how gender is shaping the 2016 olympic games

Gender has been the subject on everybody’s lips this year. Here are five ways the conversation is changing the Rio 2016 Olympics — from Lea T’s history-making opening ceremony appearance to the phasing out of the controversial gender-testing practice.

by Hannah Ongley
Aug 8 2016, 7:14pm


When the Ancient Olympics took place in Greece from 776 BC through 393 AD, not only were women barred from competing, but unmarried women weren't even allowed to watch the games. When the modern incarnation of the Olympics arrived in 1896, after a 1503-year hiatus, entry was still only open to men. This restriction was eventually lifted in 1900, when a whopping 22 women contributed to the total 997 athletes competing.

In 2016, female athletes are still unfairly ridiculed and policed for having traditionally "masculine" physical qualities — so it's little wonder that the addition of transgender and non-binary athletes to the roster has had the International Olympic Committee's knickers in a twist. But as the Rio games have proven, we are making progress. At least "hermaphrodite" is no longer the term of choice for female-identifying intersex athletes, and thanks to revolutionary runway model Lea T, transgender people are even carving out space for themselves at the lighting ceremony. Here are five ways in which the gender conversation is shaping the 2016 games. 

Lea T makes history as the first transgender woman to participate in an Olympics inauguration ceremony.
Trailblazing transgender model and Givenchy muse Lea T recently hit a homerun for diversity as the first trans woman to front a global beauty campaign. Now she's added another feather to her cap as the first trans woman to play a role in an Olympic ceremony, leading Team Brazil at Friday night's festivities. "We are all human beings and we are part of society. My role at the ceremony will help send this message," Lea told the BBC. "At this time, in which Rio de Janeiro and Brazil will be presented to the world, it's essential that diversity is present. Brazil is a vast country and all its diversity should be somehow represented in this event." Lea's inclusion is extra significant given that Brazil has one of the highest rates of transgender murders in the world.

The new transgender guidelines.
In 2015, the International Olympic Committee released new guidelines that relaxed previous restrictions governing pre-surgery trans athletes. The updated recommendations finally allow trans performers to compete in the games without having had reassignment surgery, opening the door for a greater number of trans and intersex athletes than ever before. However, the new guidelines have also copped the IOC some criticism for mandating that only male-to-female athletes need to be tested for testosterone levels while female-to-male athletes don't. The previous 2003 guidelines mandated that trans performers complete gender reassignment surgery before undergoing two years of hormone therapy in order to be eligible for the games.

Related: Will 2016 be the year of trans Olympians?

More women are competing in 2016 than in any other Olympics.
Marking a vast improvement on the glaring gender divide at the 1900 games — in which just 2.2% of performers were female — the 2016 games will host 4,700 women competitors out of a total 10,444, or 45%. Reasons for this include the record-setting number of women's sports being included in this year's games — including the reintroduction of golf, one of the first sports in which women competed in the 1900 games. However, as Vox notes, this history-making percentage isn't reflected behind the scenes. As of May 2014, only 24 of a total 106 IOC members are female.

The phasing out of compulsory gender-testing.
South African middle-distance runner Caster Semenya has become one of the most controversial figures in the 2016 games. Even following the suspension of the International Association of Athletics Federation's rules limiting the amount of naturally occurring testosterone allowed for female athletes, the judgment cast upon her body has perhaps only intensified. Semenya identifies as female, not intersex, though she is commonly labeled intersex, trans, or hyperandrogenous, meaning her body produces higher levels of testosterone. In 2009, the then-teenager was subjected to a long and humiliating gender-determination test after winning the 800-meter gold. Despite clearing the test, her body is still used as grounds for debate about who qualifies as a woman at the Olympics. Nor is hers the only case in recent history — in 2014, female sprinter Dutee Chand appealed the ban she was slapped with after the Indian affiliate of the IAAF said her male hormone levels were too high. Chand's own mortifying exam included a chromosome analysis, an MRI, and a gynecological exam that involved measuring the clitoris, vagina, and labia, as well as evaluating breast size and pubic hair on an illustrated five-grade scale. Luckily the 2016 Olympics have so far not subjected any women to similar tests.

Chris Mosier becomes the first trans Team USA athlete.
Chris Mosier started his athletic career as a woman before starting his transition in 2010. This year, the duathlete and LGBT rights activist became the first known transgender athlete to qualify for Team USA. "There have been very few moments when I have been speechless, but when I got my Team USA kit in the mail and opened it up, that was definitely a moment where I had no words," Mosier recently wrote in an opinion piece for ESPN magazine's Body Issue. "And I think that feeling, of being able to represent the country as an athlete and as a person with a trans identity, is really important for me. It feels like a really big moment for me in my athletic career, and I know it's a big moment for trans inclusion in athletics."


Text Hannah Ongley
Images via Instagram