Why is trans participation in sport so controversial?

by Hugo Greenhalgh and Rachel Savage | @rachelmsavage | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 30 September 2021 10:53 GMT

So Sato, 25, a deaf and transgender pole vaulter, works out during a camp training with other deaf athletes in Utsunomiya, north of Tokyo, Japan July 10, 2021. REUTERS/Issei Kato

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Britain's sports councils have released new guidelines on transgender participation in sport, sparking further debate

By Hugo Greenhalgh and Rachel Savage

LONDON, Sept 30 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - There is no "single solution" to balancing fairness and safety in sport with inclusion of transgender athletes, Britain's sports councils said on Thursday.

Trans women and non-binary people - neither male nor female - assigned male at birth have "strength, stamina and physique" advantages over the average woman, the government bodies said in their new guidelines for national governing sports bodies.

Inclusion in national and grassroots sport was paramount, the sports councils of England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland said, urging organisations to "think in innovative and creative ways to ensure nobody is left out".

The guidelines come during a fierce global debate about whether trans women should be allowed to compete in women's sporting events, and - if they are - what the rules should be.

Trans rights campaigners say excluding trans athletes is discriminatory and will stoke bias against trans people in general, but critics say trans athletes have an unfair physical advantage in women's competitions.

The trans sport debate has been at the heart of a culture war in the United States between conservatives and supporters of U.S. President Joe Biden's push for greater LGBT+ inclusion.

WHY HAS CONTROVERSY GROWN?

As more people come out as trans, the participation of trans women in women's sport has increasingly been called into question, including by well-known sports stars such as tennis champion Martina Navratilova.

The Tokyo 2020 Olympics proved a recent flashpoint with the inclusion of the first openly trans competitor, Laurel Hubbard, who left the Games without a medal.

At 43, she was the oldest lifter at the Games, having competed in men's weightlifting competitions before transitioning in 2013.

Two years later, she became eligible to compete at the Olympics in women's events in line with guidelines issued by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

The IOC currently advises sporting bodies to let trans women athletes compete in women's events if their testosterone levels remain below a certain threshold for at least a year. Trans men face no restrictions.

In July, the IOC said it would review scientific data to determine a new framework for international federations to set rules for competitions in their individual sports.

Richard Budgett, the IOC's medical and scientific director, said the challenge was to ensure inclusivity while also retaining fairness.

WHAT DO OTHER SPORTS AUTHORITIES SAY?

Around the world, sporting authorities are grappling with how to formulate their rules.

World Rugby ruled last year that trans women could not compete in elite and international women's rugby, citing safety and fairness concerns.

In the United States, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which runs inter-college sport in the country, says trans women must suppress their testosterone for at least a year before competing in women's contests.

Trans men cannot compete with women if they start taking testosterone, NCAA rules state.

In March 2020, Idaho became the first U.S. state to ban trans women and girls from women's sports leagues in schools and colleges, though the law was suspended after a court ruled it was discriminatory.

This year, Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Montana, Tennessee, West Virginia and Florida passed similar legislation and South Dakota's governor has signed an executive order supporting a sports ban. All have Republican governors.

West Virginia's law was suspended in July by a judge who ruled that it was unconstitutional.

WHAT DO SCIENTISTS SAY?

Trans women's muscular advantage only falls by about 5% after a year of testosterone-suppressing treatment, according to a review of existing research by the University of Manchester and Sweden's Karolinska Institute.

Britain's Loughborough University found that hormone therapy reduced trans women's haemoglobin levels, which affects endurance, to equal that of non-trans women within four months.

But strength, lean body mass and muscle area remained higher after three years of medication to block testosterone, it said.

Tommy Lundberg, who co-authored the first study, said male athletes gain their 30% muscular advantages during puberty, but there are no studies of trans adolescents who could take puberty blockers or cross-sex hormones before puberty finishes.

WHAT DO TRANS ACTIVISTS SAY?

LGBT+ activists say the U.S. sports bills and World Rugby ban are discriminatory and dispute claims of a physical advantage.

Chris Mosier, a triathlete and the first trans man to represent the United States internationally, said the current debate was damaging for all trans people.

"These are very dangerous bills that are attempting to serve as an entry point to larger scale discrimination," he said. 

Related stories:

Idaho becomes first U.S. state to ban trans athletes

TIMELINE-How transgender rights became the focus of a U.S. culture war

OPINION: Trans women should be allowed to play women's rugby