The recent Commonwealth Games seemed to celebrate the importance of diversity within sport. However, the increasing emergence of elite trans women, such as cyclist Emily Bridges, and swimmer, Lia Thomas, has shown clear limitations to inclusivity. The inclusion of trans women within women’s sport has sparked great controversy, with many believing that inclusive comes at the expense of safety and fairness. And in the context of sport, which is already divided into male and female to maximise both fairness and safety, does inclusion guarantee these?
Guidance from the International Olympic Committee in November 2021 stated that transgender athletes cannot be assumed to have an unfair advantage. Therefore, they have allowed individual sports to decide upon their own regulations surrounding the inclusion of trans women in women’s sports. Swimming’s global body, FINA, took the decision in June 2022 to ban trans women from competing in elite competitions.
This is on the basis that these competitors have significant physical advantages after undergoing male puberty, even if their testosterone is suppressed. Other sports have taken a more inclusive approach, however, with many implementing tough regulations for trans women to ensure their sport remains as fair as possible. For instance, cycling’s body, the Union Cycliste Internationale, requires female riders to have a testosterone level lower than 2.5 nmol/L for a minimum of 24 months. owever, these decisions are not always clear-cut. Many questions have been raised for the sporting industry, which is facing immense pressures to preserve the fairness and safety of women’s sport, whilst ensuring they are being inclusive.
This non-inclusion rests on the belief that trans women have an inherent physical advantage over athletes who were born female. But does the science back this up? Ross Tucker, a leading sports scientist, has stated that the physiological differences established between men and women during puberty can result in “significant performance advantages.”1 Whilst many athletes are being forced to lower their testosterone levels to compete, Tucker suggests that the changes undergone during puberty are often irreversible.2 Therefore, these biological differences will persist, granting trans women an unfair biological advantage over their competitors. Sport has been divided into two categories: female and male, to exclude this male advantage. Therefore, Tucker cannot justify the inclusion of trans women in women’s sports until this advantage can be proven not to persist.3 It seems apparent that until further research is conducted, there may not be a way to allow for both fairness and inclusivity.
Others have also been very vocal in advocating to protect the fairness of women’s sports. Caitlin Jenner, a trans woman and activist, who won a gold medal in the 1976 Olympic men’s decathlon, praised FINA’s decision to ban trans women from elite competitions. In a tweet she declared, “what’s fair is fair!” and that “if you go through male puberty you should not be able to take medals away from females.”4 This may appear a brutal outlook, however, for many cisgender female athletes, the reality of losing out on achievements after years of training is a bleak one.
An even more pressing issue concerns the safety of cisgender women within sport. Whilst the rights of trans women should not be curtailed, preserving them may come at the expense of competitors, who have a right to feel safe. Particularly within contact sports, such as rugby and boxing, the safety of those participating is compromised with the inclusion of trans women with larger, broader, quicker, and more powerful physicalities. A recent study found that a male’s average punching power was 162 per cent higher than females.5 In this light, carrying out a safe, fair boxing match seems impossible and puts many athletes at risk. Competitors are owed a duty of care, and their safety should not have to take a backseat.
A solution to this problem was proposed by swimming body, FINA, to introduce an open category. This would either mean turning the men’s category into an open one whilst protecting the female category or introducing a third category. This would grant opportunities to athletes “without regard to their sex, their legal gender, or their gender identity"6 and aims to promote inclusivity. However, trans athletes have been quick to dismiss this proposal, branding it as unethical. Trans cyclist, Veronica Ivy, believes this is “an extreme indignity” to trans women, who are “legally, socially, and medically women” and, therefore, is “the very definition of separate but equal.”7 Seen as extremely ostracising to many trans athletes, it is debatable whether this would promote inclusivity. Furthermore, it is questionable whether there would be enough trans athletes to support this third open category as their participation is already incredibly low.
The sporting world does not seem to offer a simple answer to debates surrounding trans women’s’ inclusion, or at least not one which makes everyone happy. It seems nearly impossible to guarantee both the safety and fairness for cisgender women as well as inclusion. Until we conduct further scientific research, and provide better solutions, it will have to rest on individual sports to best decide their course of action. And for some sports, the best decision may result in excluding trans women. However, with scientific and medical advancements, hopefully trans women’s’ inclusion within sports will one day be secured.
Written by Hannah Robinson