Forget Center Court, St Andrews or Wembley. The biggest battles this summer of sports are being fought in boardrooms and backrooms, as federations struggle with the most thorny question: should transgender women be allowed to participate in women’s sports?
For years, most people considered the issue too dangerous to touch: the sporting equivalent of a game passes the pack with a live grenade. Now, however, they have no choice. The emergence of trans elite women, such as weightlifter Laurel Hubbard, swimmer Lia Thomas and cyclist Emily Bridges, has seen this. Decisions have to be made. Tough options too.
On Sunday the global swimming body, Fina, created a seismic surge when it voted to ban trans women from international women’s competition. Her argument, in short, was that swimmers like Thomas maintain significant physical advantages – in endurance, strength, speed, strength and lung size – from undergoing male puberty even if more later testosterone is suppressed.
Science supports 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 [typically] amounting to for about 5% after 12 months of treatment “. Another study by Joanna Harper, a trans woman at Loughborough University, also found that “health can be well preserved in trans women during the first three years of hormone therapy”.
But the decision of both swimming and rugby league in the last 48 hours to stop trans women from international competition does not necessarily mean that the majority of sports will follow suit. World Athletics is most likely, given Sebastian Coe’s comments on Monday that “justice is not negotiable” and “biology wins identity”. But after that the situation is blurred – with most sports still using some form of testosterone limits, for all their flaws, to allow trans women to compete in the female category.
Last Friday, for example, the governing body of cycling, the UCI, chose to drive a different path. She also accepts that science shows that trans women have an advantage. But she says some injustice with women in sport is acceptable with an inclusive exchange.
The new cycling policy says cyclists like Bridges can only compete in the female category if they keep their testosterone below 2.5ml for 24 months. But, in a crucial and under-reported way, it also says that fair competition is not essential. “It may not be necessary, or even possible, to eliminate all individual benefits held by a transgender person,” the UCI wrote in a policy paper. “It is very important, however, that all competing athletes have a chance to succeed, although not necessarily an equal chance and in line with the true essence of the sport.”
It is understandable that 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 no science to support this policy “.
The group is also calling on sports federations – which are largely male-dominated – to include “significant consultation with female athletes in the sport in question” before deciding on their transgender policies. Few disagree. However, I was told of one sport that recently surveyed its female athletes and found that a large majority of them wanted to adopt a similar policy to Fina in order to protect the competition – but those athletes feel they can be ignored.
Meanwhile, there is also a third potential option that sports can potentially opt for: allowing everyone to identify with the sport. This is clearly the most controversial. And most dangerous, especially when it comes to combat sports as research has found that the average punching power is 162% greater in men than in women.
But a report last weekend suggested that FIFA, the governing body of world football, was considering it in a draft framework that also suggested removing the testosterone limit for transgender women.
Whether it happens or not, and a senior FIFA figure told The Times that her new policy will be “science-based”, American women’s soccer player Megan Rapinoe believes the starting point should be inclusion. “It shows me the evidence that trans women are taking everyone’s scholarships, dominating every sport, winning every title,” she said. “It simply came to our notice then. So we have to start with inclusion, period. I think people also want to understand that sport is not the most important thing in life, is it? ”
Maybe. 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 it is so definitive.
Similar issues are also being sent at grassroots level across Britain, with clear frustrations in some quarters as trans women win local races against women. Most sports still have to heed the call of the five UK sports councils to either prioritize the inclusion of trans or safety and justice for women’s sport. The situation, as its report made clear last year, is not helped by the fact that the issue remains so toxic.
“Several current female athletes have suggested that, although all or most athletes considered transgender athletes have an advantage if they compete in women’s sports, almost no one will be brave enough to discuss this in public,” she said. the report. “So it’s easier to keep quiet and agree.”
Incidentally, Harper is conducting more research on trans women, including Bridges, to examine how anaerobic and aerobic capacity, health, and cardiovascular function values change over time. But the solution that most sports leaders want – a magic bullet that allows for full inclusion, justice and safety – seems more impossible than ever. Decisions have to be made. Tough options too.