Issue of transgender athletes sees rights on safety and inclusion collide

How can safety of cisgender women be ensured when it comes to contact sports?

  New Zealand’s Laurel Hubbard will become the first transgender athlete to compete against cisgender  women at the Olympic Games. Photograph:   Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images

New Zealand’s Laurel Hubbard will become the first transgender athlete to compete against cisgender women at the Olympic Games. Photograph: Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images

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We’ve been trying to educate ourselves this week by listening to sports scientist Ross Tucker. Tucker has worked with World Rugby and other organisations as a science and research consultant.

His views are always reasoned, aired on the podcast The Science of Sport and are based on current research, some of which he has conducted himself.

The clarity Tucker brings to explain complex subject matter such as the issue of transgender athletes is never less than convincing and always science based.

The difficulty is in defining male and female in the competitive sports construct. The social construct is entirely different

Recently, he picked up on the transgender subject again as it has been brought into sharp focus by 43-year-old Laurel Hubbard, who was recently included in New Zealand’s female weight-lifting team and drew international attention and divided opinion.

Hubbard was born a male and used to compete in men’s weight-lifting competitions before transitioning in 2012. She will become the first transgender athlete to compete against cisgender (gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth) women at the Olympic Games.

The decision has thrown up a number of colliding rights around fairness, safety and inclusion. In weight-lifting it is largely about fairness and inclusion. When other sports come into play such as rugby and boxing it seems likely there will also be an important consideration of duty of care.

The difficulty is in defining male and female in the competitive sports construct. The social construct is entirely different. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) currently requires Hubbard to reduce testosterone levels to below a level of 10 nmol/L for 12 months in order to be eligible for women’s competition. The level of testosterone in male athletes fluctuates but is often many times 10.

What has been constantly pointed out is that sport has to be segregated into male and female, otherwise women would never appear at events like the Olympic Games

It is worth noting the nature and magnitude of male advantage in sport. On the track and in the swimming pool, men are about 10 per cent faster. Measure power output and men come in at 30 per cent higher. For upper body strength, male advantage comes in at between 30 and 60 per cent.

A study by researchers at the University of Utah in 2020 found that despite approximately similar levels of fitness, the average power of a male during the motion of punching was 162 per cent greater than females. This held good even for the least-powerful man in the study, who proved to be stronger than the most powerful woman.

The male and female bodies are built differently to carry out different functions. Neither is better or worse than the other. Better or worse don’t belong in the conversation.

What has been constantly pointed out is that sport has to be segregated into male and female, otherwise women would never appear at events like the Olympic Games or world championships. With no division, women in competitive sport would vanish.

Tucker speaks of Elaine Thompson, the Jamaican track and field sprinter, who rose to prominence at the 2016 Rio Olympics, completing a sprint double to win gold in the 100 metres (10.71 s) and the 200 metres (21.78 s). But that year she was outperformed by 1,826 men and boys including 14-year-old sprinters.

So, the theory goes reduce Hubbard’s testosterone levels in order to make her compliant with IOC regulations and that will solve the problem. But it is not so straightforward.

Research, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine just over six months ago, found that before soldiers in the US Air Force started their hormone treatment trans women performed 31 per cent more push-ups and 15 per cent more sit-ups in one minute on average than cisgender women younger than 30. They were also able to run 1.5 miles 21 per cent faster.

After suppressing their testosterone for two years, which is a year longer than the IOC requires, they were still 12 per cent faster on average than biological females. Given races are won and lost by percentile fractions that is a telling gap.

The idea that reducing testosterone for 12 months will level the playing field appears not to be based on any current research. What studies have actually been showing is the changes that happen when males go through puberty are not entirely reversible.

What is the IOC going to say to cisgender women in contact sports such as judo and taekwondo?

Those larger lungs and heart don’t dramatically shrink, the stronger tendons and greater muscle mass don’t weaken, the denser bones and the lower body fat don’t reduce to cisgender levels.

In weight-lifting, Hubbard might not win the gold medal but nor would the man in the street beat Thompson over 100m. The point is the man on the street and Hubbard start the weight-lifting competition and the foot race with an advantage given only to males who have gone through puberty.

But when this wagon trundles further down the road and more transgender athletes come into sport, who is going to protect cisgender women involved in boxing from opponents whose punching power could be twice theirs?

What is the IOC going to say to cisgender women in contact sports such as judo and taekwondo? In Sevens rugby what will they tell cisgender women about what to expect in collisions, what will they say about their safety and the disparity in strength and speed they may have to face?

Whose rights are being curtailed, those on the pitch whose right is to feel safe playing rugby or boxing, or those of a vulnerable transgender athlete who also has rights to not face discrimination?

The IOC has suggested federations sort it out. Given how athletics disrespectfully handled Caster Semenya (not a transgender issue), confidence is far from soaring.

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