The decision will have ripple effects across the world of sport
The decision yesterday by World Athletics to exclude trans women from female competition is hugely significant. It marks the end of the road for a particular set of proposals — that reducing testosterone levels might be a way to make it fair for trans women to compete in female sport.
The discussion about this approach has been going on for nearly two decades. But it was scientifically implausible and conceptually confused from the start. Testosterone suppression does not remove male advantage — for example, the skeletal advantages of males or the cardiovascular advantages that kick in at puberty still persist. That is why identifying male advantage, rather than a specific level of circulating testosterone, is the route to a fair policy.
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Some of the reasons for the incongruity between this fairly simple argument and the huge struggle to make it heard can be seen in the details of the decision outlined by World Athletics president Lord Coe yesterday. Beyond the decision itself, Coe announced the establishment of a Working Group to judge how the inclusion of trans athletes could best be facilitated, specifying that this would be led by a trans athlete. But why not a sports scientist, an independent regulator, an ethicist, or a female athlete?
The ‘inclusion of trans athletes’ is presented as a simple emancipatory project for trans people that has no important implications for anyone else. The discourse behind it says that it’s a matter of people ‘being their true selves’. J.S. Mill made a distinction between ‘self-regarding’ and ‘other-regarding’ actions, and the argument of some trans advocates — “just let me live my life” — presents inclusion as self-regarding, downplaying the harm to others. They aim to show that the costs are small, but this is a mistake.
Earlier this week Hannah Arensman, a US cyclist, announced that she was leaving the sport. “My sister and family sobbed as they watched a man finish in front of me, having witnessed several physical interactions with him throughout the race,” she said, referring to an incident where she was barged off her line. She added that it “has become increasingly discouraging to train as hard as I do only to have to lose to a man with the unfair advantage of an androgenised body that intrinsically gives him an obvious advantage over me, no matter how hard I train.”
The decision from World Athletics has come too late for her — or for Riley Gaines, an American swimmer who competed against trans athlete Lia Thomas and who has since been vocal on the issue. The process was started by World Rugby in 2020, while the English Schools Athletic Association released a statement yesterday evening reaffirming its sex-based policy. We can expect further ripples across the world of sport.
World Athletics now joins World Rugby and World Aquatics as governing bodies with a fair policy based on male advantage and male puberty. Meanwhile, International Cycling permits the involvement of trans competitors, allowing for a two-year transition period and a maximum plasma testosterone level of 2.5 nmol/L. World Triathlon and World Rowing observe similar policies. Smaller sports are still finding their way, though some may well take their lead from the athletics board.
So this decision will no doubt pave the way for change within those international federations still pursuing the discredited T-level approach — one which allows for the unfair participation of male-bodied athletes in female sport. It is important more widely, too, because it shows that — in some contexts — sex rather than gender identity is what matters.