U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee leaders said Monday Utah’s bid for another Winter Games as soon as 2030 will continue to be backed despite the Utah Legislature banning youth transgender athletes from competing in girls school sports but warned the new law is already raising concerns.
“We are worried about legislation that takes a very kind of black-and-white view, of either people can participate or not participate,” USOPC Chairwoman Susanne Lyons told reporters during a conference call when asked about the legislation set to take effect July 1 after Utah lawmakers overrode a veto by Gov. Spencer Cox last week.
Lyons said even though transgender athlete participation is “a big issue” for the Olympic movement, it’s not “going to have any impact” on the bid to bring another Olympics to Salt Lake City, which hosted the 2002 Winter Games.
But Sarah Hirshland, the U.S. committee’s CEO, suggested that could change if the ban were extended to include transgender athletes at the Olympic level.
“Absolutely, it could create a conflict. And I do think that we would see sponsors and other entities and individuals supporting the right to compete for transgender athletes,” Hirshland said, adding that one of the USOPC’s “primary and foundational purposes is to provide and defend the right to compete for Team USA athletes.”
She stopped short of saying that could happen in Utah.
“What we’re talking about now is a competition that wouldn’t take place until 2030 at the earliest, so I think it would be inappropriate to assess where we might be and how this issue has evolved by that point in time,” Hirshland said.
The USOPC will continue to support Utah’s bid despite the new ban, she said.
“We will absolutely pursue a bid,” Hirshland said, although “there will be an expectation that athletes will have the ability to compete under the rules and guidelines of the Olympic and Paralympic movement and the international federations.”
Fraser Bullock, president and CEO of the Salt Lake City-Utah Committee for the Games that’s behind the bid for the Olympics, addressed the question of the impact of the state’s ban on youth transgender athlete participation in a statement.
“This is a challenging issue in many communities, at the international level and with most sports organizations. While this continues to be addressed within sport, our empathy goes out to those involved on all sides of this issue,” Bullock said.
Salt Lake City, selected more than three years ago by the USOPC to bid on behalf of the United States for a future Winter Games, faces competition from Sapporo, Japan; Vancouver, Canada; and Barcelona, Spain and the surrounding Pyrenees mountain region. Ukraine has also expressed interest in hosting a Winter Games.
There is no set timeline for the International Olympic Committee to choose the host of the 2030 Winter Games, but Lyons said the field should be narrowed to a list of “leading contenders” by the end of the year, with a final vote likely in the summer of 2023.
“We certainly expect Salt Lake City will be among them,” she said, noting the list could even be down to a single candidate. A visit by an IOC technical committee is coming in April, and USOPC and Utah bid leaders will head to the IOC’s headquarters in Switzerland in June for a “more robust presentation,” Lyons said.
‘A complex situation’
The transgender athlete issue was discussed during the USOPC’s first board meeting of the year, held last week, Lyons said.
“This is a really complex situation,” she said, noting the bill initially called for a panel to determine when trans athletes could “appropriately compete.” But the bill was changed in the final hours of the 2022 Legislature without public input, becoming a ban on participation by trans athletes that she said oversimplifies the issue.
“That doesn’t necessarily look at the nuances of, is that talking about youth who have not yet been through puberty? Is that talking about recreational, intramural type sports? Or is that talking about elite sport,” Lyons said, adding that defining what constitutes an unfair advantage is amorphous and subjective.
“We believe that trans people have the right to seek to live in a manner that’s consistent with their gender identity and expression,” she said. “I’d include participation in sports, both in youth and collegiate sports, and with the right rules and protections, in elite sport as well.”
At the same time, Lyons said, “we recognize the progress that female athletes have made with Title IX. That’s been a long and hard road and it needs to be protected. We know maintaining a fair playing field for them is critical as well to ensure the integrity of competition.”
The Legislature’s action has prompted speculation the NBA could pull the 2023 All-Star Game out of Salt Lake City.
In 2017, the National Basketball Association moved the All-Star Game from Charlotte after North Carolina lawmakers required transgender people in government and public buildings to use the bathroom that corresponds with the gender on their birth certificate
Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith tweeted his opposition to the Utah ban, saying “We need to love these kids. This bill was rushed, flawed, and won’t hold up over time. I’m hopeful we can find a better way. Regardless, to all in the LGBTQ+ community, you’re safe with us.”
There’s worry, too, that Utah’s tourism and outdoor recreation industry will be hurt, along with other business sectors. Visit Salt Lake said in a statement issued before the anticipated veto override by lawmakers that such an action “would send a signal at an important time that we are not a welcoming community.”