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Do transgender athletes have an unfair advantage?

Born this way. Pete Niesen/Shutterstock

Do transgender athletes have an unfair advantage?

It hasn’t always been plain sailing for women in sport. With a history marked by division and discrimination, it looks like things could be about to get a whole lot more complicated for female athletes, after the International Olympic Committee announced changes to its transgender policy.

Transgender athletes will now be allowed to compete in the Olympics without having to undergo sex reassignment surgery. Which is possibly set to impact women’s sport more than men’s. Achieving eligibility to compete in male competition is now easy - you just have to say you are male. Whereas eligibility to compete in female competition is subject to a number of tests for hormone levels.

For some, this step away from surgical requirements was enthusiastically welcomed and considered an important milestone towards greater equality and inclusion in the sporting world. But there were also much more critical responses. These included concerns around the possible impact on the integrity and fairness of competition. And fears that women in particular would be even further disadvantaged within sport than they already are.

Questions of biology

The Times columnist Janice Turner said the new policy was “great news – unless you are a woman athlete” and that “trans athletes are unfair to women”. Her concerns are based on assumptions that male-to-female trans athletes will always have a biological advantage in terms of size, muscle mass and lung capacity.

For Turner, the new policy, while seemingly more inclusive, is bound to be exploited by “medal-hungry male athletes in unscrupulous nations”. One example Turner mentions is the case of the Iranian women’s football national team, which allegedly includes eight men who are currently “awaiting sex change operations”.

But female athletes, especially the most talented ones have long had their gender called into question. In 2009 Caster Semenya the female South-African middle distance runner, was forced to undergo sex testing after her 800-metre victory at the 2009 World Championships was considered too fast for a woman. Which is another example that demonstrates how debates about unfair competitive advantage intersect with concerns around “real” female athletes’ marginalisation.

Testing time

The move towards using hormone levels for purposes of sex testing and in transgender inclusion policies is useful. It is hormones, especially androgens such as testosterone – and not reproductive organs – that are linked to muscle mass, speed and strength and competitive advantage.

But here’s where the trouble starts. The “female” sex hormone oestrogen is generally found in higher levels in women. And men tend to have higher levels of androgens like testosterone. But both oestrogens and androgens are also found in men and women. Making any cutoff point, such as trans women requiring a consistent testosterone level below 10 nmol/L – the level set by the IOC – is pretty arbitrary, and ultimately useless.

The IOC’s use of hormone levels to measure or test sex has replaced earlier “gender verification” practices. These previously involved asking female athletes to drop their underwear, but eventually a less humiliating method was found: checking swabs of cheek tissue for chromosomes, as “proof” of an athlete’s sex. Women have vaginas, ovaries and XX chromosomes, and men have penises and XY chromosomes. Sounds simple right? Wrong.

The move away from using reproductive organs or chromosomes was linked to scientific evidence which showed that “nature” is a lot messier than we think. There is no neat and clear distinction between “male” and “female” – and no way of “measuring” or “testing” sex based on reproductive organs or chromosomes alone.

X marks the spot. xrender/Shutterstock

There are much greater variations of sex chromosomes than simply XX and XY, including XXY, XXXY, XXXXY, XXYY, XXXYY . And chromosomes themselves also don’t have a direct impact on the body’s physical characteristics – they only do so when combined with certain hormones. Then add intersex people, discrepancies between internal and external sex organs and mismatches between genitals and chromosomal sex into the mix - and you’ve got a whole lot of complication. As was the case with Semenya.

Facing the future

On the whole, the physical differences among men and among women are bigger than the differences between men and women. Semenya might have higher testosterone levels and greater muscles mass than the “average woman” - but the same might also be said about Usain Bolt when compared to the “average man”.

The IOC’s new policy is then, perhaps, the best we can do, at the moment, given that sport is a gender-segregated context.

Removing the need for transgender athletes to undergo sex reassignment surgery is a welcome acknowledgement that bodies don’t come in neatly defined categories. And using hormone levels as a measure seems a pragmatic compromise. That said, the increasingly popular sport of roller derby puts the rest of the sporting world to shame with its move away from gender-segregation and its refreshingly progressive policies for trans people, genderqueer and nonbinary inclusion.

Assuming mainstream sport will remain gender-segregated for the time being, what is needed then is education to prevent prejudice, exclusion and knee-jerk reactions by sports policy makers, governing bodies and the media. And continuing conversations between those promoting equality for women in sport and advocates for transgender inclusion are vital to iron out any unproductive misconceptions on both sides.