The Unsporting World of Trans Powerlifters

Dr Antonia Lee

I’ve now watched two video clips from the Minnesota Women’s State Powerlifting Championships, 2019 (1). The first was posted by trans activists. Edited to include rhetoric rather than any science, it was little more than propaganda and sound bites. Trans women are women. That’s the argument. No evidence; no facts; no respect for other competitors or the spectators; no debate.

The second, from the perspective of a heartbroken real lifter, showed the disruption caused when each of the trans activists stood still on the platform (‘timed out’) rather than lifted. With fourteen activists doing this for up to a minute, up to nine times each, the disruption was considerable.

I know sport, I know athletes, and I know lifting. I saw no powerlifters amongst the trans activists. Instead, I saw people who probably have no real interest whatsoever in sport and I would say don’t even lift. Rather than do some research and establish some facts, the hill of soft sand upon which these activists decided to pitch their tent had no more than the usual sign, ‘trans women are women’ by way of identification. The more I look at transgender sport — and male-to-female transitioning athletes specifically — the more I’m of the opinion that whatever each competitor’s concern and interest is, it’s certainly not sport.

I admire real protest. The first Olympic Games I remember watching was on a black-and-white TV, beamed in all its scratchy glory by satellite from Mexico 1968. If the Minnesota trans-activists want to see how to protest respectfully and powerfully, and in a way that is remembered over 50 years on for all the right reasons, they should do some research and look to the black power/human rights salute of the USA sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, fully endorsed by the Australian Peter Norman, as all three stood on the medal podium during the playing of the national anthem.

Transgender Sport: reality versus relativism?

I view the world through the lens of scientific realism. In this world, reality exists; although each individual’s conception of reality is socially constructed (2). Using the tools of good science research (3, 4, 5) allied to robust critical thinking and reasoning, the scientific realist walks through their world in constant and curious awe, trying to understand just how things work, ever-eager to learn and change their mind based upon the quality of evidence and the logic of the argument presented. My non-scientific friends have different, often far more relativistic world-views. Besides their own explanations, I’ve always wanted to try and understand these complementary positions from an informed, academic perspective.

To say that my initial introduction to contemporary critical theory, relativism (‘real for me’) and many postmodern ideas typical of the humanities was troubling is to understate the situation in which I found myself. Nevertheless, I persevered with seminars on Habermas, Adorno, Benjamin, Butler, Foucault, Irigaray, Haraway, Kristeva, Bourdieu, Derrida, Lacan… Rightly or wrongly, I eventually came to the conclusion that each contemporary critical theorist had constructed a specific world-view — complete with blind and blank spots — and that their perspective on any given topic, viewed through their suggested lens or ‘theoretical framework’, provided a thinking tool: a tool that on occasion, offered potentially useful insights regarding tricky questions of a psycho-socio-political nature.

Before I encountered any transgender sports activists, and in my scientifically-biased and obviously naïve way, I’d assumed that the route to fairness in sporting participation would be established through careful consideration of the relevant good science and sports medicine, along with an awareness of the world-views and perspectives of the various stakeholders: athletes; coaches; support staff; governing bodies; sponsors; and of course, the general public. I viewed — and currently continue to view — transgender sporting participation just as I might view any other complex, bio-psycho-social situation whose satisfactory investigation and likely resolution in research terms, would need something akin to a complex intervention (6). Being overly simplistic — perhaps just looking at arbitrary testosterone limits across the board in the twelve-month window for transitioning athletes as suggested by the International Olympic Committee — isn’t necessarily the fairest solution; especially when the data underpinning the IOC’s stance is questionable. (7). The current Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) hearing involving the 2016 Olympic 800m champion, Caster Semenya, and the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) may provide evidence to clarify this.

To arrive at sensible conclusions in an equitable, democratic society, rational debate needs to take place. All involved individuals need to have a voice, be able to disagree politely and respectfully with each other whilst stating their respective, evidence-based cases, clearly and factually, yet also acknowledging their own bias and personal world-view, and the biases and world-views of others.

I’ve seen nothing like this whatsoever and so far regarding transgender sports participation; and the behaviour of the Minnesota ‘lifters’ is a case in point. In the UK, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has been happy to ignore its own editorial guidelines and allow trans-activists to ‘no-platform’ guests who wish to debate fairly with them (8). BBC interviewers — such as Stephen Nolan and Jeremy Vine — to me seem incredibly lazy, unaware and lacking in knowledge. To invite a sociologist like Ellis Cashmore, for example, to provide any scientific or medical insights whatsoever regarding elite sport seems quite ridiculous: it’s not his area of expertise, even if, and in testament to the Dunning-Kruger Principle (9) and the ‘sins of expertness’ observation of the late David Sackett (10), he apparently thinks it is. The Guardian newspaper has also been woeful in this respect and the piece by Frances Perraudin on Martina Narvratilova was poorly researched and incredibly one-sided (11). Unfortunately, this seems typical of just so much reporting and journalism. I know that today’s digital media is all about advertising clickbait and that the Guardian currently only exists because of this, but I suspect there are many potential as well as ex-readers who are interested in balanced, accurate writing.

What I have seen instead is anger and incredibly rude, aggressive behaviour; and lots of it. Indeed, since I first started looking at this issue and asking questions I’ve come across many athletes and coaches who intend to keep quiet simply because they don’t wish to be on the receiving end of the aggression and hostility heaped upon Navratilova recently (12), even though they all seem to agree with her stance in private. Elite athletes have their personal brand image and sponsorship deals to protect, after all: I understand this even if I don’t care for it myself. Free speech really should be precisely that.

Trans women are women: please explain

Any argument (in the philosophical sense) based upon emotion on the transgender topic quickly becomes little more than an exercise in irrational, type 1 thinking, with angry people resorting to bullying, ad-hominem attacks and a reliance upon all manner of assorted logical fallacies. Such discourse serves no useful purpose. Rational, reflective, evidence-based type 2 thinking is needed on this issue. Putting true and rare gender dysphoria to one side — I understand that — the scientific realist in me really wants to appreciate what people mean when they say, “transwomen are women”: seriously, I want to understand what this actually means. Is it fact or feeling? Is it my scientific realist’s critically-examined, evidence-based reality, or is it a form of relativism, perhaps taken to a narcissistic extreme in some cases: one in which whatever each person claims to be true is true?

Since this statement, “transwomen are women” appears to be the ‘argument’ put forward regarding why any gender self-identifying, male-to-female transitioning athlete should compete in women’s sport, I need someone to explain this to me logically, with supporting biological, scientific and medical evidence. Only then will I understand why some people feel it is entirely appropriate to allow late-transitioning, formerly athletic males to compete against women, particularly in strength and power events, just 12 months after deciding to self-identify. I have yet to have anyone counter the facts I’ve presented so far regarding the male-to-female transgender sporting advantage (13, 14, 15, 16). I remain the scientific realist prepared to change my mind in the light of compelling evidence and reasons to do so.

Gender fluidity and the end of the Olympics?

An Olympic Games cannot function without the sale of lucrative television rights. Without massive public demand to view an Olympic Games, they will cease to exist. TV audiences for any modern Olympic Games want to see incredible speeds, distances, times and extreme performances across all sports. They also want to see Olympic finals in which, and despite the public and media favourites, the finalists are sufficiently well-matched such that any one of them might win.

Alternative gender fluid/transgender participation arguments that I’ve heard, again courtesy of the BBC, suggesting that Olympic sport should evolve to have categories like a Paralympic Games, make little sense. I have great admiration for Paralympians and I’ve worked with several. However, Paralympic sport remains poorly sponsored and attracts very few spectators; usually just friends, family and support staff.

Paralympic competitions are also a mass of rules and regulations and a bureaucratic nightmare. Trained assessors using medical data, reports and various functional tests are required to appraise every athlete in an attempt to ensure that competitors are competing ‘fairly’ against others with similar abilities. There are often countless, poorly contested races, including finals, many with empty lanes because of the classification system and the overall, rather limited number of competitors. Human nature being what it is, it’s also not unknown for athletes and coaches to try and cheat the assessments in order to compete in a class in which they will have an obvious advantage. I know Paralympic athletes (and their coaches) who have done this with no apparent shame and who are more than happy to celebrate such a win as if it were achieved fairly.

As it stands, competitive sport relies upon human sexual dimorphism that lends itself to an obvious, generally fair system that takes into account the physiological and biomechanical characteristics (17) that lead to considerable performance differences between the sexes, resulting in meaningful competition in two sex categories: men and women. The very small number of intersex athletes in elite sport doesn’t negate this system, although in individual, high-profile cases, they usefully challenge sport governing body policies. Rare and complex intersex conditions (disorders of sexual development) should not be confused or conflated with gender self-ID, of course. The two are biologically very different and it is disingenuous and unscientific to infer otherwise. Indeed, I’m often left wondering whether the continued conflation of sex (biology — ‘fact’ — reality?) and gender (socio-cultural construction/stereotype — ‘feeling’ — relativism?) is at the heart of the current problem.

It really is time for rational, informed individuals with opposing views on the matter to calmly present and debate the evidence regarding transgender sporting participation. Like many people I imagine, I want to see the strongest, most scientific, logical, inclusive and fair position to be the one that informs sport participation policies. I also want to see all stakeholders, and not just the vocal few with an alternative agenda, have a say in the future of women’s, men’s and transgender sport.



2. Kirk, R. (1999) Relativism and reality: a contemporary introduction. London, Routledge.