Before the “concern” about trans athletes having an unfair advantage in elite female sport, codified by the international swimming federation (FINA), alarm was raised about the superior physical abilities of Black athletes.
When the 70-year-old CBS Sports commentator James Synder told a reporter in 1988: “The black [sic] is a better athlete to begin with, because he’s been bred to be that way”, all hell broke loose because of the implied racism. He later apologised.
Athletes come in different shapes and sizes, as anyone who has ever stood next to one of the Australian Football League’s “big men” or the very tall basketball players knows.
Michael Phelps, the most decorated United States Olympian swimmer of all time, is not only very tall, he has a “wingspan” of approximately 200 centimetres — greater than his height. As Science ABC noted: “This anomalous characteristic provides him with an absurd amount of pulling power in the water. Basically, his arms work as powerful propulsive … in a more efficient way than his competitors.”
Finnish skier Eero Mäntyranta had a genetic mutation that boosted his red blood cell count by 25–50% and this speculated to have contributed to his remarkable endurance: he won several Olympic medals.
If we’re talking about fairness in sport, should Phelps and Mäntyranta be banned because of their unusual physical characteristics?
Where do we draw the line when deciding who has an “unfair” advantage? What about psychological traits that help some athletes more than others?
Testosterone levels have often been cited as a factor in athletic performance and women athletes Caster Semenya and Dutee Chand have naturally occurring high levels.
As Sara Chodosh commented in Popular Science: “When it comes to nailing down a link between testosterone and athletic performance, part of the problem is that, put simply, human bodies are complicated.
“We know that among elite athletes, men seem to have a consistent 10 to 12 percent athletic advantage over women. Lots of people chalk that up to testosterone alone, but the truth is there are many other factors, from other hormones to societal conditioning, might boost athletic performance, making it difficult to pinpoint exactly what testosterone does for athletes.”
The argument that physical traits give some people an unfair advantage hides the fact that elite sport has never been a level playing field.
Even in non-elite sport, women and girls have had to fight for equal access to sporting resources, including fields and change rooms. This limits their opportunity to develop fitness and improve their performance.
Women have also had to fight to have their participation in sport taken seriously. The decades’-long focus on male sport has also discouraged girls and women from even trying. In addition, many girls and women shy away from professional sport due to stigmas about becoming “too muscular”.
Then there’s the battle against inappropriate attention. The Norwegian women’s beach handball team had to fight the European Handball Association Disciplinary Commission last year because they decided to wear thigh-length elastic shorts instead of the regulation bikini bottoms. Male players wear tank tops and shorts.
Athletes from poorer countries have never the same access to resources as athletes in wealthy countries — another blatant inequality. In some countries including Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran, women are actively discouraged, or forbidden, from participating in sport.
Even in rich countries, including Australia, people from wealthier families have more opportunities to become an elite athlete: you only have to compare the sporting facilities of private schools and government ones. Young First Nations’ people have little access.
Trans men also face discrimination, such as being forced to compete against female athletes. When he was in high school and transitioning to male in 2017, Mack Beggs was forced by Texas law to compete against cis girls. His birth certificate at the time listed his sex as “female”, despite Beggs identifying as male and wanting to compete in the male wrestling team. He won the state girls’ wrestling title in 2017 and 2018 despite being hounded at the matches.
Keelin Godsey was the first openly transgender athlete competing for a place in the US Olympic team. The decision to keep competing in women’s sport was agonising for Godsey, who wished to live as a male. His destiny had been set by arbitrary categories.
When fairness in sport is used as an argument against trans women athletes, the question arises: why focus on an already marginalised group that is already suffering discrimination and violence?
Sports journalist and author Megan Maurice has compiled a “helpful list” of how to address fairness in sport “rather than picking on trans & gender diverse people”. They include: pay equity for women’s leagues; pathways for any kid who wants to pay elite sport; and ensure selectors and coaches come from diverse backgrounds.
Barring trans athletes from participating harms all athletes. It can also lead to “gender policing”, mostly directed at female athletes, who are often already subjected to invasive tests or allegations of being “too masculine” or “too good” at their sport to be “real” women.
Bans on trans people competing in sport not only also undermines a person’s dignity, it serves to affirm binary gender stereotypes.