Transgender sport: advantage upon advantage

Dr Antonia Lee

The Townley Discobolus, reproduced with permission, © Trustees of The British Museum. In track-and-field athletics, the men’s discus weighs 2kg, whilst the women’s is 1kg. The late transitioning male-to-female athlete gets to use a significantly lighter implement than that used previously, following transition. The same is true for the javelin, shot and discus, whilst the hurdles and steeplechase barriers are also significantly lower.

I wrote my last piece here (1) on my way to the UK to deliver a workshop for coaches. Shortly after posting it, and having arrived in London, I read what I can only describe as nonsense (2) written in the Independent newspaper by their chief sports writer, Jonathan Liew. I’m naturally suspicious. If you were a trained journalist — someone who might know the difference between science and pseudo-science, how to investigate two sides of a story, and how to perform decent research and fact-check — you’d say so. If Liew is a trained journalist, I apologise. It’s just not evident from this particular effort.

I’ll summarise Liew’s thoughts. From his introduction there is this, “trans people are men in sports bras”. His next paragraph focuses on the 2016 Olympic 800m champion, Caster Semenya. As everyone else seems to know, she’s an intersex athlete. She is certainly not transgender, her case is a complex one, and the conflation of transgender and intersex is inappropriate, confusing and unhelpful. Liew seems to believe that the current International Olympic Committee (IOC) rules involve a, “protracted and often traumatic transition process” and that, “securing the necessary medical and psychological documentation” would deter male athletes from transitioning and gaming the system. Next up, sport is inherently unfair and he patronises Martina Navratilova, calling her, “sadly misguided”. According to Liew, it would be “inspiring” for trans children to see transgender athletes completely monopolise women’s sport.

It doesn’t need me to point out all the errors in this piece and the contempt Liew seems to have for all women and women’s sport. Had he bothered to read even a summary of the IOC’s current rules, he’d see that transitioning is now a straightforward process. Indeed, right now in the Canada Winter Games, you can compete in the ‘gender’ with which you identify, with no questions asked: incredible but true. As for gaming; well, there are middle-aged men in lycra spending a fortune on performance enhancing drugs just to win small-time cycle races against one man and his dog (3). Narcissism and ego drive all kinds of strange behaviours; particularly, it would seem, in those men who were previously mediocre at sport but can now see a way to cheat their way on to the podium. At the other extreme, in a modern Olympic Games, nations typically measure themselves on medals won and their final place on the medals table. When a performance advantage exists, it is always exploited. The 2020 Games — the first under the IOC’s revised transgender rules — will be interesting.

Why the contempt for women and women’s sport?

I’ve now spoken to a number of people about this. The big question in my mind which I posed to others was simply this: “Why would anyone working in the sports media act with what looks like such contempt for women’s sport?” I’m baffled simply because being a scientific realist, I want facts. I expect to see robust critical thinking and reasoning, and an evidence-based approach.

Two qualified journalists I know have put forward the matter-of-fact business view that it’s all about the clicks. It’s a game of being contrary in order to drive traffic to the paper’s website and its adverts. It’s just about the revenue. One of them also suggested that it’s possible that a copy deadline had been and gone, and in a moment of laziness, something — anything — was thrown together based upon a quick flick-through of someone else’s newspaper in a desperate search for topicality.

The critical feminists I’ve spoken to have reminded me (as if I needed this) of the patriarchy and the deep-seated misogyny that sits in many men accustomed to male privilege: a misogyny that even in the usually rational individual, lies dormant like a virus in a spinal nerve root, ready to rush out following an emotional call-to-arms when a man sees the opportunity for woke-points and thunderous, back-slapping applause from others in his echo-chamber or epistemic bubble. Yes; it’s the Lacanian concept of feeling good about oneself through validation of one’s inauthentic, fantasy-self by the ‘Other’. Rationality is not required.

Athletes, as ever, thankfully bring my meta-reflexive self back to the real world, “you’re over thinking this”, one told me in-between sprints on the track. “Some men are just wankers”, she said matter-of-factly over her shoulder as she sped off again. For her, it was simple: case closed.

I’ll think about all of the above and much more besides before arriving at a conclusion.

I’ve mentioned the Dunning-Kruger principle before (1): that phenomenon where the incompetent individual does not realise their incompetence largely because of their relative ignorance. Nevertheless, they go about their business with the confidence born of not knowing. I’ve also mentioned the ‘sins of expertness’ (1) in which in assuming you are an expert in one field, you then believe that your assumed expertise is transferable to another. Perhaps if you write almost exclusively about men’s sport, you think you know about women’s.

Like everyone, I have my own view of what ‘good’ looks like when it comes to sports writing and reporting. The good sports writer has an idea, then does some research and engages in critical thinking and reasoning, with integrity, mindful of their professional code of conduct and their obligation to present facts and fully investigate the story from all possible angles. The good writer looks for evidence and at the quality of that evidence. Of course, if it’s merely an opinion piece, that’s fine; yet the reader still needs to know, just like the reader of a research paper, if that opinion is biased by an affiliation, incentive or endorsement.

Advantage upon advantage in transgender sport

Whilst I’ve coached many endurance athletes over the years, I’m far more familiar with sprint and power events. As it stands, the current IOC rules for transitioning are clear. Unfortunately, they are based upon poor science that has focused on non-elite endurance athletes (4, 5). The big issue for me, perhaps reflecting my coaching bias, remains the late-transitioning male-to-female athlete in events focusing on size, speed and power. I’ve described this at length in previous articles. The natural physical and physiological differences between men and women when it comes to growth, maturation and performance are simply not negated by a 12-month window of testosterone suppression.

Furthermore, the serum testosterone limit set by the IOC for eligibility for competition (male-to-female transition) is considerably higher than typically seen in a female athlete. Strangely, there appears to be an element of ‘double-think’ going on with respect to testosterone (T) during transition. On the one hand, MtF transitioning athletes need to bring their T levels down, with the allowable limit being set quite high to accommodate biological women with medical problems (such as Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, PCOS). On the other hand, FtM transitioning athletes are allowed exogenous T via a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) to help them perform like men. If T really doesn’t matter during transition — as the rather unscientific, trans-activist Rachel McKinnon claims (6) — why the TUE option for FtM transitioning athletes? I can see a health requirement argument; I can also see the performance potential. Sadly, the likelihood of manipulative doping by unscrupulous athletes, coaches and nations is obvious.

In addition, the single study that trans activists rely upon to make their testosterone case — Bermon and Garnier (2017) — has methodological flaws that have caused other scientists to call for its retraction. This study also used data from an an athlete pool in which 43.6% were likely doping; and I’ve described these facts at length before (7). As such, any testosterone values or profiles will be worthless. If an athlete is doping, it’s not unusual for their body to shut down endogenous testosterone production since, put bluntly, the T is coming from somewhere else. This observation holds true for any study that looks at strength and power based sports in particular and that doesn’t control rigidly for anabolic steroid or testosterone use in research participants.

Most importantly, and when it comes to MtF transitioning athletes specifically, the points that the trans activists never address with supportive evidence through calm, rational debate with informed individuals are these: 1) what about T during growth and maturation? 2) what about cellular male muscle memory? 3) what about the obvious physical and biomechanical differences between men and women? There are many, very good reasons why sport has always been split into sex (not gender) categories for fairness.

Finally, let me now give some simple insights regarding track and field athletics. If I’m a male discus thrower, the discus weighs 2kg. For women it’s 1kg. If I’m a male javelin thrower, the javelin is 800g, whilst for women it’s 600g. The shot for men is 7.26kg, whilst for women it’s 4kg: the same is true for the hammer. If I’m a male 400m hurdler, the hurdles are set at a height of 91.4 cm (36 in), whilst for women they are 76.2cm (30 in). In the sprint hurdles, men cover 110m with hurdle heights of 106.7 (42 in), whilst women race over 100m and the hurdles are 83.8cm (33 in) high. Readers might like to consider why, although the answer is obvious.

If I’m a late-transitioning male-to-female athlete undergoing hormone therapy under IOC rules, not only will I have the physical advantages of being male-bodied, I’ll also retain in the short-term many of the physiological advantages associated with my naturally male physiology and previous athletic training, although the size of, and timescale for, these male performance advantages currently remains unknown. Then, I’ll even get to throw implements that are considerably lighter than I’m used to, as well as go over hurdles and steeplechase barriers that are considerably lower. Quite frankly, it couldn’t be more unfair.