Sports

Women’s Sports Are under Attack

Runners in the women’s 800-meter semifinal race during the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Eugene, Ore., June 25, 2021. (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)
Laurel Hubbard’s Olympic qualification was a clarifying moment. Here’s how we got there.

There was general outrage when Laurel Hubbard’s inclusion in women’s Olympic weightlifting meant that a young woman of Tongan origin, Kuinini ‘Nini’ Manumua, missed out on going to her first Olympics. Within days, the discretionary 14th slot in the women’s 87kg+ (roughly 192lb) competition had been given to Manumua. (In each weight class, 13 places are decided by world and regional rankings, with the final place going either to the home nation or by invitation, as in this case.)

This is not a solution to the problem of male incursion into female sport. A woman has missed out on going to Tokyo. We just don’t know her name. As so often in history, Anonymous is a woman. And unless the IOC and other sports bodies change their policies, she won’t be the last woman excluded or sidelined by this behavior.

The International Olympic Committee says it’s committed to equal opportunities in competition for the sexes. It states:

Sport is one of the most powerful platforms for promoting gender equality and empowering women and girls. As the leader of the Olympic Movement, the IOC has an important responsibility to take action when it comes to gender equality — a basic human right of profound importance and a Fundamental Principle of the Olympic Charter.

The pace of the move towards equality has been sedate. Women participated in the Olympic Games for the first time in 1900 and made up 2.2 percent (22 women) of the athletes competing in tennis, sailing, croquet, equestrian and golf. The Women’s marathon was added in 1984. Weightlifting, the modern pentathlon, taekwondo, the triathlon, and the trampoline all debuted in 2000. Bobsleigh for women arrived in 2002, rugby in 2006, boxing in 2012, ski-jumping in 2014, and mass-start speed-skating in 2018. In every case, this was many Olympic cycles after men’s competitions in the discipline.

In 2003, even before the IOC permitted women to play rugby, box, or ski-jump for medals, it addressed the need to find a place in the Games for male-born transsexuals, people who had gone through genital surgery, euphemistically known at the time as full sex-change surgery. At that point, evidence was sparse, but five studies had been published on bone-density changes after medical transition, with none detecting any significant differences compared with males. The IOC may also have had pre-publication access to a 2004 study of the effects of female-hormone treatment on transitioning males, which showed that total muscle mass decreased but still remained considerably larger than for females. Its author, Louis Gooren, advised the IOC at the time and was quoted as saying, “Depending on the levels of arbitrariness one wants to accept, it is justifiable that reassigned males compete with other women.”

The criteria for transsexual males to participate in the female category were:

  • Testes removal at least two years before competing
  • Legal status as female
  • Hormones in line with female levels

The IOC initially predicted that, as only 1 in 12,000 males has gender dysphoria, the number of transitioned males wishing to compete as females would be negligible. In 2005, Arne Ljungqvist and Myron Genel, both IOC committee members, wrote, “Inevitably there will be transgendered athletes, such as Renee Richards, who will be competitive at a high level, but most will probably wish to compete only at a Masters level or at local and regional events.”

Women’s desire for fair competition at masters, local, or regional levels was, presumably, expendable.

Caving In to the Human-Rights Argument

No one has a human right to compete in the Olympic Games. Nonetheless, in 2015, amid legal arguments about a surgical requirement being a breach of human rights, the IOC reviewed its 2003 policy. The new policy ditched not just the testes-removal requirement but all three of the old criteria, opening up eligibility to compete as female to many more trans-identifying males, not just transsexuals. Now all that’s needed is a declaration of gender identity, and testosterone suppression for twelve months, to a level that is still ten times higher than the typical female level. The IOC guideline states:

The athlete must demonstrate that her total testosterone level in serum has been below 10 nmol/L for at least 12 months prior to her first competition (with the requirement for any longer period to be based on a confidential case-by-case evaluation, considering whether or not 12 months is a sufficient length of time to minimise any advantage in women’s competition).

There is, of course, no restriction on females wanting to access the male events.

Since 2003, several more studies had been published. The conclusions had not changed. Testosterone suppression and/or estrogen treatment changes a male body, reducing some aspects such as total muscle mass and body fat. But compared with female bodies, they retain most of their advantage, which translates into a performance advantage in sport ranging from 10 percent to over 30 percent, depending on the discipline. However, one study showed something different. That was the one by IOC adviser Joanna Harper, not a doctor, sports scientist, or biologist, but a transwoman distance runner who noticed a falloff in personal performance post-transition of about 10 percent. Based on recalled data from seven others, and published in a journal of dubious independence (authors pay to be published and review one another’s work), the Harper study nonetheless was used to justify the IOC’s 2015 revised policy, which they proposed for all sports. That’s despite the fact that, in some cases, the slower times translated into an improvement in rankings when counted as a female performance.

Worldwide Adoption

Following the IOC’s publication of its 2015 policy, international sport federations and national governing bodies adopted the IOC guidelines with no impact assessment on fairness, privacy, or safety for women and girls. They seem to have done so without questioning the medical or scientific evidence, such is the influence of the IOC. They also took the twelve months as standard and sufficient, despite the IOC’s weaselly “considering whether or not . . . it is sufficient” clause.

Nor did these bodies think about compliance. In practice, in most sports in most events, worldwide, there is no monitoring of testosterone suppression. Competitors simply register as female, turn up, and compete. Most sporting events have no mechanism for checking testosterone suppression, even if they were to dare approach a “female” competitor and request to do so.

High estrogen has the indirect effect of suppressing testosterone production, but two recent studies have revealed that this varies a lot between individuals, and in many cases testosterone remains high. In one study, only 25 percent of medically transitioned transwomen achieved testosterone levels in the “female range.” In June 2021, trans-identifying male college hurdler Cece Telfer fell afoul of this and was barred from the U.S. women’s athletics trials, because of high testosterone. Telfer became the NCAA women’s champion in the 400m hurdles in 2019, after years competing as a male hurdler but never breaking into the top 200. Cece complains that, although the hurdles are lower for women, it’s harder for a transwoman because being taller creates more wind resistance, and also there is less space between hurdles, requiring stride adjustment for someone over 6 feet tall. Given that Cece seems to feel disadvantaged in the women’s event, it is tempting to suggest trying the event perfectly designed for male bodies instead.

More Evidence, Same Conclusion

Since 2015, there have been at least ten further published studies. They are consistent in showing evidence that hormones do affect the bodies of transwomen but that they in no way remove the overwhelming male performance advantage. This is no longer in doubt. Instead, it’s become, as one IOC adviser said, “much more of a social issue than in the past. It is an adaptation of a human rights issue.” It’s a political decision, not based on defending the female category or ensuring a level playing field for women but on justifying access for males who assert their female identity.

Few have shown the courage to question this. USA Powerlifting is one national governing body that has, and now it faces a legal challenge. World Rugby has evaluated the evidence and concluded that its duty not to make the game more dangerous for women means that transwomen may not play full-contact rugby on women’s teams. A few athletes have dared to speak up, such as Brazilian volleyballer Ana Paula Henkel, who wrote an open letter to the IOC, and British swimmer Sharron Davies, who coordinated a letter from 60 top athletes to the IOC demanding a review. There was no answer. But these athletes are retired from international competition. Active athletes report anonymously that they are afraid to speak out for fear of being sidelined. After the McKinnon affair, some cyclists were warned that they risked losing their sponsorship and that of their team if they objected.

Some sports bodies, such as England Rugby, say that they’ve consulted women players and found them keen to be inclusive.  There is pressure to “be kind,” accommodating, and “progressive,” as well as more-direct threats to be silent or else. But rules for safety and fairness in sports are not made by consensus with competitors; they’re made by the governing body and enforced, whether participants like it or not. This should be no different.

Laurel Hubbard will probably be the oldest weightlifter at this year’s Olympics (though Italy’s transgender Paralympic sprinter Valentina Petrillo is 47). But next time we can expect males in their prime competing in women’s events. With decent training, a fairly average male body will surpass an elite female in speed and strength. In time, it won’t be the rare phenomenon that the IOC imagined, and that many think is acceptable. In fact, since these athletes are reported as being women, we won’t know half the time, unless we actually see them. The collateral damage for women has been totally discounted. Instead, sports bodies from the IOC all the way to local soccer clubs have elevated the needs of trans-identifying males and their wish to participate in the women’s category. Women’s objections have been ignored or silenced. The standard response to women’s concern about trans inclusion is: What harm does it do you, to let a transwoman be a woman? But there is always a woman who misses out. We just don’t know her name.

Nicola Williams is a biologist and the director of Fair Play for Women, a campaigning and consultancy group that raises awareness, provides evidence and analysis, and supports policy-makers to protect the rights of women and girls in the U.K.

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