Decision time: why sport is struggling to deal with transgender row | Sport

Forget Center Court, St Andrews or Wembley. This summer’s biggest sports battle is taking place in boardrooms and backrooms, as leagues grapple with the thorniest question of all: Should transgender women be allowed to participate in women’s sports?

For years, the majority considered this issue too serious to be touched: the mathematical equivalent of playing the kick pass with a live bomb. Now, though, they have no choice. The emergence of elite transgender women, such as weightlifter Laurel Hubbard, swimmer Leah Thomas and cyclist Emily Bridges, witnessed it. Decisions must be made. Tough choices, too.

On Sunday, the world’s swimming body, FINA, caused a seismic wave when it voted to ban trans women from participating in the international women’s competition. Her argument was, in short, that swimmers like Thomas retain significant physical advantages–in endurance, strength, speed, strength and lung size–from undergoing male puberty even if testosterone is subsequently suppressed.

Science supports this. Research by biologists Emma Hilton and Tommy Longberg on the effects of testosterone suppression on muscle mass and strength in transgender women shows “consistently very modest changes”. [which] It typically reaches around 5% after 12 months of treatment.” Another study from Joanna Harper, a transgender woman at Loughborough University, found that “strength can be maintained in trans women during the first three years of hormone therapy.”

But despite the science – and Fina’s decision over the weekend – that doesn’t necessarily mean most sports will follow suit. Global athletics is the most likely, given Sebastian Coe’s comments on Monday that “justice is not negotiable” and “biology trumps identity.” But the situation after that is ambiguous.

Last Friday, for example, cycling’s governing body, the International Cycling Union, chose to go a different route. She also accepts that science shows that transgender women have an advantage. But she says some unfairness to females in the sport is acceptable in exchange for it being inclusive.

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 unreported paragraph, it also states that fair competition is not necessary. “It may not be necessary, or even possible, to abolish all individual benefits enjoyed by transgender people,” the UCI wrote in a policy document. “However, it is critical that all competing athletes have a chance to succeed, albeit not necessarily equal opportunities and in keeping with the true essence of the sport.”

Protesters argue against Emily Bridges' ability to compete in the British National Omnium
The participation of transgender women in female sports is a highly divisive topic. Photo: Paul Marriott/Shutterstock

Understandably, women’s groups are outraged, considering this approach unscientific and unfair. The Women’s Sports Federation, 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 is also calling for sports federations – which are largely dominated by men – to include “meaningful counseling with female athletes in the relevant sport” before deciding on transgender policies. Few would disagree with that. However, I was told that a female athlete recently surveyed her female athletes and found that the vast majority of them would like to adopt a policy similar to Fina in order to protect competition – yet these athletes feel they may be ignored.

Meanwhile, there is also a possible third option that sports could choose: allowing anyone to identify themselves in sports. This is clearly the most controversial. And the most dangerous, especially when it comes to combat sports given that research has found that the average striking force is 162% greater in males than in females.

But a report last weekend suggested FIFA, the governing body for world soccer, was studying the matter in a draft framework that also proposed removing the testosterone threshold for transgender women.

Whether or not that happens, US women’s soccer player Megan Rapinoe believes the starting point should be inclusion. “Show me the evidence that transgender women take the scholarships for everyone, dominate in every sport, and win every title,” she said. “I’m sorry, that doesn’t happen. So we have to start from the inclusion period. I think people also need to understand that sports are not the most important thing in life, right?”

Probably. But perhaps Rapinoe should also be prepared to look at those denied the NCAA title in Thomas’ eye, or Bridges’ potential win in a women’s race, before she is too decisive.

Similar issues are also emerging at a grassroots level across Britain, with frustrations evident in some quarters with trans women winning local races against females. Most sports have not yet responded to the call of the UK’s five sports councils to prioritize transgender inclusion or safety and fairness in women’s sport. The situation, as his report last year made clear, is not helped by the fact that the problem remains highly toxic.

The report stated: “Many current female athletes have suggested that although all or most athletes consider transgender athletes to have an advantage if they compete in women’s sports, almost no one would be brave enough to discuss this publicly.” “So it’s easier to stay calm and bow down.”

Incidentally, Harper is conducting more research on trans women, including Bridges, to study how values ​​of anaerobic and aerobic capacity, strength, and cardiovascular function change over time. But the solution that most sport leaders yearn for — a magic bullet that allows for full inclusion, fairness and safety — seems more impossible than ever. Decisions must be made. Tough choices, too.

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