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Trans women in female sports: Fairness and inclusion can’t always be balanced

Any debate on transgender participation must start by asking why women’s sports exist as a category, says South African sports scientist Ross Tucker, in an interview with Medscape. Tucker, who testified on behalf of Olympic sensation Caster Semenya in the Court of Arbitration for Sport decision on her participation, says sport is unique in that “biology does matter”.

When American transgender swimmer Lia Thomas won the women’s 500-yard freestyle at the 2022 NCAA Division 1 swimming championships, the issue of trans women’s participation in female sports ignited national headlines.

Medscape interviewed Ross Tucker, PhD, an exercise physiologist from South Africa, who was involved in the World Rugby Transgender Guidelines, which prohibit trans women’s participation.

Tucker said the whole point of sports is to recognise people who have advantages and reward them for it. To say that trans women, basically biological males, should be allowed to compete in women’s sports, is an implicit acceptance that there are advantages.

“You have to start by asking why women’s sports exist,” he said. “It’s because we recognise that male physiology has biological differences that create performance advantages. Women’s sports exist to ensure male advantages are excluded. If you allow male advantage in, you’re allowing something to cross into a category that specifically tries to exclude it. That makes the advantage possessed by trans women conceptually and substantively different from an advantage that’s possessed by say Michael Phelps, because his advantage doesn’t cross a category boundary line.”

He added that if someone wanted to allow natural advantages to be celebrated in sports, “they’re arguing against the existence of any categories, because every single category in sports is trying to filter out certain advantages”.

“Weight categories in boxing exist to get rid of the advantage of being stronger, taller, with greater reach. Paralympic categories filter out the natural advantage that someone has if, for example, they are only mildly affected by cerebral palsy compared with more severely affected.

“If someone wants to allow natural advantages, they're making an argument for all advantages to be eliminated from regulation, and we would end up with sports dominated by males between the ages of 20 and 28.”

On the suggestion that some people were recommending open categories by height and weight, Tucker responded: “The problem is that for any height, males will be stronger, faster, more powerful than females. For any mass, and we know this because weightlifting has categories by mass, males lift about 30% heavier than females. They’ll be about 10%-15% faster at the same height and weight.”

To the statement that if trans women have an advantage, then they would be dominating, Tucker said this “misunderstands how you assess advantage”.

“For a trans woman to win, she still has to be good enough at the base level without the advantage, to parlay that advantage into winning the women's events. There are a few things in play, and nuances around the idea of advantage that people from outside sports don't always appreciate.

“But then the second thing comes into play and that's the fact that this is an emotive issue. If you come to this debate wanting trans inclusion, then you reject the idea that it's unfair. You will dismiss everything I've just said.”

In most walks of life, people say that women can do anything.

“But sports are different,” he argued. “In sports, it's not possible to directly compare male and female, and then tell girls they can be the best at whatever in the whole human race. That’s the uniqueness of sports and the reason categories exist in the first place. The biology does matter.”

Tucker has always maintained that the focus on testosterone levels is a bit of a red herring, and believes that the authorities “grabbed on to the idea that lowering testosterone was the solution and perpetuated that as the mechanism by which we would ensure fairness”.

“The problem is that my concentration of testosterone today is only a tiny part of the story.

“I've been exposed to testosterone my whole life. My twin sister has not. There are many differences between us, but in terms of sports, the main biological difference is not that my testosterone is higher today; it's that my testosterone has been higher my whole life. It’s the work done by that hormone over many years that makes a difference.

“The key issue is, has this body, this physiology, been exposed to and benefited in the sports context, from male hormones — yes or no?

“If your answer is yes, then that body belongs in male sports. With gender identity, we want to accommodate as far as possible, but we can't take away that difference. That’s where we create this collision of rights between trans women and women.”

Ultimately, said the interviewer, his point then was “that we can't have both fairness and inclusion”.

“When we sat down to do the World Rugby trans guidance, we had an epiphany: It doesn't matter which way we go; we're going to face hostility. Once you accept that there are two parties who are affected and one of them will always be unhappy, you start to see that fairness and inclusion can't be balanced.”

What about the proposal to make rules case by case and sport by sport?

“That could be tricky legally because you’re effectively discriminating against some people within a subset of a subset. You’re going to end up saying to some trans women, ‘You can play because you don’t pose a safety or fairness issue’. But to another, ‘You can’t because you’re too strong’.”

The problem then, he added, is how do you do that screening?

“It’s not like you can measure half a dozen variables and then have an algorithm spit out a performance level that tells you this trans woman can compete here safely and fairly. It’s a theoretical solution that is practically impossible.”

On whether he would ever make a distinction between elite and sub-elite, Tucker replied: “One of the beauties of sports is that it's a meritocracy; it functions on a pathway system. I don't think the level matters if you can track that this person’s presence denied a place on the team or a place at the competition to someone else.

“With Lia Thomas, it’s not only denying the silver medallist gold or fourth place a bronze; it’s also the fact that there are only so many places at that meet. For some, that was their ambition and they weren’t able to realise it.

“We can try to accommodate trans women when the stakes are not high, provided that two requirements are met: One is that there's no disruption to the selection/meritocracy pathway; and the second key point is that women must be okay with that inclusion, particularly if there are safety considerations, but even if it's just a fairness consideration.”

And that’s where it gets tricky, he said, because there are bigoted people in the world. “Unfortunately, sometimes it’s difficult to tell whether people are using scientific arguments to prop up bigotry or whether they are genuine.”

He said in World Rugby, they proposed open competitions lower in contact to deal with the safety concerns. “That was rejected by the trans community because they felt it was othering – that we were trying to squeeze them off to the side. If you offered me one of two choices: no participation, or inclusion and they have to be able to win, I’d go for the former. “

Tucker’s introduction to the topic of transgender sports competitors came about when he testified in the Caster Semenya case at the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

“That is not a transgender issue; it's a difference of sex development issue. What it has in common is the question of what to do with male-bodied biological advantage in sports.

“When World Rugby joined the Olympic Games, we followed the IOC transgender policy. In 2019, it became apparent from the latest research that male advantage isn’t removed by testosterone suppression. We decided to delete the previous policy and make a new one.

“The latest IOC policy is kind of no policy; it leaves it up to the governing bodies for each sport.

“The one element of progress in what the IOC released, and it really is the only one, is that they’ve recognised that sports have to manage three imperatives: fairness, inclusion, and safety.

“The 2015 IOC document says something like ‘sports should strive to be as inclusive as possible, but the overriding objective remains to guarantee a fair competition’. Basically, fair competition was non-negotiable and must be guaranteed.

“Of course, that policy allowed for testosterone suppression, and you’d have a difficult time convincing a physiologist that lowering testosterone guarantees fair competition.

“Where there is merit in the current policy is that it’s clear that sports like rugby, boxing, taekwondo, and judo have a different equation with respect to safety, fairness, and inclusion than sports like equestrian, shooting, and archery. I think that’s wise to acknowledge.”

However, he pointed out, the IOC policy doesn’t do anything to lead.

“In fact, what they said was extraordinary: There should be no presumption of advantage. If there’s no presumption of advantage for male-bodied athletes, then why do they persist with two categories? If there’s no presumption of advantage for trans women, are they saying that gender identity removes the advantage? We know that’s not true. We know that at the very least, you should presume that there is some advantage. How you manage it is up to you, but you can’t say that it’s not there. “

Tucker said the Lia Thomas case had “brought out a lot of vitriol”.

“Presumably, Lia Thomas is trans, identifies as a woman, and therefore thinks she belongs in women’s sports. But I’ve seen people saying she only wants to swim in women’s sports because she knows she’ll win. And that’s not the worst of it. I’ve seen people saying Lia Thomas is only identifying as a woman so she can get into women’s changing rooms.

“I don’t see how that helps the conversation. It just polarises to the point that neither side is listening to the other. Before, it was the trans community that wasn’t interested in talking about the idea of advantage, fairness, and safety. Their position is that trans women are women; how do you even have a discussion when they’ve got that dogma as their foundation?”


Medscape article – Trans Women in Female Sports: A Sports Scientist's Take (Open access)


Caster Semenya Decision: Full CAS report (Open access)


See more from MedicalBrief archives:


Texas law bans transgender girls from female school sports


Accommodating trans athletes without rejecting the reality of human biology


IAAF decision on testosterone ‘a victory for female athletes everywhere’



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