Forget Center Court, St Andrews or Wembley. The biggest battles of this summer of sports are being fought in the boardrooms and backrooms as federations wrestle with the most painful question of all: should transgender women be allowed to participate in women’s sports?
For years, most thought the problem was too dangerous to touch: the sporting equivalent of playing the parcel pass game with a live grenade. However, now they have no choice. The emergence of elite trans women such as weightlifter Laurel Hubbard, swimmer Leah Thomas and cyclist Emily Bridges has taken care of that. You have to make decisions. Tough choice too.
On Sunday, global swimming organization Fina made a splash when it voted to ban trans women from international women’s competition. In short, his argument was that swimmers like Thomas retain significant physical advantages—in endurance, power, speed, strength, and lung size—after reaching male puberty, even if testosterone levels are 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 “consistently shows very modest changes. [which] usually around 5% after 12 months of treatment.” Another study by Joanna Harper, a trans woman at Loughborough University, also found that “strength in trans women may well be maintained through the first three years of hormone therapy.”
But the decision in the past 48 hours by the swimming and rugby leagues to ban trans women from international competition does not necessarily mean that most sports will follow suit. World Athletics is the most likely, given Sebastian Coe’s comments on Monday that “fairness is non-negotiable” and “biology trumps identity”. But after that, the situation becomes unclear – most sports still use some form of testosterone restriction, despite all their shortcomings, to allow trans women to compete in the women’s category.
Last Friday, for example, cycling’s governing body, the UCI, decided to go a different route. He also acknowledges that science shows that trans women have an advantage. But it does say that some injustice against women in sports is acceptable in exchange for inclusion.
Cycling’s new policy states that cyclists like Bridges can only compete in the women’s category if their testosterone levels don’t exceed 2.5 ml for 24 months. But in an important and understated passage, it also states that fair competition is not essential. “It may not be necessary or even possible to eliminate all of the individual advantages that a transgender person has,” the UCI writes in a policy paper. “However, it is imperative that all athletes competing have a chance of success, although not necessarily an equal chance, and in accordance with the true essence of the sport.”
It is understandable that women’s groups are outraged, considering this approach unscientific and unfair. The Women’s Sports Consortium, a coalition of campaign groups in seven countries including the US and UK, called it “nothing more than a fig leaf”, adding that “there is no science to support this policy”.
The group also calls on predominantly male sports federations to have “meaningful consultations with female athletes in the sport in question” before deciding on their transgender policies. Few would disagree with this. However, I was told about one sport that recently surveyed its female athletes and found that the vast majority of them would like to adopt a similar Fina policy to protect competition, but these athletes feel they can be ignored.
Meanwhile, there is also a third potential choice that the sport could potentially choose: to allow anyone to identify themselves in the sport. This is clearly the most controversial. And the most dangerous, especially when it comes to combat sports, given that study found that the average force of impact in men is 162% higher than in women.
But a report released last weekend said FIFA, world football’s governing body, is considering it as part of a project that also proposes removing the testosterone threshold for transgender women.
Whether it happens or not, and a senior FIFA figure told The Times that its new policy will be “scientifically sound”, US football player Megan Rapinoe believes inclusion should be the starting point. “Show me the evidence that trans women are getting universal scholarships, dominating all sports, winning all titles,” she said. “Sorry, it just doesn’t happen. So, we need to start with inclusion, period. I think people also need to understand that sports are not the most important thing in life, right?
Maybe. But perhaps Rapinoe also needs to be ready to look into the eyes of those stripped of an NCAA title because of Thomas, or Bridges’ potential victory in the women’s race, before being so blunt.
Similar issues are also cropping up at the grassroots level across Britain, and frustration is clearly visible in some circles as trans women win local races against women. Most sports have also yet to heed the call of five UK sports councils to prioritize trans-inclusiveness or safety and fairness for women’s sport. The situation, as last year’s report makes clear, is not helped by the fact that the problem remains so toxic.
“Several current female athletes have suggested that while all or most athletes who are considered transgender athletes have an advantage if they compete in women’s sports, almost no one would dare to discuss this publicly,” the Sports Councils Equality Group report said. . – So it’s easier to be silent and agree.
Incidentally, Harper is doing more research on transgender women, including Bridges, to study how anaerobic and aerobic capacity, strength, and cardiovascular function measures change over time. But the solution that most sports leaders yearn for—the magic pill that ensures full inclusion, fairness, and safety—seems more impossible than ever. You have to make decisions. Tough choice too.