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Transgender athletes: a question of “fairness”

Is it time to re-evaluate sporting ideals?

by Ronan Molloy

image courtesy of Robert Mandelson via Google

Recent comments made by tennis coach Martina Navratilova have reignited the debate surrounding transgender athletes and whether it is “fair” for trans women, born biologically male, to compete against women born biologically female. Society is currently navigating a moment of uncertainty with regards to transgender rights and, in this moment, several high-profile female athletes have expressed an opinion on trans women in sport. Highly successful and notable female athletes such as Navratilova, Kelly Holmes and Paula Radcliffe, who are cautious of the influence trans women could have on women’s sport, have all taken a stance and highlighted the components of identity, biology and ethics that have brought into question the very nature of modern sport in contemporary society.

Navratilova’s argument, a sentiment shared by many others, is that it is possible that a biological male could “cheat” the system. Hypothetically, he would fake transitioning in order to compete in female categories in which he could exercise his “male sex advantage”, a term used by pressure group Fair Play for Women, in order to win trophies and then transition back to his actual gender identity. This hypothetically undermines what the reality is for transitioning individuals. According to a survey conducted by ComRes, 63% of the British population believe trans female athletes hold an unfair advantage over their biologically female competitors. Clearly, the notion of a permanent male sex advantage is a popular one, despite masses of evidence which that shows that reducing testosterone levels significantly reduces the potential for any unfair advantage. 

The current scientific consensus is that testosterone plays an important role in muscle development, with a typical range of 9-38nmol/L in men and 0.52-2.4nmol/L in women. The International Olympic Committee set a precedent for sporting organisations across the world when they legislated that in order to compete in a female category transgender woman need to reduce their testosterone levels, through hormone therapy, to less than 10nmol/L for at least a year. This will more than likely be halved to 5nmol/L in the coming years with many on both sides contending it should be reduced further still. 

Some would argue this has been a fitting measure as trans athletes have not experienced a disproportionate amount of success in women’s sport. Yet, there are isolated cases of transgender women winning titles which have received huge attention because, according to other athletes and the popular media, it just seems unfair. Last year Rachel McKinnon became the first trans women to win a cycling world championship and subsequently she became the target of allegations of cheating. Bronze medallist Jennifer Wagner argued her victory was “unfair”, but McKinnon was quick to responded by pointing out that Wagner had beaten her in 11 of their last 13 races. Clearly, hard work wins championships and not testosterone.

Modern sport proclaims fairness as a key ideal; all competitors should start on an equal footing, the same rules should apply to everyone, and everybody should be given the same opportunity to compete. Yet, it is widely known this isn’t the case. Socioeconomic status has a massive impact on an individual’s capacity to access sport and a person’s physiology, including height and body type, is a genetic lottery. The notion that transgender athletes are unfair is an attempt, subconscious or not, to make illegitimate the bodies and identities of a minority group.

The United Nations recognises “leisure” and “participation in cultural life” as human rights and the IOC have extended this to cover sport - suggesting that principles of modernity, such as equality, informed the ideals of sport developed throughout the 20thcentury. However, segregation within sports, which inherently produces inequality, remains unchallenged. Researchers at the School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences at Loughborough University suggest that “If the size or strength of competitors is a concern, size categories can be developed that are independent of gender”. Society is moving away from binary understandings of sex and gender, perhaps sport should too.


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