Last Word: It’s between inclusivity and fairness

The biggest issue in sport today is not doping or abuse of technology, it is gender. Do you go by biology or personal identity? Do you accept transgenders as female athletes or do you work out a third category?

Gender issue: Swimmer Lia Thomas, who earlier competed as a man, underwent hormone therapy for two and a half years before winning the 500-yard NCAA Swimming championship as a woman. One of the competitors said this “hurt her, her team and other women in the pool.”

Gender issue: Swimmer Lia Thomas, who earlier competed as a man, underwent hormone therapy for two and a half years before winning the 500-yard NCAA Swimming championship as a woman. One of the competitors said this “hurt her, her team and other women in the pool.” | Photo Credit: JOSH REYNOLDS

The biggest issue in sport today is not doping or abuse of technology, it is gender. Do you go by biology or personal identity? Do you accept transgenders as female athletes or do you work out a third category?

Sometimes it falls on sport to solve the big question, or at least ask it. That philosophical chestnut — why are we here, and why is there something rather than nothing — is usually answered variously as “to play football” and “what does it matter?”

However, a question that may be less fundamental but more important is the one some administrators are beginning to deal with: how do you define “male” and “female”?

The biggest issue in sport today is not doping or abuse of technology, it is gender. Do you go by biology or personal identity? Do you accept transgenders as female athletes or do you work out a third category?

When swimming’s global body recently barred trans women from international competition, the issue raised its head from where officials hoped it would lie undisturbed. Rugby has done the same, and athletics is likely to. Sebastian Coe, President, World Athletics has said biology trumps identity, and that’s a hint.

The argument is really between inclusivity and fairness. Do you tread lightly, lay down rules that allow more athletes to compete or do you take on board the objections of top women athletes who feel they would be at a disadvantage if trans women are allowed to compete in their category? There is no doubt in Coe’s mind, however.

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He said. “I’ve always made it clear: if we ever get pushed into a corner to that point where we’re making a judgment about fairness or inclusion, I will always fall on the side of fairness.” As of now trans women have been allowed to compete if they suppress their testosterone to below 5nmol/L for 12 months. That might sound scientific, but there’s an uncomfortable ethical issue here. Performance-diminishing drugs somehow don’t fit in.

There is too the possibility that with muscle mass diminishing as a result of such drugs, trans athletes might discover that their possibly larger and heavier bodies now cannot run faster, jump higher or swim more strongly than their female counterparts.

So far there has been no large-scale domination of trans athletes in women’s sports, causing Martina Navratilova for one to soften her stance after having said it was cheating to allow them to compete together.

The swimmer Lia Thomas, who earlier competed as a man, underwent hormone therapy for two and a half years before winning the 500-yard NCAA Swimming championship as a woman. One of the competitors said this “hurt her, her team and other women in the pool.” The issue is far too serious and misunderstood at too many levels for it to be left to the ill-educated on the subject to decide. Politicians haven’t kept away. When the British trans cyclist Emily Bridges was prevented from competing in a race, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was quoted as saying, “I don’t think biological males should be competing in female sporting events.”

The questions to ask when those in power decide on the gender issue is this: Do we know enough? Are all the facts in?

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