Barely 18 months after transgender athletes first competed at the Olympics, international sports federations are reconsidering whether transgender women should still be allowed to participate in elite women’s competition, with debate in sporting and political circles. about who has the right to play.
Some sports organizations introduced bans this week, citing the need to ensure fairness in women’s competition, although experts say the science is far from decisive on whether athletes who have transitioned from male to female have any competitive advantage over women. their cisgender competitors.
The International Swimming Federation (FINA) will now only allow transgender women who began transitioning before the age of 12 to compete in high-level international competitions, including swimming, diving and water polo. The FINA rule also affects athletes with a condition known as 46 XY DSD (also known as intersex), who have genitalia that are not clearly male or female, but identify as female.
One day after the FINA rule came into force, the International Rugby League went even further, ban all transgender women from participating in international matches while reviewing and updating your rules of participation. A spokesperson told CBC News that there are no transgender players internationally.
World Athletics, which oversees athletics, race walking and other sporting events, has hinted it could do the same when it revises its own rules later this year.
“If there is a conflict between fairness and inclusion in the women’s category, we will always choose fairness,” a World Athletics spokesperson told CBC News, adding that FINA’s decision was “in the best interest of their sport.” .
The new policies come after the International Olympic Committee announced last year would not establish a general rule for all sports — tell the federations that they should make their own policies.
Until now, most organizations, including FINA and World Athletics, have allowed transgender and intersex women to compete as long as they abide by rules to suppress testosterone levels.
The fight for who competes
The decision to ban many transgender athletes has drawn a mixed response in Canada and around the world.
“FINA’s new gender inclusion policy perpetuates the harmful and marginalizing practice of gender policing in women’s sport. This hurts all women,” Canadian Women & Sport said in a statement Monday.
Some athletes have expressed concern that transgender and intersex women have a physiological advantage in competition and say that banning them from elite sports will level the playing field.
Australian Olympic swimming champion Cate Campbell on Sunday told the FINA congress that she believed her decision would “uphold the cornerstone of fairness in elite women’s competition”.
Critics, however, believe bans like FINA’s are motivated more by ideology than science, and come amid a political push in the US and UK to bar trans female athletes from competing. (18 US states have banned trans girls and women to participate in girls’ school sports).
“Transgender athletes are not dominating, nor have they ever dominated in sports,” Chris Mosier, a Team USA triathlete and trans advocate, told CBC News via email.
American college swimmer Lia Thomas is a rare exception. In March, she became the first known transgender athlete to win a National Collegiate Athletic Association swimming championship, and faced immediate backlash for her success.
“It’s very obvious [FINA’s] politics is a reaction to public pressure due to a swimmer who worked hard, followed all the rules and was moderately successful for one season,” Mosier said.
FINA confirmed that there are currently no transgender female athletes competing at the elite level.
“We’re talking about maybe a handful, less than five, trans male-to-female athletes who have come into the spotlight. [in the U.S.] — and so what’s happening politically, and also in the media, outweighs the numerical consideration of what constitutes a threat to women’s sport,” said Carole Oglesby, a board member of the research-based advocacy organization WomenSport International.
science so far
FINA’s decision to ban trans women who transitioned after the age of 12 is based on the changes male bodies undergo during puberty, when a surge in testosterone leads to growth spurts and increased muscle mass.
In its new policy, FINA said its scientific advisers “reported that there are biological sex-related differences in aquatic sports, especially among elite athletes, that are largely the result of the substantially higher levels of testosterone in that men are exposed from puberty onwards.
FINA has not made its scientific advice public.
Experts who spoke to CBC News said there is limited research to show what advantage, if any, a transgender athlete might have over a cisgender athlete, largely because studies to date have not used athletes as research subjects. .
“What’s needed is real science on how trans athletes perform, and that science is in its infancy,” said Joanna Harper, a medical physicist and transgender athletic performance expert at Loughborough University in England.
Harper’s leading multiple current studies observe the performance of transgender athletes at different stages of their transition, as well as compare the performance of trans and cis female athletes.
“The advantages that trans women have are significantly mitigated, not eliminated, but mitigated by hormone therapy, and this process also presents disadvantages for trans athletes,” she told CBC News.
“Their larger frames are now being driven by reduced muscle mass, reduced aerobic capacity, and that can lead to disadvantages in things like speed, recovery and endurance.”
WomenSport International has a new working group compiling scientific evidence that it hopes will help sports organizations think about the future of trans women’s participation.
“I just throw my hands up at the idea that the science is clear,” said Oglesby, a board member, a former professional softball player and retired professor of kinesiology, formerly of California State University.
“I don’t know where this is going to end, so that’s why I say I’m undecided. I’m not sure what the best solution is, but I know we’re not in a position to determine what should happen.”
Critics of FINA’s policy also point out that all female athletes, not just transgender or intersex athletes, may be subject to invasive and humiliating sexual tests to prove that they are eligible to compete.
“FINA has opened up another opportunity for the abuse of female athletes by requiring tests to decide who is female and who is not. This policy does nothing to protect women’s sports or protect cisgender women in sports,” Mosier said.
Three sports, three approaches
Days before FINA made its decision public, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), which oversees international cycling events, including road, track, mountain and BMX, changed its policy for trans women athletes.
Rather than ban them from competing, the UCI halved the maximum permitted level of testosterone from 5 nmol/L (the limit currently in place for other sports, including athletics) to 2.5 nmol/L, and doubled the amount of time that athletes must maintain low testosterone levels before they can compete, up to 24 months.
Soccer’s governing body, FIFA, is also reviewing its rules this year, but has said that review the eligibility of any athlete on a case-by-case basis until the new regulation comes into force.
FINA is also proposing a new “open” competition category in which transgender women, excluded from elite women’s competition, could enter.
It’s not clear what the event would look like, whether other sports might follow suit or whether it would be included in events like the Olympics, said Sarah Teetzel, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, who is researching the barriers athletes face. transgender. to inclusion in sport.
“They say a task force is looking at that right now, but will they really put the same money into prizes, promotion, opportunity, access? It would be very surprising if they did.”
Angela Schneider, director of the International Center for Olympic Studies at Western University in London, Ontario, suggests that sports federations should work together to create a framework for trans women’s participation in all sports.
“It requires minds that have the ability to be open but at the same time critical, and to step back and look at this, and allow people to really have an open dialogue,” said Schneider, a former Canadian Olympic rower.
“It has to be a process that allows representation of female athletes. And it has to be a process that really speaks fundamentally to justice.”