The ex-Olympian speaks to UnHerd about unfairness in women's sport
Transgender participation in women’s sport is the new doping, according to the former Great Britain swimmer and Olympic medallist Sharron Davies. Speaking to UnHerd’s Florence Read, Davies drew comparison between the use of performance-enhancing drugs by East Germany over several decades — which resulted in her being cheated of a gold medal at the 1980 Games — and the present-day involvement of biological males in female sporting competition.
“They [the GDR] were drugging their young females from the age of 11. They were giving them testosterone so that they could enable them to go through male puberty,” Davies said. “It massively affected women’s sport.” Between 1970-89, East German female athletes achieved huge success, winning 11 out of 13 swimming events at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, though at a cost to the women themselves.
“Those young East German girls that were given these terrible drugs, they’re really ill. Many of them have died. Many of them have had disabled children and most of them have heart conditions now,” the former swimmer added. When they competed, however, these women performed at a similar level to men, and it is a situation with clear parallels to the thorny gender debates of today.
“I didn’t want to see a whole other generation of young girls end up losing medals that they should be winning,” Davies said, “because athletes who are biologically male and have gone through male puberty and have a bigger advantage were allowed to race.”
In the present, female athletes are already at a disadvantage to men, according to former athlete. “There are about 1000 women in the UK that earn their living from professional sport,” she said. “There are nearly 11,000 men. Women have 4% of the airtime; we have 1% of the sponsorship [money].”
Davies is the author of a forthcoming book, Unfair Play: The Battle for Women’s Sport, which is to be published on 22nd June, and in recent years has become an increasingly prominent advocate for fairness in female competitions. She stressed to UnHerd that she bases her stance on fact, saying “I am 100% open to honest scientific debate. I always have been. My point has always been: let’s deal with the science that we have […] Lia Thomas was six foot four with hands like shovels. Well, that’s going to make a massive difference, because they’re your paddles.”
The need to be clear on sex differences may be particularly crucial within competitive sport, but it also extends into everyday life, according to Davies: “Trans women are not women when it comes to whether we give them a prostate check, or whether they give birth. That’s the biology that they have. You’re very entitled to say that transgender women are women. I will say transgender women are transgender women.”
Nonetheless, it is still important to afford trans individuals the dignity that they deserve, the ex-swimmer said, so that we reach a point where we have the “ability to treat people however they wish to identify with honesty and respect and safety, but not necessarily lie about what that really means”.
The victims of this climate are too often the women who miss out, who “all of a sudden, are going to get left out of a team, or bumped off the podium, or are not going to get the university scholarship degree in America”. More than this, Davies claimed, “female athletes have been blackmailed into not speaking.”
There is cause for optimism, however. “The tide is turning,” Davies said, with World Rugby, World Aquatics and World Athletics all moving to protect the female category. “Anyone that wants to cheat in sport, whether it’s Lance Armstrong or anybody else, just saying ‘go ahead’ is not the answer.”