Why is the female sports category important for women?
Male puberty locks in many changes to the male body that simply cannot be reversed. Males are (on average) taller, heavier, have bigger heads, longer arms and greater reach. They have greater lung capacity and the angle of their pelvic bones are different. This means they can run faster, jump longer, throw further and lift more.
The differences in performance for elite male and female athletes is so marked across a wide range of sports that female athletes simply cannot bridge that gap.2 If women are to have the same opportunities in sport as men, at both amateur and elite level, they need a women-only category.
How is the female sports category under threat?
After many years of progress for women’s participation in sports, a new challenge has appeared: male-born athletes who identify as women are being allowed to compete against females.
This is unfair to women.
Female athletes who want to protest this clear injustice often face barriers: they risk a media backlash, jeopardising contracts with commercial sponsors, and being disciplined by their sporting bodies.
How did we get to this situation?
In 2003 the International Olympic Committee (IOC) issued a set of regulations that permitted transwomen to compete if they met the following criteria:
· Testes removed two years prior to competition
· Legal female identity
· Hormone levels similar to female profiles.
In 2015 new guidelines loosened the qualifying criteria for transwomen.
· “Sex reassignment surgery” was no longer required. Athletes could retain their testicles
· A “sworn declaration” of female identity was sufficient, and there was no longer a requirement to be legally female
· Testosterone must be maintained at less than 10 nmol for a minimum of 12 months (this is much higher than female ranges).
Many sporting bodies embraced the IOC guidelines. A few, including the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), have set lower testosterone limits (though often higher than typical female ranges).
When males transition to transwomen, don’t they lose the advantages they once had?
When males transition, their testosterone can be lowered either by removing the testes, which is irreversible, or by using hormones (most commonly oestrogen) which temporarily reduces testosterone production.
The normal range of testosterone levels for biological women is 0.12 to 1.79 nmol/L. The normal range for biological men is 7.7 to 29.4 nmol/L. 3
Testosterone is responsible for much of the performance advantage that males enjoy. In the past it was widely used to dope female athletes, before drug testing procedures became more sophisticated.
The most robust scientific evidence indicates that transwomen retain performance advantages even if they reduce their testosterone levels artificially. Although they often lose some muscle mass compared to non-transitioned males, they can be up to 30% stronger than females.
In addition, transwomen undergo very little skeletal change post-transition. They retain their height, leg length, stride and arm span. In short, the very many physical advantages conferred by a male puberty cannot be fully reversed.
Why all the fuss now? If this was a significant issue, surely we would have seen lots of transgender Olympic gold medallists before now?
The 2015 IOC regulations required the testosterone limit to have been met for at least 12 months. There was not sufficient lead time for transwomen athletes to meet these requirements in time to qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics. The Tokyo Olympics will be the first Olympics when transgender women will be able to compete with so few restrictions. Transwomen athletes could feasibly represent New Zealand in women’s events at the Tokyo games.
Regardless of medals lost and won, each trans athlete who competes in women’s events potentially takes a woman’s place. In some cases the participation of male-bodied athletes in women’s events can deter women taking part in sporting activities altogether. This is important, because we know that women and girls are already under-represented in sports in terms of participation and funding. In some countries, such as the US, where sports scholarships enable promising athletes to attend college, young women risk losing educational and sporting opportunities to male-born athletes. Often they are able to compete in women’s sporting categories on the basis of gender identity alone, without needing to undergo any type of medical or surgical transition at all.
Don’t trans athletes deserve to participate in sport?
Yes. Everyone should be encouraged to participate in sport. Where sports categories are split by sex, in recognition of the physical advantages that males have over females, male-born athletes should compete in the men’s category.
Men have a role to play here: it is important that they ensure that gender non-conforming males feel welcome in their sports and on their teams. There are examples of where this is already happening.
How can I take action in support of women’s sport?
Speak Up for Women believes that sports categories for women and girls should remain restricted to biological females.
Use our easy form to send an automatic email to the New Zealand Olympic Committee, Sport NZ, and Minister for Sport & Recreation Hon Grant Robertson