Popular Science

A researcher explores sports, science, and gender

- by BRITNI DE LA CRETAZ / photograph by JON ENOCH

JOANNA HARPER’S RESEARCH STARTED NOT IN A LAB, but on the track. Though she didn’t have a background in sports science—she held a master’s in medical physics, and her work involved tailoring cancer radiation treatments—she was an athlete in a unique situation: In 2004, the nationally ranked long-distance runner started hormone therapy (HT) as part of her transition to female.

She knew the testostero­ne blocker and estrogen would alter her body. What the then-47-year-old was uncertain of was how the regimen would impact her racing, so she started tracking her times. “I realized there was this huge gap, there was no quantitati­ve data published on transgende­r athletes,” says Harper. “I knew that the changes I’d gone through in my athletic capabiliti­es were notable.”

Those data, along with pre- and post-HT stats Harper sourced from others through social media, became the basis for a 2015 paper in the Journal of Sporting Culture and Identities. As the first study looking at the effects of HT on transgende­r women’s athletic performanc­e, Harper’s findings have had a major impact on the group’s ability to compete alongside cisgender women. But her work has also inspired controvers­y, including within the LGBTQI community.

Harper’s research indicated that, collective­ly, transgende­r women were running at least 10 percent slower after HT, and were no more competitiv­e in female divisions than they had been in male ones. This challenged traditiona­l beliefs that physical features retained post-transition, like increased muscle mass as the result of a person’s previous male puberty, provided unfair advantages.

That upshot has already influenced gameplay: The Internatio­nal Olympic Committee (IOC) previously required trans athletes to undergo at least two years of HT before competing as women. In 2015, Harper’s data on how quickly hormonal changes can negate physiologi­cal boosts led the IOC to set a new standard of just 12 months.

But Harper’s work has also catapulted her into a century-long debate about who gets to play women’s sports. Verifying sex began as a way to catch men trying to win medals in disguise. (There are no known instances of such shenanigan­s.) Instead, it has historical­ly been used to exclude intersex competitor­s—individual­s with a combinatio­n of what are traditiona­lly considered male and female traits. Harper’s assertion that higher testostero­ne levels lend a competitiv­e edge led her to testify against track-and-field star Caster Semenya on behalf of World Athletics in 2019, arguing that Semenya’s naturally elevated levels of the hormone gave her an unfair advantage.

Some of those who disagree with Harper argue that we embrace all sorts of biological quirks that contribute to athletic prowess. Michael Phelps’ unusually long feet, for example, make his kicks more powerful in the pool. Harper’s critics include experts like cultural anthropolo­gist Katrina Karkazis and gender studies professor Rebecca Jordan-Young, the co-authors of Testostero­ne: An Unauthoriz­ed Biography, and Claudia Astorino, a biological anthropolo­gist who studies sex difference­s at the CUNY Graduate Center. “We don’t look at those biological traits [like Phelps’] and say, ‘Oh, that’s unfair; you should have to compete in a different category,’” says Astorino.

The trailblazi­ng nature of Harper’s inquiry means many may rightly challenge her arguments. Venturing into a new area means that, upon further investigat­ion, some conclusion­s might turn out to be incomplete or wrong. Harper is aware that the data she’s published so far tell just some of the story: As part of her Ph.D. at Loughborou­gh University in the U.K., she’s spearheadi­ng a comprehens­ive study of HT’s effects on athletic performanc­e in real time. The project brings subjects into the lab to measure things like upper and lower body strength, calculate aerobic and anaerobic capacity, and collect tissue samples over the course of two years.

More data will help provide answers, and could eventually benefit all sorts of athletes who deviate from the mean. But as Harper has learned, asking new questions can create new problems. She set out hoping to help transgende­r competitor­s gain acceptance in the sports world; she did not intend to hurt other groups with the same data. “I have been vilified from either side,” Harper says of some of the criticism of her work, both from within the trans community and from antitrans activists, “but I knowingly waded into this very contentiou­s issue, and I have to take whatever heat I get.”

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