Transgender rules under review
Changes are planned to help address one of modern-day sport’s most complex issues, writes Martyn Ziegler
LEADING sporting organisations are reviewing their policy on transgender athletes amid concerns that men who transition to become women could receive an unfair advantage in female competitions. The International Olympic Committee, World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union and British Cycling are among those carrying out reviews.
Existing IOC rules allow trans women to take part in female sport if they have reduced testosterone levels, even if they still have male genitalia. Critics of that policy, including some feminist groups, say that trans athletes will have a significant advantage if they developed male bodies before they transitioned to becoming women.
The IOC has a ‘‘consensus group’’ working on the issue and aims to provide updated guidelines this year. The issue is separate to the debate on athletes such as the South African runner Caster Semenya, who has an higher than average level of testosterone. Semenya, 28, is legally challenging the IAAF’s rules that such athletes should have chemically-lowered testosterone.
Trans campaigners insist that trans athletes should not be excluded from taking part in competitive sport, and that hormone therapy to become a woman radically changes their physiology, even if they do not have surgery. The issue is hugely complex, particularly for contact sports such as rugby where physicality is important.
Last year, the transgender athlete Hannah Mouncey, a 29-yearold former member of the Australian men’s handball team, was blocked from playing in Australian Rules football’s professional women’s league on the grounds of strength and physique.
Laurel Hubbard, 41, a New Zealand weightlifter, competed as a man before transitioning at the age of 35. She took part in the Commonwealth Games last year and was expected to win gold, but had to withdraw because of an injury.
Dr Nicola Williams, from campaign group Fair Play for Women, which represents women’s voices on transgender issues, said simply having a lower testosterone level did not make it a level playing field: ‘‘The IOC have a rule that transgender people need to lower their testosterone level for at least 12 months, but that is just not sufficient. It is just an arbitrary line,’’ she said.
‘‘If someone has grown up and developed a male body and then transitioned to being a woman, then they will still have a male body, with the muscle development and the muscle memory. It is the same effect as if a woman had been doping for years to build muscle and then stopped – there is still the positive effect of the muscle.
‘‘We are quite concerned that there is a lack of scientific rigour on this and it really needs to be addressed before the 2020 Olympics.’’
Dr Rachel McKinnon, a 35-year-old Canadian who transitioned in her late 20s and won a world masters cycling championship in October, told the BBC that transitioning results in ‘‘pretty radical physiological changes’’. She also insisted that it was ‘‘irrelevant’’ if trans women athletes have male genitals.
She wrote on her blog: ‘‘A penis has absolutely nothing to do with sport performance. Genitals are irrelevant to hitting a tennis ball, riding a bike or throwing a javelin. Treating trans women with a penis as not ‘real’ women is, indeed, transphobic.’’
The IOC changed its transgender policy in 2015 to remove the requirement for genital surgery. It now requires women athletes to be below the specified level of testosterone for at least 12 months.
World Rugby and the RFU, for who player welfare has become a serious concern especially in terms of injuries and concussions, say they want to provide opportunities for transgender players but that size, weight and strength need to be taken into account.
The RFU’s policy states: ‘‘The physical strength, stamina or physique of an average person of one gender could put them at an advantage or a disadvantage to an average person of the other gender as competitors in a rugby union match. Every situation will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis, including gender-affected issues such as the player’s physical strength and stamina.’’
World Rugby said in a statement: ‘‘World Rugby is awaiting the outcome from the latest IOC review of the transgender sports participation policy, specifically in relation to the appropriate testosterone levels and the technical, testing and logistic aspects, which are important in a contact team sport environment. We remain committed to inclusivity, have contributed to the IOC policy review, and are working towards the publication of a revised policy this year.’’
Sandra Forgues, a 49-year-old former Olympic rowing champion for France, who transitioned two years ago, told The Times last week that the issue of whether trans athletes should be allowed to compete was complex.
‘‘If you transition after 15 years of gym work and [natural] testosterone, it’s comparable to a woman spending 10 years on a doping programme,’’ she said. ‘‘You’d blow everyone away and people would ask questions.’’
Forgues does believe that trans women who transition during adolescence should be allowed to compete in women’s events.
‘‘If you receive hormone therapy at 16, by 24 you are no stronger or weaker than any other woman.’’
‘‘A penis has absolutely nothing to do with sport performance.’’ Dr Rachel McKinnon
New Zealand’s Laurel Hubbard competes in the +90kg weightlifting final at the Commonwealth Games last year.
Hannah Mouncey, right, a former member of the Australian men’s handball team, was blocked from playing professional women’s Australian Rules.