“It’s about time,” Michelle Dumaresq says of the Olympic committee’srecent decision to allow transsexual athletes to compete in theirself-identified gender.

Dumaresq, 33, broke new ground for transsexual athletes in 2001 byasserting her right to race as a woman. Now the post-operativemale-to-female transsexual from Vancouver is the Canadian national mountain biking champion in the women’s downhill discipline.

While the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) new rules won’t applyto her — since downhill mountain biking is not yet an Olympic sport — Dumaresq says she’s pleased that trans athletes hoping to participate inthe Games will no longer face the barriers that have dogged her.

Until recently, transsexual athletes were barred from competing in theOlympics. Then in May, the IOC’s executive board approved a policyestablishing the conditions under which athletes who have changed sexcould participate in the games. The new rules kick in this Friday in Athens.“I think this clearly shows that we will always address issues on humanrights. That’s something that we find very important,” says CharmaineCrooks, an Olympic silver medallist and Canadian IOC member living inVancouver. “It also shows that when there is an issue, we will study itand if it fits with our fundamental values and philosophies, then wewill act on it and act quickly, but also act in the best interest of allathletes.”

Gwen Smith, a board member of the U.S.-based Gender Education and Advocacy group, calls the IOC decision a “very small” step forward for trans rights.

“At the very least, it further shows that transgender people are humanbeings. We deserve to compete,” says the San Francisco activist. “Itcertainly moves things forward in this venue, and it also further willhelp show that we’re here and we’re able.

“I don’t think you’re going to see any great change in the amount ofOlympic athletes that are transgendered — not in the short term,” Smithcontinues. “That said, I think you’re going to see more athletes overallwho are already transgendered, who will feel that they have an actualopportunity to compete.”

Smith is hoping that other sports bodies will follow the IOC’s lead —though she also hopes the IOC will relax its conditions for transsexualathletes in the future.

According to the IOC’s new policy, transsexual athletes must haveundergone sexual reassignment surgery to be eligible to compete in theirgender. If the operation took place before puberty, the athlete’s genderwill be respected.

In the case of a post-puberty gender transition, athletes mustundergo complete genital surgery and get their gonads (their ovaries ortestes) removed before they can compete. They also have to get legalrecognition of their chosen gender and complete hormone therapy tominimize any sex-related advantages, the policy says.

Post-pubescent transitioners will then have to wait two years beforethey can become eligible to apply for a confidential IOC evaluation.

Dumaresq says the IOC’s policy — including its two-year wait — isappropriate. “I believe that there should be a waiting period toeliminate the physical advantages,” she says. “I know personally howlong my body took to change, and two years is plenty.”

Some observers have expressed concern that transsexual athletes may, inspite of the rules, possess an unfair advantage over their peers. Onenews report quoted an Ottawa doctor’s claims that male-to-femaletranssexuals will have the advantage of size and strength, whilefemale-to-male transsexuals could have an edge where endurance isconcerned. The report raised the spectre of Olympic-obsessed athleteschanging sex to gain the upper hand.

Dumaresq disputes such claims. The mountain biker is adamant she doesn’thave any unfair advantage over her peers.

“I have lost the ability to build muscle and have lost the muscle massthat I once had— gone,” she says.

“I work out constantly just to try and maintain a strong physicalfitness level,” she explains. “Many have said, ‘What if a pro athletechanges sex?’ Well, if a pro athlete wants to go through what I’ve gonethrough, and then start racing again to try and win, let them try. SRS[sex reassignment surgery] is irreversible, and without testosterone,muscle will decrease.”

The Stockholm consensus, as the IOC’s new trans policy is known, wasformulated by a committee of experts convened by the IOC’s medicalcommission to make recommendations on the participation of athletes whohave undergone sexual reassignment in sport.

Some of those experts had already helped abolish the IOC’s old, highlycontroversial gender verification procedures.“In a sense, this [new policy] was a continuation of that effort,” sayscommittee member Myron Genel, who is also a professor at YaleUniversity’s school of medicine.

Gender verification testing of female athletes at the Olympics began in1968 at Mexico City. The process — initially a gynecological exam,later a chromosomal test — was invasive and unreliable. In 2000, theIOC scrapped gender testing in time for the Sydney Olympics.

“A lot of us would feel that the IOC was much too slow in eliminatinggender verification,” Genel says now. “[But] I think they certainly havetaken the lead in terms of how to deal with transgendered athletes.”

Like Dumaresq, the professor says he’s confident that making transathletes wait two years after their gonadectomies will be more thanenough time to mitigate any physical advantages they might have due tomuscle strength.

“Now, there obviously would be skeletal changes that are not reversible,in terms of size and wingspan, for example,” Genel says. “But if you’regoing discriminate against transgendered athletes on the basis of theirheight or their wingspan, then we ought to set clear limits for womenwho compete, since there are six-foot-six women who compete in sportssuch as basketball and volleyball.”

The plight of transsexual athletes shows it may make more sense to groupcompetitors by their physical attributes, such as height and weight,rather than their gender, points out local trans activist Tami Starlight.

Meanwhile, Dumaresq continues to make history in her discipline.

Cycling’s governing bodies suspended the mountain biker in 2001 aftersome of her fellow racers filed complaints against her. The decision onDumaresq’s status eventually came down to her birth certificate, whichshe had changed to identify herself as female. The Canadian CyclingAssociation decided that since Dumaresq is legally recognized as female,she should have the right to compete in women’s sports.

In 2002, Dumaresq was granted a full licence to compete as a promountain biker. She went on to win the Canada Cup series, become thefirst known transsexual athlete to earn a spot on a national team, andplace 24th at the world championships.

Last year, she made history again when she won the national downhillchampionship in Whistler. She finished 17th at the world championshipsin Lugano, Switzerland.

Dumaresq says she knows of transsexual athletes hoping to compete infuture Olympics, including the 2010 winter games in Vancouver.

“During my time racing, I have faced many people who had prejudices andintolerances towards me and people like me,” she says. “I hope that Ihave educated some, so that it’ll be easier for the next athlete with atrans history to be included.”