Should transgender women be allowed to compete in female sport?

Fifa considering allowing anyone to self-identify in football as federations face tough decisions

University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas reacts after her team wins the 400 yard freestyle relay during the 2022 Ivy League Women's swimming and diving championships. Photograph: Kathryn Riley/Getty Images

Forget Centre Court, St Andrews, or Wembley. The biggest battles in this summer of sport are being fought over in the boardrooms and backrooms, as federations wrestle with the thorniest question of all: should transgender women be allowed to participate in female sport?

For years most have regarded the issue as too dangerous to touch: the sporting equivalent of playing pass the parcel with a live grenade. Now, though, they have no choice. The emergence of elite trans women, such as weightlifter Laurel Hubbard, swimmer Lia Thomas and cyclist Emily Bridges, has seen to that.

Decisions are having to be made. Hard choices too.

On Sunday swimming’s global body, Fina, created a seismic ripple when it voted to bar trans women from international female competition. Its argument, in short, was that swimmers like Thomas retain significant physical advantages — in endurance, power, speed, strength and lung size — from undergoing male puberty even if testosterone is later suppressed.


Swimming governing body bans transgender women from female competitionOpens in new window ]

The sciences backs that up. Research from the biologists Emma Hilton and Tommy Lungberg on the effects of testosterone suppression on muscle mass and strength in transgender women “consistently show very modest changes (which) typically amounts to approximately 5 per cent after 12 months’ treatment”. Another study from Joanna Harper, a trans woman at Loughborough University, also found that “strength may well be preserved in transwomen during the first three years of hormone therapy.”

But despite the science — and Fina’s decision at the weekend — it does not necessarily mean that most sports will follow suit. World Athletics is the most likely, given Sebastian’s Coe’s comments on Monday that “fairness is non-negotiable” and “biology trumps identity”. But after that the situation is murky.

Sebastian Coe hints athletics may bar transgender women from female competitionOpens in new window ]

Last Friday, for instance, cycling’s governing body, the UCI, opted to ride down a different path. It too accepts that the science shows that transwomen have an advantage. But it says some unfairness to females in sport is acceptable in exchange for being inclusive.

Cycling’s new policy says that cyclists such as Bridges can only compete in the female category if they keep their testosterone below 2.5ml for 24 months. But, in a crucial and underreported passage, it also states that fair competition is not essential.

“It may not be necessary, or even possible, to eliminate all individual advantages held by a transgender,” the UCI write in a policy document. “It is paramount, however, that all athletes competing have a chance to succeed, albeit not necessarily an equal chance and in line with the true essence of sport.”

Understandably women’s groups are angry, regarding such an approach as unscientific and unfair. The Consortium on Female Sport, a coalition of campaign groups in seven countries including the US and UK, has called it “nothing more than a fig leaf,” adding that “there is no science to support this policy.”

The solution that most sports leaders crave — a magic bullet that would allow full inclusion, fairness and safety — looks more impossible than ever

The group is also calling on sports federations, which are largely dominated by men, to include “meaningful consultation with female athletes in the sport in question” before deciding on their transgender policies. Few would disagree with that. However I am 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 competition — yet those athletes feel they may be ignored.

Meanwhile there is also a third potential choice that sports can potentially opt for: allowing anyone to self-identify into sport. That is clearly the most controversial. But a report at the weekend suggested that Fifa, the governing body of world football, was considering it in a draft framework that also suggested removing its testosterone threshold for transgender women.

Whether that happens or not, US women’s footballer Megan Rapinoe believes that the starting point should be inclusion. “Show me the evidence that trans women are taking everyone’s scholarships, are dominating in every sport, are winning every title,” she said. “I’m sorry, it’s just not happening. So we need to start from inclusion, period.

“I think people also need to understand that sports is not the most important thing in life, right?”

Megan Rapinoe during the 2015 Women’s World Cup - she is asking where is the evidence that trans women are winning every title? Photograph: Jewel Samad/Getty Images

Perhaps. But maybe Rapinoe should also be prepared to look those deprived of an NCAA title in the eye by Thomas, or potential victory by Bridges in a women’s race, before being so definitive.

Meanwhile the issue is also bubbling under at grassroots level across Britain — with most sports yet to implement the five sports councils call to either choose trans inclusion or safety and fairness when it comes to women’s sport. The situation, as its report last year made clear, isn’t helped by the fact the issue remains so toxic.

“Several current female athletes suggested that although all or most athletes considered transgender athletes have an advantage if they compete in women’s sport, almost no one would be brave enough to discuss this in public,” the report stated. “So it is easier to keep quiet and acquiesce.”

Incidentally Harper is currently conducting more research on trans women, including Bridges, to examine how anaerobic and aerobic capacity, strength and cardiovascular function values change over time. But the solution that most sports leaders crave — a magic bullet that would allow full inclusion, fairness and safety — looks more impossible than ever.

Decisions are having to be made. Hard choices too. — Guardian