Transgender Athletes Referred to Competitive Fairness Debate

Transgender Athletes Referred to Competitive Fairness Debate

GENDER – It is the turn of the International Rugby League (IRL) to position itself on the question of the participation of transgender people in international sports competitions. This Tuesday, June 21, the body announced that transgender women will not be able to participate in rugby league matches until a “full inclusion policy” has been established.

IRL authorities have said they need further consultation and research to finalize a new policy for 2023, citing a “legal, reputational and welfare risk” to the game and players.

In the meantime, their statement states, with these words, that “players who have changed from male to female (transgender) cannot participate in women’s international rugby matches”. This means that transgender people will not be able to participate in the Women’s Rugby World Cup in England in November.

This announcement comes two days after that of the International Swimming Federation, which decided to create an “open category” for transgender women. Previously, the National Athletics Federation had positioned itself on the subject, with the rule that transgender women have a sufficiently low testosterone level for at least twelve months before a competition.

Disputed Arguments

This subject raises a long-standing controversy between those who defend the right of transgender athletes to compete freely as women and those who believe that these athletes have an unfair physiological advantage.

Arguments contested by some researchers. “It is a common discourse in the world of sport, estimated in a previous article in the HuffPost Lucie Pallesi, doctoral student in STAPS at Paris-Saclay University and author of a thesis on transidentity and competitive sport which evokes “unfounded pseudo-scientific arguments”. For the latter, the records of male athletes are explained more by social than biological reasons.

“All Olympic records are made by men, also recognized the socio-historian of sport Anaïs Bohuon. But these records are part of a story and are not the result of something natural”.

She thus recalls that women have historically been “limited to certain sports practices which did not require robustness and strength, but rather grace and elegance” with the aim, in particular, of “not endangering their reproductive organs” . Result: women are “a century behind men”.

“Modern sport, born in the 19th century, is based on a sexist vision of humanity”

“It’s obvious that when great tennis players are asked to do two sets rather than three like the men, or when the weights, the distances are lightened and reduced, they are not going to train or build muscle in the same way. and will not have the same endurance”, adds Anaïs Bohuon.

Before adding: “A physical advantage in the world of sport is indefinable. In addition to the genetic and physiological aspect which necessarily comes into play, no one denies it, there is also a whole set of factors which can come into play, such as socialization or family, environmental or economic components. But it is an inseparable whole.”

An opinion shared by the professor of American civilization at the University of Rouen and specialist in the history of sport Peter Marquis who confirms “that we do not know how to explain sports performance”.

“There is no scientific or statistical evidence that trans women have alienated cisgender women.”

– Peter Marquis, professor of American civilization at the University of Rouen and specialist in the history of sport

“Certainly on average women have fewer muscles and are slower, but it is not averages that make performance”, he adds, believing that “modern sport, born in the 19th century, is based on a vision sexism of humanity”. For him, what best explains these differences could be “the financial investment”, in reference to the money invested for the male competitions compared to the female ones.

Regarding trans athletes specifically, the professor also assures that “there is, for example, no scientific or statistical proof that trans women have rejected cisgender women”.

“At the elite level, the world championships, the Olympic competitions … transgender sportswomen do not win more” medals, had previously swept away from theAFP Éric Vilain, expert for the International Olympic Committee.

“There are a lot of factors that go into making an athlete, explains this professor of human genetics. A transgender athlete who goes to basketball will on average be taller so that may be an advantage, but in gymnastics she may be too tall.”

Megan Rapinoe, American football player, winner of the Olympic Games and lesbian, positioned herself on this subject in time magazine“Show me the evidence that trans women everywhere are winning all the scholarships, dominating all the sports and winning all the titles. I’m sorry but none of this is happening. So we have to start being inclusive, period.”

The IOC conditions

The Olympic Committee (IOC) had moreover looked into this question since 2003. In their report, the IOC doctors come out in favor of the participation of transgender people in sports competitions corresponding to their lived gender, under three conditions: that anatomical changes have been made, a reassignment of sex to marital status and that hormone treatments can be checked to “minimize gender-related advantages in athletic competitions”.

These recommendations then evolved in November 2015 just before the Olympic Games in Rio, with one specificity: trans men can now participate without any restrictions in men’s competitions, but trans women must on the other hand submit to tests to prove that their rate of testosterone does not exceed a certain threshold (10 nmol/L of blood), at least one year before the date of the competition. Rules that were applied during the Tokyo Games in 2021.

““It is not proven what would be the key molecule for sports success and performance””

– Anaïs Bohuon, sports historian

But does testosterone actually impact exercise performance? Nothing proves it according to the experts interviewed in May 2021 by The HuffPost.

“It is not proven what would be the key molecule of sporting success and performance”, assures Anaïs Bohuon. There are plenty of other hormones that are produced that can contribute to a physical advantage. You also have to take into account heart rate, height, muscle elasticity, etc.”

The testosterone level

The question of testosterone levels is regularly invoked in the case of hyperandrogenic athletes – having too high a testosterone level -, such as the South African Caster Semenya, notably prohibited from competing at the World Athletics Championships in Doha. Hyperandrogenic athletes were required to undergo treatment to lower their testosterone levels so that they could compete in distances ranging from 400 meters to a mile (1609 m).

“Michael Phelps, the American swimmer, naturally produces less lactic acid than the average person, which allows him to train for hours without feeling tired, noted Selaelo Mametja, of the World medical association, in May 2019 for the media Science and Future. This gives him an advantage in competitions, but the International Swimming Federation does not require him to modify his hormones. We admire Michael Phelps for his singularity, why not Caster Semenya?”.

Although it is obviously important not to confuse the situation of transgender and hyperandrogenic athletes, certain questions nevertheless intersect. For Anaïs Bohuon, we reject “women in these sports competitions for philosophical reasons, because it challenges our definitions of binarity and what it means to be a ‘real woman’ authorized to compete”.

See also on The HuffPost: How Olivia Ciappa’s life changed with her gender transition


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