Caitlyn Jenner, the former Olympic champion and reality TV personality now running for Governor of California, said last month she objects to transgender girls competing in girls’ sports at school.
Jenner, a 1976 decathlon Olympic gold medallist who began her own journey to transgender womanhood in 2015, said to a TMZ reporter it is “a question of fairness”.
Fairness is, of course, essential to any sporting competition. The physical changes men go through during puberty mean that trans women, even after transitioning, are likely to have certain advantages, including when it comes to height, muscle mass and organ size – all of which can significantly impact a person’s sporting ability.
It is for this reason that, from puberty, genders compete separately in most sports; so that athletes can compete against one another on a level playing field, according to immutable biological facts.
Laurel Hubbard, 43, is set to become the first transgender Olympian after being selected to represent New Zealand. This has sparked the latest round in an increasingly volatile debate on whether trans women should compete in women’s sport.
Today, the terms sex and gender are often used interchangeably, but society’s drive towards inclusivity has resulted in sex and gender becoming two different concepts altogether: sex is defined by a person’s biological attributes, while gender is considered a societal construct based on an individual’s self-realisation and identity.
This is not to deny the very real sense of masculinity and femininity created by gender dysphoria and should in no way be seen as denying the right of the individual to choose their own gender identity. But by conflating gender and sex, we erode the purpose of having different sex categories in sport and, by doing so, inevitably grant trans women an obvious performance advantage.
People who are born male, and who go through male puberty without medical intervention, have an obvious advantage over athletes who are born biologically female. This should not be a controversial statement.
It is an inconvenient truth that if women did not have their own categories, many would simply not be able to compete. In the 100m sprint, it is estimated 10,000 men worldwide have personal bests faster than the current Olympic female champion, Elaine Thompson-Herah. When comparing athletes who compete directly against one another, such as elite or same-aged school athletes, the performance data strongly suggests that the physiological advantages conferred by biological sex are insurmountable.
The smallest attainment gap between the sexes is in running, rowing and swimming events (11-13 per cent) but in strength based events, particularly involving the upper body, this starting difference is far greater – weight lifting world records are 25 per cent to 35 per cent better in men than women, even when you correct for mass.
The International Olympic Committee changed their guidelines in 2015 to permit athletes such as Hubbard to compete in the women’s category, provided their total testosterone level in serum is kept below 10 nanomoles per litre for at least 12 months.
Increasingly, however, research is showing that these testosterone guidelines do not guarantee the “fair competition” the IOC was hoping for. Lowering of testosterone is almost completely ineffective in taking away the biological variances between males and females. Dr. Antonia Lee, an elite coach with degrees in science and sports medicine, recently wrote:
“Testosterone during growth, puberty and maturation results in quite remarkable differences between the sexes. Testosterone in males at puberty drives: an increase in bone size and density; an increase in muscle size and strength; an increase in the tensile strength of ligaments and connective tissue; an increase in red blood cells… the list is extensive.”
Most experts say that the average testosterone production for biological females ranges between 0.52 to 2.8 nmol/L. The consensus is nearly always below 3 nanomoles/L. But federations like the IOC only require a male-born athlete to keep testosterone production below 10 nanomoles/L.
So even if a biological female was genetically gifted with testosterone levels that reached 3 nmol/L, that would still be less than half of what a trans woman would be permitted to have during competition.
Despite this persuasive evidence, the IOC is leaving it up to individual sporting federations to decide their own transgender policies. Most have done so in accordance with the wishes of trans lobby groups without consulting female athletes, such as the New Zealand Olympic Committee which selected Hubbard.
The progress of equality in sport should not be derailed by the debate over trans rights and women must continue to fight for their right to be considered biologically unique and this means talking about sex and sex-determined biology.
Unfortunately, the debate has been stifled by a fringe of transgender activists who choose to disregard the fact that women may find competing with biological males problematic. When I recently suggested on Twitter that only biological females should compete in women’s sport, an account proclaiming itself to be a trans lobby group retorted that now transgender women can compete they would be “smashing” women’s records.
In December 2018 retired tennis legend Martina Navratilova was heavily criticised for tweeting: “You can’t just proclaim yourself a female and be able to compete against women. There must be some standards, and having a penis and competing as a woman would not fit that standard.”
Navratilova was forced into silence on the issue but later wrote in The Sunday Times that having done some extensive research on the subject her “views have strengthened.” Navratilova is still making the same arguments but now in more inclusive terms.
Everyone should have the right to participate in sport. However, this must not come at the expense of women’s rights. In my view, the best way to achieve would be to return to sex-based categories, with a separate category for trans women and men.
If women feel they are unable to compete fairly for medals, they simply will not wish to participate in such competitions. The regulatory authorities which govern each sport must do all they can to guarantee both fair competition access to competition for women.
I train in the gym every day. I train hard. But I know that I will never be able to compete with the man standing next to me in the weights room. Biology makes this almost impossible. What motivates me is being the best I can be. If you take that away, you destroy women’s sport.