Фorget Center Court, St Andrews or Wembley. The biggest battles of the sport this summer are in boardrooms and back rooms, while federations are battling the most difficult question of all: should transgender women have the right to participate in women’s sports?
For years, most have considered the problem too dangerous to touch: the sporting equivalent of playing with a live grenade. But now they have no choice. The advent of elite trans women, such as weightlifter Laurel Hubbard, swimmer Leah Thomas and cyclist Emily Bridges, has taken care of that. Decisions must be made. Difficult elections too.
On Sunday, the global swimming organization, Fina, created a seismic wave when it voted to ban trans women from international women’s competitions. His argument, in short, was that swimmers like Thomas retain significant physical benefits — in terms of endurance, strength, speed, strength, and lung size — from passing male puberty, even if testosterone is later suppressed.
Science confirms this. Research by biologists Emma Hilton and Tommy Lungberg on the effects of testosterone suppression on muscle mass and strength in transgender women “constantly shows very modest changes [which] it usually amounts to approximately 5% after 12 months of treatment ”. Another study by Joanna Harper, a trans woman at Loughborough University, also found that “strength can be maintained in transgender women for the first three years of hormone therapy.”
But despite science – and Fina’s decision over the weekend – that doesn’t necessarily mean most sports will follow suit. World athletics is the most likely, given Sebastian Coe’s comments Monday, that “justice is non-negotiable” and “biology prevails over identity.” But then the situation is murky.
Last Friday, for example, the cycling governing body, the UCI, chose to ride differently. It also accepts that science shows that transgender people have an advantage. But it is said that some injustice to women in sports is acceptable in exchange for inclusion.
The new cycling policy says that cyclists like Bridges can compete in the women’s category only if they keep their testosterone below 2.5 ml for 24 months. But in an important and under-reported passage, he also points out that fair competition is not essential. “It may not be necessary or even possible to eliminate all the individual benefits of being transgender,” the UCI said in a policy paper. “However, it is of the utmost importance that all competing athletes have a chance to succeed, although not necessarily an equal chance and in accordance with the true nature of the sport.”
Understandably, women’s groups are angry, considering such an approach unscientific and unfair. The Women’s Sports Consortium, a coalition of campaign groups in seven countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, called it “nothing more than a fig leaf,” adding that “there is no science to support this policy.”
The group also called on sports federations – which are largely male-dominated – to include “meaningful consultation with female athletes in the sport in question” before deciding on their transgender policies. Few would disagree. However, I was told about a sport that recently researched its athletes and found that many of them wanted to adopt a policy similar to Fina’s to protect competition – but these athletes felt they could be ignored.
Meanwhile, there is a third potential choice that sport has the potential to choose: it allows everyone to identify with the sport. This is clearly the most controversial. And the most dangerous, especially when it comes to martial arts, given that research has found that the average impact force is 162% higher in men than in women.
But a report last weekend suggested that FIFA, the governing body of world football, was looking at it in a draft that also proposed lowering the testosterone threshold for transgender women.
Whether this happens or not, American footballer Megan Rapino believes that the starting point should be inclusion. “Show me the evidence that trans women get scholarships for everyone, dominate every sport, win every title,” she said. “I’m sorry, it just doesn’t happen. So we have to start with the inclusion, period. I think people also need to understand that sport is not the most important thing in life, right?
perhaps. But perhaps Rapinoe should also be prepared to look into the eyes of those deprived of an NCAA title by Thomas, or a potential victory by Bridges in a women’s race, before being so emphatic.
Similar problems are also rampant across the UK, with frustration clear in some circles as trans women win local competitions against women. Most sports are also yet to heed the call of the five UK sporting councils or to give priority to trans-inclusion or safety and justice for women’s sport. The situation, as his last year’s report made clear, is not helped by the fact that the problem remains so toxic.
“Several current athletes suggest that while all or most athletes considered transgender athletes have an advantage if they compete in women’s sports, almost no one will have the courage to discuss this in public,” the report said. “So it’s easier to keep quiet and agree.”
By the way, Harper is conducting more research on trans women, including Bridges, to study how anaerobic and aerobic capacity, strength and cardiovascular function change over time. But the solution most sports leaders crave – a magic bullet that would allow full inclusion, justice and security – seems more impossible than ever. Decisions must be made. Difficult elections too.