As an ex-athlete (scholarship swimmer through college, if you must know) and a permanent Olympic sport addict (well, and baseball, also), the topic of trans inclusion in sport has been of extreme interest to me. There are reasons for this that go beyond the current debate.
In the late 1970’s and the early 1980’s, women’s swimming was dominated by the East Germans, who were regularly dosed with male hormones to increase their performance abilities. This lead to a decade of record-breaking performances which stayed on the swimming record books long after East Germany fell. This short clip, fuzzy as it is, shows the dominance of the best of the East Germans, Kornelia Ender, as she finishes the 200 m freestyle, a race where the normal margin of victory is inches.
A discussion of the ongoing ramifications of the East German doping program, and it’s health ramifications on the women who were victims of it, has continued though subsequent decades. If you’re so inclined, 20/20 did an entire feature on it, located here. There are no shortage of articles and other information about it.
Everyone involved in swimming knew what was happening here, and to a young aspiring swimmer like myself, this was devastating. What was the point of striving for elite status if the only way to win, once reaching that status, was to trade your femininity to a drug regime of anabolic steroids?
Worse was the politics rearing its ugly head beneath. The second place finisher in the clip above is Shirley Babashoff, a generational talent in her own right, who spent the 1976 Olympics finishing second behind the East Germans, a wrong which has never been righted by the International Olympic Committee. When she pointed out the injustice being done here, of course she was pilloried in the media for being a “sore loser”. East German authorities extolled the training methods of their swimmers, asserting that the US women, after so many years of dominance, were simply unaccustomed to losing.
Everyone looked the other way.
Today, trans-inclusivity in sport is the debate on the table. But before we discuss this, keep in mind that the debate is not actually about “transathletes”. The debate is about the right of women to have our own classification in sport which is governed by certain rules to insure fairness. It doesn’t matter if the source of unfairness is PED’s, wearing swim fins in a swim race, or being born a male. The issue is fairness, and should not be confused with any other.
Trans inclusivity is of course not the same threat to the integrity of sport as the East German doping program was. In most sports, it takes a man performing in the top 10–20% of his sport to beat an elite woman in that sport; there aren’t all that many transwomen after all, and even fewer are performing in the upper quintile compared to men. Fairly put, trans inclusion is statistically a tiny threat to elite athletes; it does, however, mount to a more substantial threat to competition at lower levels, where prizes are not gold medals, but college scholarships, to give one example.
To provide a sense of the differential between men and women, here are a couple of clips. In the first clip, the first running of the mixed 400 relay in international competition, the first leg is run by all men; pay attention to the second leg and fourth legs, where the speed differential between elite men and women (in this case, the storied Alyson Felix) is well illustrated.
How ‘bout that last 400m, eh? Didn’t seem fair, did it?
That’s ’cause it wasn’t. Fair, that is.
Similarly, watch the second leg of the mixed 400m medley swim relay, where world breaststroke record holders Lily King (Lane 4) and Adam Peaty (Lane 6) compete head to head. Peaty’s world record in the 100 breast is approximately seven seconds faster than King’s.
2019 World Swimming Championships: Australia wins mixed 4×100m relay
Australia's anchor Cate Campbell edges Team USA's Caeleb Dressel to win gold in the mixed 4x100m medley relay at the…
But, although the impact on elite sports is tiny, statistically, it will eventually happen, that a transwoman takes the award podium at an Olympic event. That’s just math.
Also, up until now, by discussing swimming, readers are thinking in terms of non contact sports only. There are also contact sports to be considered, where a substantial differential between speed and strength between competitors at the elite level is…..well, dangerous. This is what happens when an elite female kickboxer competes against a mediocre male kickboxer. Keep in mind that average male punching power is 162% that of women. Hormone therapy will maybe knock high single digits off that margin:
Up until now, it’s been argued that hormone injections and testosterone suppression in transgender therapy lead to equivalence in athletic performance; thus, trans-inclusivity should be a non-issue, and the only credible objection to this argument is transphobia.
Up until now, most national federations, and the IOC, have generally agreed. But, that’s not science. That’s social science acting in lieu of science. Which is an invitation for the real scientists to get to work. And they did.
Over the last few years, studies have been conducted and papers written which demolished the arguments of the trans inclusive:
- They proved that hormone therapy, even over several years, does not erase the muscular advantages possessed by genetic males over genetic females. Thus, the single year standard used by many major sports federations is well too short.
- Male skeletons, which are not affected by hormone treatments administered after skeletal maturation, have very different arm/leg length proportions than women skeletons as well very different pelvic/femur articulation angles, confers upon genetic men permanent advantages in strength and speed which are not altered by hormone therapy.
- They illustrated how male cardiovascular advantages are also permanent, and not altered by hormone therapy.
- And if that wasn’t enough, they showed that the differences in athletic advantage between elite men and non athletic men were far smaller than the athletic advantages between elite men and elite women, dispelling the intellectually bereft “Michael Phelps has longer arms and that’s no fair either” argumentation.
Now, all that was left was for governing athletic bodies to start to take notice.
The IOC, unfortunately, conferred after the recent games and failed to come to agreement on the larger question. They were in general agreement that the current guidelines on trans participation (last updated in 2015) were not backed by scientific findings, and agreed in principle that using testosterone as the marker for inclusion is not scientifically based. However, they were not able to agree on a path forward, leaving the question, for the moment, to other national and sport specific organizations.
First up to the plate, just this week, were the Sports Councils of the U.K. The Sports Equality Group of the Sports Councils released the following findings and guidelines:
- The SCEG stated that it is not possible to secure both safety/fairness AND the inclusion of trans women in women’s sport.
- The previous emphasis of testosterone levels to determine inclusion and fair participation is failed strategy. (This finding agrees with the studies mentioned above and the IOC, which DID formally agree after Tokyo that focus on testosterone levels does not insure fairness).
- So, a sports federation, in determining their participation guidelines, must decide between fairness and inclusion. Both are not possible.
- The SCEG recommended that the determination of sex for the purposes of competition is sex-at-birth. This is a universal standard agreed to by all participatory nations.
- They suggest that sports should be categorized in one of three categories. The choices would be (a) Trans-Inclusive (TI), where the unfairness in competition is accepted and acknowledged, (b) Female/Open, (F/O) meaning that the sport would be competed in both an Open category available to anyone who wishes to compete in it, and a category restricted to female-at-birth, and (c ) Unisex, where sex is not a factor in competition (think equestrian events).
From there, one leaves it up to sporting federations how they wish to compete. But it should be noted that although the (TI) category exists, their guidelines paint any federation wishing to use it in to a corner. They’d have to admit that their competitions are not fair to women, and in a contact sport, this could have rather dire ramifications on matters such as insurance (you could see insurance companies declining to insure female athletes competing in a TI sport, for example) and legal responsibility.
For example, in light of the Lia Thomas situation, USA Swimming has moved to strengthen its limits to insure fair competition on the USA National Teams. Trans-competitors will have to demonstrate (e.g., show test results) that their testosterone levels were below 5 nanomoles for 36 consecutive months prior to competing at the national level. (Because T levels do not drop overnight, this basically insures that a trans competitor is on HRT for 42–48 months before being qualified to compete.) This is not quite as stringent as the SCEG suggestions, but certainly would act to limit the possibility of unfair competition at the elite level.
This, I think, is a good first step to fixing this mess before something truly unfair (or dangerous) happens to genetic female athletes. Although the Sports Councils are not any sort of an international regulatory body, they’ve thankfully put a line in the sand that clearly articulates that inclusivity is neither fair nor safe, setting out a standard for which other regulatory bodies will hopefully abide.