Sonia O’Sullivan: Transgender athletes cannot be allowed to compete in women’s sport

No use kicking issue down track – it’s become a major problem and a decision is needed

There was plenty of talk about the current state of athletics at the World Athletics Indoor Championships in Belgrade over the weekend. With three world records set – Yulimar Rojas in the triple jump, Mondo Duplantis in the pole vault, Grant Holloway equalling his own 60 metres hurdles record – there is a sense the bar is constantly being raised, which is a good thing for any sport.

What wasn’t talked about so much were events unfolding around the same time at the NCAA swimming championships in Atlanta, where University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas became the first transgender champion in that sport, winning the women’s 500-yard freestyle. Still, there’s a sense this is an issue coming down the track for every sport.

Normally the NCAA swimming championships would be far from my radar, but once you see something like this you start thinking, what’s it all about? The issue of transgender female athletes isn’t yet a major talking point among current athletes, maybe more so among those passionate about protecting women’s sport. Current athletes in their sport are mostly focused on their own thing, unless the issue is forced on them or directly impacts them in some way. Until that point they’re usually not that bothered.

If you look at the Thomas situation, it’s the immediate swimmers being impacted who are really speaking out, while some also did come out in support of Thomas. It’s not just the swimmers on the podium who are being affected, it’s the ones further down the field, who miss out on finals, miss the chance because someone ahead of them clearly has an advantage.

Sebastian Coe, president of World Athletics, made the point over the weekend that the integrity of women’s sport is at stake here, and the focus should be on the science. But it’s not just about setting rules around testosterone levels, it’s also the physical size and ability of the person. If you’re bigger and stronger you’re going to be better, whether you’re a big, strong woman or a big, strong man. Size definitely matters.

Level playing field

Women’s sport exists in order to allow women compete on a level playing field against other biological born women; it is not a category one can transfer into.

I also listened to the interview with Ross Tucker on Newstalk on Tuesday night, and a lot of his argument is based around the science, the fact that once a person goes through puberty, whether it’s male or female, that person undergoes changes that determines among other things their hormone levels as an adult. Even if you try to change that, you still have some of the benefits of going through that process. That’s carried through for life, and unless you stop training altogether, it’s not going to go away.

The talk of some quick solution, such as allowing transgender female athletes compete in the female events, but not be eligible for times or medals, doesn’t really work, because all of sudden you’re not looking at first across the line as the winner, until whatever way is decided to calculate that. And talk of starting up a whole new category is not convincing either, because it doesn’t appear there would be enough athletes to fill it now – but maybe in time it would grow and develop.

For me the only solution is to front up on the matter, not sit on the fence here, and decide that transgender athletes cannot be allowed into women’s events. We need to be certain about this.

There was a lot of talk around athletes with differences in sexual development (DSD) before any decision was made, and by then it was too late – championships had come and gone and athletes missed out on medals and more.

It all comes back to the reasons why we have a women’s sporting category in the first place. It’s so that women can compete against the same gender, at the same level. It’s why in most sports women can’t compete against men, unless maybe when they’re riding a horse, when it’s as much about skill as strength and power.

The DSD issue hasn’t gone away; if anything, it is a more pressing matter for World Athletics, because what happened last year with Namibian sprinters Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi wasn’t right. Just 18, Mboma won Olympic silver in the 200m in Tokyo. Another athlete with DSD, Francine Niyonsaba from Burundi, who finished second to Caster Semenya over 800m at the Rio Olympics, produced a series of spectacular runs over 5,000m towards the end of the season, also becoming the first athlete with DSD to break a world record when she clocked 5:21.56 over 2,000m in Zagreb last September.

Across the board

I don’t think that DSD ruling went far enough, not even close, limiting it to events from 400m to the mile; it should have been across the board. If, say, you’re a male 800m runner, who doesn’t run 5,000m, you’re still going to be able to run around 14 minutes. Which is not very fast for a man, but it’s better than most women.

Right now we don’t have any transgender female athletes competing at the top of world athletics, and maybe we are getting a bit too concerned too soon, but maybe we’re not, when you consider we didn’t look at the DSD situation early enough. And still then, after 10 years, it wasn’t sorted our properly.

Are we going back into the same situation now with transgender female athletes, saying we’ll wait and see if more of these athletes come along, then we’ll deal with it? But as soon as more of them come along, by then it’s too late. It’s no good kicking these matters down the track until it becomes a bigger problem. There need to be some decisions made when it’s already an obvious problem for women’s sport.

Athletics and swimming are different to other sports, too – like, say, boxing or rugby where there’s a real danger about putting transgender female athletes into the ring. That threat of harm definitely creates more urgency. But there’s not just a danger physically, there’s a danger mentally, too, that women athletes will get turned off their sport, thinking it’s just not possible to compete here anymore. What’s the point?

This is an early warning, something that’s coming down the track. Part of the problem with the Thomas situation is that it becomes personal, which isn’t fair, but a person who oversteps the mark like this will always highlight the issue. Suddenly they become the centre of attention, like a new Caster Semenya. It’s not her fault; she’s just the first one bringing it more attention.

I think as well maybe more coaches need to sit down with these athletes and ask, why are you pursuing this? They know they’re stepping over a boundary and going into an area that definitely will cause some issues. It’s difficult to even talk about it without the danger of being insensitive in some way, but if it’s so obvious to most people, why isn’t it obvious to the people who are putting themselves in that position? It’s such a grey area, and they’re making it more clouded when there are no restrictions in place by taking advantage of a loophole.

If I was at my running peak, and a transgender female athlete came along in my event, of course it would be a distraction. So much work has been done in recent years, particularly in this country, to give more respect and acknowledgement to women’s sport, the bar constantly being raised, elevating it to the same level as men’s sport, then something like this sets it back again, seeing a trans woman, within a relatively short time span, competing and winning as a woman.

*This article was amended on March 24th, 2022