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Do Transgender Women Have an Advantage in Elite Sports?

Exploring FINA's ban against transgender women in elite swimming


Venaya Binwani


About one month ago, The International Swimming Federation, commonly recognised as FINA announced a widespread ban on transgender athletes wishing to compete in the women’s category. This ban was implemented on the grounds that transgender women, specifically those that had transitioned beyond the age of 12 or had experienced male puberty, were at a physiological advantage over their cisgender counterparts and therefore could not compete for side by side. [1] Whilst Hussain Al Mussalam, the president of FINA, announced that this decision was deliberated with the utmost care and consideration to the transgender community, the board ultimately decided to impose these regulations to preserve the fairness of competition. Some competitors, such as the Australian Olympic champion Cate Campbell, have voiced their support for the verdict, describing that ‘fairness is the cornerstone of professional sport’ and that it should therefore be preserved through these regulations. On the other hand, Australia’s two-time silver medalist Madeline Groves has expressed her outrage at the decision-making, suggesting that it was “discriminatory and unscientific” . [2] Allies and members of the LGBTQ+ community have also demonstrated their indignation at FINA’s major setback to inclusion. So, was FINA’s decision justified? Do transgender women possess an advantage in competitive sports? It may not be a simple question to answer, however, it is still pertinent to deliberate the validity of the arguments used to justify the decision ultimately made. To tackle this question, I have used the data compiled from an interview with sports physicist Joanna Harper, who has previously shared her expertise with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to advertise gender-based sporting regulations. [3]


First of all, it may be important to consider that at face value, ensuring that no athlete has an advantage over another on the grounds of biology, is a valid attempt to preserve fairness in competitive sport. This is not a new concept of course, given the fact that a multitude of sporting events are segregated by sex, with a men’s and women’s category (notwithstanding mixed sports teams), and that taking performance-enhancing drugs or ‘doping’ is very tightly regulated by sporting bodies. During puberty, men biologically undergo a wide range of physiological changes that bring about intrinsic and extrinsic advantages to physical performance. The most notable of these is an increase in the production of the hormone testosterone. Testosterone itself helps to build muscle mass, increases haemoglobin production (which aids oxygen transport for aerobic exercise), and alters bone density and structure. However, it is important to note that IOC regulations mandate that all transgender women undergo hormone therapy for at least 12 months before qualifying to compete, notwithstanding the existing blood testosterone cap that exists for all athletes competing in the women’s category. In 2016, the IOC adopted a guideline that allowed trans women to compete in sports provided their blood testosterone did not exceed 5 nanometers per litre. A recent study conducted with 250 transgender women found that 94% of participants demonstrated a blood testosterone concentration of fewer than 2 nanometers per litre. To put this in perspective, 95% of cisgender women have circulating testosterone levels below 2 nanometres per litre, making the discrepancy almost negligible. [3]

Once the appropriate drugs are administered and the endocrinological transition is underway, trans athletes begin to lose their characteristically ‘male’ attributes. New evidence has suggested that these women lose a substantial amount of their strength and lean muscle mass just after a year into transition. Moreover, studies have highlighted that after as little as 3-4 months of hormone therapy, transgender women have very similar concentrations of haemoglobin to your average cis-gendered women, which would negate the speculated advantages they may have in aerobic exercise. [3]


However, this evidence doesn’t entirely tackle the main argument at hand, that even with hormone therapy, prior exposure to testosterone during puberty will bring about irreversible physiological changes such as height and bone structure, which could therefore serve as an advantage in a sport such as swimming. And this is true. There is some evidence suggesting that trans women may have a slight advantage in certain sporting events due to their previous exposure to male puberty.[3] Whilst we cannot dispute that this may be true, we can alter the perspective with which we handle this information. This leads me to bring up the argument of race.

In the past, we have seen trends in the top placing athletes for certain sporting events. Scientists have begun to confront the widely debated possibility that black athletes are ‘genetically programmed to run for greater periods than their white counterparts. Twelve of the world’s top twenty 800-meter sprinters originate from the Kalenjin region of Kenya, and it is believed that the altitude and terrain of their hometown serve as an advantage to their endurance training. A group of Danish scientists found that the resting heart rates are far lower than their European competitors. Moreover, experts have researched the build of these runners, suggesting that Kenyan athletes often have smaller and lighter frames, as well as long and thin legs which give their running technique a bounce-like characteristic. Whilst many runners find this data to be fuelled by systemic racism, many experts express that the role of genes is undeniable in their sporting performance, without invalidating the tribulations of becoming a world-class athlete. [4]

Frame, build, height, and bone structure are all characteristics that vary drastically from population to population, and there are patterns in the body shape and size of competitive athletes originating from different parts of the world. But of course, in this day and age, segregating international sporting events based on race or country of origin would be seen as racist, despite the evident biological differences between demographics. So why is an open ‘other’ category for trans swimmers being seen as the appropriate balance between fairness and inclusion? Many people, including the aforementioned Australian Olympic swimmer Maddie Groves, have expressed their hesitancy regarding the open category that has been established in the name of inclusion. Sally Goldner, an activist for the LGBTQ lobbying group, Equal also said “The decision to isolate trans women to their own lane at the pool means effectively they cannot compete at an elite level because they will be competing against themselves,”. [2]


An interesting perspective projected by Harper in her interview, which I would like to leave you with, is that whilst the cornerstone of sport may be fairness, it is also important to assess how meaningful competition is. She suggests that you would not allow flyweight boxers to compete with heavyweight boxers because the nature of their sport is so different, that no meaningful comparison could be drawn between their performance - no matter how good your flyweight boxer is, your heavyweight boxer would win every time. However, in baseball, the configuration of the diamond serves as an advantage to left-handed players over right-handed players, and yet this advantage is overlooked, as you can still play meaningful baseball with this discrepancy. Nandi Hills runners may have a geographical or genetic advantage over their European counterparts, but they’re still open to competing because the 800-meter sprint is still a meaningful race between a Kenyan runner and their White British competitor. In the same way, trans swimmers may be taller, or have broader shoulders, but at the end of the day, there simply isn’t enough scientific evidence out there to prove that trans women cannot have meaningful competition with their cis-gendered counterparts. [3] Trans women are only now being recognised in competitive sports, and many people argue that the recognition and inclusion that trans women are striving so hard to achieve, is more important than the limited evidence suggesting that they were born into a body that allows them to swim faster. Over time, if data emerges that trans women do in fact have a significant advantage, steps can be taken to regulate that later, but why a totalitarian ban so early in the game?

I have tried to write this article in an unbiased fashion, but it has probably become clear to you where I stand on the matter. I suppose you as a reader have formulated your own opinions either through this article or other literature published surrounding the trans community in sport, but personally, I find myself questioning why FINA has thrown in the towel when their swimmers have barely set foot into the pool?


Bibliography


  1. 1. World swimming bans transgender athletes from women's events [Internet]. AP NEWS. 2022 [cited 22 July 2022]. Available from: https://apnews.com/article/transgender-swimmers-new-rules-fina-world-governing-body-c17e99d3121fa964336458b57ae266f7

  2. 2. Transgender swimming ban: Cate Campbell backs Fina restrictions [Internet]. the Guardian. 2022 [cited 21 July 2022]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2022/jun/20/transgender-swimming-ban-cate-campbell-backs-fina-restrictions-in-elite-womens-competition

  3. 3.. Do Trans Women Athletes Have Advantages? [Internet]. WebMD. 2022 [cited 17 July 2022]. Available from: https://www.webmd.com/fitness-exercise/news/20210715/do-trans-women-athletes-have-advantages

  4. 4. Black runners 'have speed genes' [Internet]. the Guardian. 2022 [cited 19 July 2022]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2000/nov/26/johnarlidge.theobserver



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