August 4, 2023 - 11:30am

British Rowing is the latest sporting body to restore the integrity of women’s sport. From September, the organisation will operate three categories within competitions that it manages: open, women’s and mixed.

Eligibility for the first two follow the rules already proposed by Swim England. Crucially, women’s rowing competitions will be limited to those “assigned female at birth”. The language may grate — sex is observed at birth if not before — but the intent is to protect women’s sport for women. 

The mixed category is not a second open category. It allows men and women to compete alongside each other in a single team. The eligibility rules are consistent with the rest of the policy: in any mixed team, 50% of the crew must be eligible for the women’s category.

Labour MP Tonia Antoniazzi was among those welcoming British Rowing’s decision. She thanked the sporting body “from the bottom of my heart and from all the little girls who aspire to achieve in every sport they step into.” Antoniazzi understands the need to protect women’s sport from first-hand experience: before entering parliament, she won nine caps for Wales as a rugby union prop forward.

But women’s sport needs to be protected for all ages and all levels of ability. Antoniazzi’s reference to girls is important. Like Swim England, British Rowing has wisely decided that birth sex matters. Last week, UnHerd reported that World Aquatics is also set to adopt “open and female” categories. Yet as with World Athletics, its policy would leave open the door to transwomen who have not gone through male puberty. That is a mistake: male advantage does not begin at puberty.

That said, the tide is definitely turning in sport. Attempts to silence athletes and coaches — and indeed concerned members of the public — have failed. When male athletes compete in women’s sport, they are now openly criticised for their behaviour. After transgender swimmer Lia Thomas won a US NCAA division 1 title, former Olympian Sharron Davies argued that “Thomas is still a male”, and pointed out the obvious outcome — that women are going to lose the ability to win their own races.

It now seems a long time since the Tokyo Olympics, when the world observed the spectacle of 43-year-old transwoman Laurel Hubbard competing against women in their twenties. After crashing out in last place, Hubbard’s competitors had far better things to talk about. When quizzed about it, the medallists responded with nine seconds of steely silence, before bronze medal-winner Sarah Robles added, quite simply, “no, thank you.”

The International Olympic Committee itself needs to take heed of Robles’s words. The organisation is still encumbered by a “framework that presumed that “athletes should not be deemed to have an unfair or disproportionate advantage due to their […] transgender status,” and put the onus on governing bodies to prove otherwise. 

As those organisations — one-by-one — adopt fair and inclusive “open and female” arrangements, the IOC is increasingly at risk of looking isolated and ridiculous. Sport can be open and inclusive without denying reality, but can the IOC?

Debbie Hayton is a teacher and a transgender campaigner.