Decision time: why the sport is struggling to deal with the transgender dispute | Sport

FForget Center Court, St Andrews or Wembley. The biggest battles this summer of sport are being fought in boardrooms and backrooms, as federations grapple with the thorniest question of all: should transgender women be allowed to participate in women’s sport?

For years, most have considered the subject too dangerous to touch: the sporting equivalent of playing pass the pack with a live grenade. Now, however, they have no choice. The rise of elite trans women, like weightlifter Laurel Hubbard, swimmer Lia Thomas, and cyclist Emily Bridges, has seen to that. Decisions have to be made. Difficult decisions, too.

On Sunday, global swimming body Fina created a seismic wave when it voted to ban trans women from international women’s competition. His argument, in short, was that swimmers like Thomas retain significant physical advantages (in endurance, power, speed, strength, and lung size) going through male puberty, even if testosterone is later suppressed.

Science backs it up. Research by biologists Emma Hilton and Tommy Lungberg on the effects of testosterone suppression on muscle mass and strength in transgender women “consistently shows very modest changes [which] it normally amounts to about 5% after 12 months of treatment”. Another study by Joanna Harper, a trans woman at Loughborough University, also found that “strength may well be preserved in trans women during the first three years of hormone therapy.”

But the decision by swimming and rugby leagues in the last 48 hours to bar trans women from international competition doesn’t necessarily mean most sports will follow suit. World Athletics is the most likely, given Sebastian Coe’s comments on Monday that “fairness is non-negotiable” and “biology trumps identity”. But after that, things are murky: Most sports still use some kind of testosterone cap, despite all its flaws, to allow trans women to compete in the female category.

Last Friday, for example, cycling’s governing body, the UCI, chose to go down a different path. She also accepts that science shows that trans women have an advantage. But she says that some injustice towards women in sport is acceptable in return for being inclusive.

The new cycling policy says riders like Bridges can compete in the women’s category only if they keep their testosterone below 2.5ml for 24 months. But, in a crucial and uninformed passage, it also states that fair competition is not essential. “It may not be necessary, or even possible, to remove all the individual advantages that a transgender person possesses,” the UCI writes in a policy document. “However, it is paramount that all athletes who compete have the opportunity to succeed, although not necessarily on an equal basis and in line with the true essence of the sport.”

The participation of transgender women in women’s sports is a very divisive issue. Photograph: Paul Marriott/Shutterstock

Women’s groups are understandably angry, seeing such an approach as unscientific and unfair. The Consortium on Women’s Sport, a coalition of campaign groups in seven countries including the US and UK, has called it “nothing more than a fig leaf”, adding that “there is no science to back this politics”.

The group also calls on sports federations, which are largely male-dominated, to include “meaningful consultation with female athletes in the sport in question” before deciding on their transgender policies. Few would disagree with that. However, I am told of a sport that recently surveyed its female athletes and found that a large majority of them wanted to adopt a Fina-like policy to protect competition; however, those athletes feel that they can be ignored.

Meanwhile, there is also a third potential option that sports can opt for: allowing anyone to self-identify in sports. That is clearly the most controversial. And the most dangerous, especially when it comes to combat sports since research has found that average punching power is 162% higher in men than women.

But a report last weekend suggested FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, was considering it in a preliminary framework that also suggested dropping the testosterone threshold for transgender women.

Whether that happens or not – and a senior FIFA figure told The Times that her new policy would be “based on science” – US soccer player Megan Rapinoe believes inclusion should be the starting point. “Show me the evidence that trans women are taking everyone’s scholarships, they’re dominating in every sport, they’re winning every title,” she said. “Sorry, it just isn’t happening. So we have to start from inclusion, period. I think people also need to understand that sport is not the most important thing in life, right?

Maybe. But perhaps Rapinoe should also be prepared to look those deprived of an NCAA title by Thomas, or Bridges’ possible win in a women’s race, in the eye before being so definitive.

Similar issues are also emerging at grassroots level across Britain, with frustrations clear in some quarters as trans women win local races against women. Most sports have yet to heed the call by the five UK sports councils to prioritize trans inclusion or safety and fairness for women’s sport. The situation, as its report last year made clear, is not helped by the fact that the problem remains so toxic.

“Several current female athletes suggested that while all or most female athletes considered transgender have an advantage if they compete in women’s sport, almost none would be brave enough to speak about it in public,” the Gender Equality Group report states. Sports Councils. . “So it’s easier to keep quiet and acquiesce.”

By the way, Harper is doing more research on trans women, including Bridges, to examine how values ​​of anaerobic and aerobic capacity, strength, and cardiovascular function change over time. But the solution that most sports leaders yearn for, a magic bullet that would allow full inclusion, fairness and safety, seems more impossible than ever. Decisions have to be made. Difficult decisions, too.

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