Ian O'Riordan: No running from DSD and transgender debate in athletics

Sports bodies face a huge challenge in striking balance between inclusion and fairness

We were two songs into the first of Bob Dylan’s three-night run at the Beacon Theatre last weekend when he broke gently into I Contain Multitudes, and straight away the mood changed. It being New York, essentially a home audience, there was instant recognition of this first track from his latest album Rough and Rowdy Ways – also the title of his latest tour.

Every line was hung on or else softly whooped at, except maybe that line, “Follow me close, I’m going to Bally-na-Lee/ I’ll lose my mind if you don’t come with me.” Did they not get the Longford connection?

Of the 16 songs he played before the encore, exactly half were from Rough and Rowdy Ways, and there’s a sense now that this is one of his finest pieces of work. It just didn’t win many awards. In fact, it wasn’t even nominated for a Grammy when it came to album of 2020; Taylor Swift won that award, for her album Folklore, her third such prize.

Which is perfectly fine and acceptable: in music as in art and literature and indeed most aspects of modern culture and society, all such beauty is judged in the ear and eye of the beholder, and certainly not in need or want to be differentiated or divided by gender, at least not in the main.


But not when it comes to the sporting arena, where that want and need remains absolute, given men and women have always competed based on that gender divide, and the need to be judged separately on their own performance. There is no better or worse here, only different: without that the whole thing breaks down, up to and including the Olympics.

This Wednesday in Monaco, World Athletics stage their 2021 awards, naming, amongst others, the male and female athletes of the year, plus the men’s and women’s Rising Star. From an original shortlist of 10, each category has been voted down to five finalists, and after a cracking year in the sport there’s no easy judging.

Of the five women’s finalists, three broke world records to go with their Olympic gold medals won in Tokyo: Dutch distance runner Sifan Hassan, American 400m hurdler Sydney McLaughlin and Venezuelan triple jumper Yulimar Rojas. Of the five men’s finalists, two broke world records to go with their Olympic gold: Norwegian 400m hurdler Karsten Warholm and American shot putter Ryan Crouser.

Unprecedented speed

Then there's the women's Rising Star award, where among the five finalists is Namibian sprinter Christine Mboma, who burst onto the 200m scene with utterly unprecedented speed. Still only 18, Mboma not only broke four under-20 world records, she completed one of the most spectacular senior seasons ever. Her only loss was in the Olympic final, where she finished second to Jamaica's Elaine Thompson-Herah, finishing the season with five sub-22 second performances, winning the Diamond League final, and leaving the sense that it's only a matter of time before she breaks the world record of 21.34 which has stood to the late Florence Griffith-Joyner since 1988.

The only other athlete to leave such a fresh 200m mark this season is fellow Namibian sprinter Beatrice Masilingi, also still only 18, and who finished sixth in Tokyo, running a personal best of 22.28. Both Mboma and Masilingi have also been identified as athletes with differences in sexual development (DSD), and we know that because both were originally set to compete in Tokyo in the 400m, only to be forced to move down a distance given the World Athletics rules on this debate introduced in 2018, and famously unsuccessfully appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) by Caster Semenya.

Ultimately what CAS agreed was that while the rule was discriminatory, it was a necessary discrimination in order to protect the fairness of women’s athletics. By way of brief reminder, World Athletics laid down their rule whereby athletes with DSD, who naturally produce advantageous testosterone levels more akin to the male, can no longer compete in women’s events from 400m to the mile, where according to their study the advantage is most telling, unless they take testosterone-reducing medication. It subsequently transpired a part of that study was flawed, for better or for worse, in limiting the advantage to those events alone.

In the meantime Francine Niyonsaba from Burundi, also identified as an athlete with DSD and who finished second to Semenya over 800m at the Rio Olympics, has moved up the longer distances, producing 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 in September. Before that the fastest-ever outdoor mark was Sonia O'Sullivan's 5:25.36, run in Edinburgh in 1994, that time only once bettered indoors by Ethiopia's Genzebe Dibaba with her 5:23.75 in 2017.


Niyonsaba has plenty of admirers on and off the track – rightly so, given all she’s been through, Still, in truth and reality, the faster she and Mboma run, the more likely it is World Athletics will either want or need to revisit its ruling on athletes with DSD, and 2022 may well prove that year.

None of which is to be confused or indeed entirely separated from the debate around transgender athletes. Earlier this month, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) revealed a new framework around both transgender and DSD athletes, starting from next year, effectively leaving it up the individual sporting federations to decide what rules to implement. Good luck with that.

The new IOC framework is based on 10 all-or-nothing principles that include “inclusion, harm prevention, non-discrimination, fairness, no presumption of advantage, evidence-based, primacy of health, stakeholder-centred, privacy and periodic review”.

In trying to make sense of that, Ross Tucker invited Dr Emma Hilton, developmental biologist at the University of Manchester, onto his podcast The Science of Sport this week, where she described the IOC framework as an “abdication of leadership and sidestepping of science”. If there is no presumption of advantage, she added, there would be no need for male and female sports in the first place, and whatever about the need for inclusion and fairness, it’s simply not possible to always have both.

She also cited two academic reviews of musculoskeletal changes in trans women suppressing testosterone: both conclude the loss of muscle mass and strength is small, while strength advantages over females are retained. In events of pure athleticism, that’s patently unfair; in contact sport, it’s potentially fatal.

Either way, both the DSD and transgender debate isn’t going away any time soon, not when the need and want for gender distinction in sport and whatever crosses in between remains so absolute.