their son’s safety, they hired a swimming instructor when Billy was one year old, and he’s been swimming ever since. They delight in telling their friends, “Billy could swim before he could walk.”


For the past couple of months, the swimming coach at the local high school has had Billy swimming in practice sessions with his team. He believes that Billy’s prowess in the water will motivate his team members to try harder because Billy can already beat all but the best of his swimmers. He’s suggested many times that Billy might someday have the strength and speed to be accepted onto the U.S. Olympic team.


The sum of all fears


If Billy wants to increase his chance at winning gold, he could think about competing at the Olympics as a woman. But in order to do that, he would have to begin the transition now. Sexual transition involves more than physical appearance and function. In human beings, sex is determined by four factors: chromosomes, gonads, hormone status, and primary (and sometimes secondary) sex characteristics.


Billy’s chromosomes cannot be changed. They were determined at the moment of conception. Hormone status is easily changed. Estrogens, like progesterone, and androgens, like testosterone, can be injected. And, the dominant presence of these hormones are factors in the various stages in the development of primary sex characteristics, like genitalia, and secondary sex characteristics, like the prevalence of body hair and the development of distinct sexual features. Gonads are either ovaries or testicles. These can be removed surgically, but they cannot be replaced. So, sex surgery is always the final step in the transition process.


Why does Billy have to worry about such things at the tender age of ten? Because FINA (Fédération Internationale de Natation, known as the International Swimming Federation in the U.S.A.) has determined that “by 14 years or older, the differences between boys and girls is substantial.” The organization cites the male advantages as height, limb length, heart size, and lung size. According to Dr. Sandra Hunter, a member of FINA’s panel of experts, some of these advantages will be retained “even with the suppression or reduction of testosterone that occurs during the transition from male to female.” Therefore, the transition must take place early in life.


Transition process


The FINA policy states that, for transgender women to compete in women’s swimming events, they must “establish to FINA’s comfortable satisfaction that they have not experienced any part of male puberty beyond Tanner Stage 2 or before age 12, whichever is later.”


Boys begin the five Tanner stages of puberty at age 11 or 12. Stage 2 involves genital development, production of pubic and under-arm hair, and physical growth. Although there is variability, boys generally enter Stage 3 by age 12 or 13. This means that gender reassignment must take place somewhere around age 12 in order for a swimmer who was born male to qualify for women’s swimming events.


However, if gender reassignment surgery is to be performed, it must be preceded by a two-year period of hormone therapy and living “full-time” as a member of the target gender. So, in Billy’s case, he would be required to make the decision now to take hormone injections and live as a girl.


A life-long decision


If Billy, or more likely his parents, decides to make the transition, it means that he will be undergoing life-long changes over the next few years. These alterations in his life do not simply involve losing genitalia. Hormone injections will affect the development of the brain. Hundreds of studies since Kinsey’s work in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s have shown that female and male brains function differently.


Self-perception begins in infancy. In forming our self-concept, we internalize how others act toward us. Boy babies, for example, are thrown up in the air and caught; girl babies are cuddled. This process of seeing ourselves through the eyes of others, evaluating ourselves in terms of how others treat us, and forming opinions about ourselves based on those judgments continues throughout life. But the formation of the original or base sense of self is critical in the early years. So, whether Billy actually has the sexual reassignment surgery, he will already have experienced major life changes by his early-teen years. And, that’s a huge decision, one that I believe is monumentally inappropriate to ask of a child.


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Jim Glynn is Professor Emeritus of Sociology. He may be contacted at j_glynn@att.net