Fairness is at the heart of sport and without separate categories for the sexes there would be no women in Olympic finals.
By conflating gender and sex, I would argue we fudge the very reason we have sex categories in sport: the male performance advantage. Without a separate category for females, there would be no women in Olympic finals. Even in the 100m, one of the events with the smallest performance gap, approximately 10,000 men worldwide have personal bests faster than the current Olympic female champion, Elaine Thompson-Herah (10.70sec). And it’s not just track and field. While the smallest attainment gap between the sexes comes in running, rowing and swimming events (11-13%), this moves up to 16%-22% in track cycling, and between 29% and 34% when it comes to bowling cricket balls and weightlifting. The difference in punch power between men and women is a whopping 162%. Not, then, to be sniffed at. But the International Olympic Committee tweaked its guidelines in 2015 to allow 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. Transgender men face no restrictions in the male category for obvious reasons.
Increasingly, however, research is showing that these testosterone guidelines do not guarantee the “fair competition” the IOC was hoping for. Ross Tucker, a sports scientist and expert on testosterone advantage in sport, succinctly sums it up: “Lowering of testosterone is almost completely ineffective in taking away the biological differences between males and females.” There is just no proof that reducing testosterone takes away the advantage of muscle mass, strength, lean body mass, muscle size or bone density.
Serena Williams told David Letterman that were she to play Andy Murray, “I would lose, 6-0, 6-0, in … maybe 10 minutes”. Male puberty and androgens give an advantage in a different stratosphere.
Some claim that this debate is irrelevant as trans women aren’t winning everything, which is true. The simple explanation is that the athletes who have transitioned haven’t generally been good enough. As Tucker says, the best female cyclist will beat 99% of men, but the best men are 10-15% better.
The American cyclist Veronica Ivy (previously known as Rachel McKinnon) says hang the heartache, trans women are women and should simply be able to self-identify themselves into the women’s category at every level. This argument has got some traction. In which case, why bother having sex categories for sport at all? Just put everyone in together and watch biological males win the lot. I’d argue the opposite. The science is young. Stop. Breathe. Trans women should be able to live their sporting lives to the fullest so if research can find a way for them to participate in female sports without advantage, brilliant. Until then, remove the idea of gender altogether and revert to sex-based categories – a female category and an open category that can cater for trans men who have taken testosterone, trans women and men.