The USA’s governing body for powerlifting, the USAPL, was brought into the spotlight in January because of their decision to go against the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC’s) policy of banning all transgender athletes. This sparked outrage among many competitors, trans and cis-gender alike, but the decision has also received a lot of support.
The argument against transgender athletes competing in sports mostly focuses on people who have undergone the transition from male to female, since they would appear to have an advantage over cis female athletes. The thinking goes that men are usually bigger, stronger, and faster than women, and that transgender women retain many of these advantages even after their transition.
These claims aren’t evidence based and I would argue that much of the hostility towards transgender athletes is reactionary, based on loose anecdotal evidence, and assumptions regarding the effects that transitioning has or doesn’t has. Many sports organisations have turned these ignorant notions into official policies.
Every study on transgender athletes suggest that they don’t have an advantage over cis women. In fact, there doesn’t appear to be a single piece of research concluding that they have any advantage in sport.
The IOC requires that transgender women take androgen blockers and oestrogen for two years before they can compete as females. This process has been shown to decrease muscle mass and increase body fat, which is consistent with women.
A study on elite runners, cyclists, and rowers, who transitioned from male to female, showed decreases in performance which was in line with elite female athletes. The only other study measuring athletic performance in trans athletes showed that trans women’s running times were similar to the times of the biological female athletes. As for concerns that trans women are still bigger and taller, weight classes would naturally serve as a way to ensure trans women are only competing against similarly sized athletes in sports where size is advantageous (i.e. strength or combat sports).
Let’s look at the arguments against transgender athletes competing from an observational standpoint. The IOC has allowed transgender athletes to compete for almost 15 years and there’s been a lot of transgender women competing in Olympic sports since then. If transgender women really have such an advantage, then why aren’t they dominating sports?
There hasn’t been a single transgender athlete to win an Olympic medal. It would make sense to reassess the rules if transgender athletes obviously have an advantage, but the only way to collect evidence on any supposed advantages at elite levels in sport is to allow trans athletes to compete.
People don’t transition for glory in sports. If that was the case, wouldn’t it be easier to just impersonate a woman than to go through the extensive process of hormone replacement therapy for several years?
Between 1948 and 1992, the IOC tested gender in up to 20 per cent of female athletes, but never found a male imposter. Instead, women with conditions such as androgen insensitivity were singled out and bullied by the media. Countless policies have approached the gender of athletes with a total disregard for science or the athletes’ perspectives, and have only served to make trans athletes feel alienated and excluded.
There’s something to be said about empathy in this debate. These policies affect the athlete’s lives far more than the spectators. Sport offers health, purpose, community, and a sense of accomplishment. It’s had an invaluable impact on millions of lives. We should focus on solutions that fairly include everyone, rather than accepting policies that hurt and victimise the already vulnerable.
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