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‘Sex matters in sport’: Cautious optimism after landmark new UK report admits trans athletes DO retain advantages against women

‘Sex matters in sport’: Cautious optimism after landmark new UK report admits trans athletes DO retain advantages against women
A comprehensive new UK report into transgender participation in sport has determined that trans women retain physical advantages when competing in female categories, even if they suppress testosterone levels.

The guidelines from the five main sports councils in the UK – which came after an 18-month investigation and reviewed the latest science – concluded that it is not possible to guarantee safety and competitive fairness in some activities if trans women compete against female-born rivals, instead urging “innovative and creative ways to ensure nobody is left out.”

Concerning the contentious issue of male-born athletes enjoying advantages even after transitioning to female, the report said that the latest evidence “made clear that there are retained differences in strength, stamina and physique between the average woman compared with the average transgender woman or non-binary person registered male at birth, with or without testosterone suppression.”

The guidance compiled by Sport England, Sport Scotland, Sport Northern Ireland, Sport Wales and UK Sport covers community sport up to national level, and does not apply to international, professional or elite level competition.

Governing bodies in specific sports were urged to come up with ways to ensure transgender inclusion, which could mean creating new “universal admission” categories outside of existing male/female ones, or even adapting the rules to allow for transgender athletes to compete in new versions of sports, particularly ones that involve combat, contact or collision.  

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It noted that different criteria may be applicable depending on the sport, and that the focus could vary between inclusion, competitive fairness and safety.

“Sport must be a place where everyone can be themselves, where everyone can take part and where everyone is treated with kindness, dignity and respect,” the report added.

While governing bodies in individual sports will be free to adapt the guidelines as they see fit, the landmark report is significant as the five UK councils are major investors and are seen as extremely influential.

In noting the differences between male and female sport, the report pointed to “an understanding of the gap between two sexes” which “can be recognized by results of practice matches between national senior women’s football teams against underage boys’ teams in recent years.

“The national teams from Australia, USA and Brazil were beaten comprehensively (7-0, 5-2, 6-0 respectively) by club teams of 14- and 15-year-old boys,” it said.

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Citing the latest science, the report said adult male athletes have a 10-12% performance advantage on average over female competitors in swimming and running events, as much as a 20% advantage in jumping events, and 35% greater performance in sports such as weightlifting when comparing similar-sized athletes.

Concerning transgender people competing in men's sports, the report said that evidence indicated it is fair and safe for them to do so in most cases.

The results were treated with cautious optimism by groups advocating for more protection for female-born athletes.

Dr Nicola Williams, the director of Fair Play For Women, said: “It is now increasingly recognized that the existing approach to transgender inclusion in sport is out of date and no longer fit for purpose. We commend the Sports Councils for taking the lead to address this difficult and sensitive issue.

“This comprehensive review confirms what we all know: sex matters in sport. That’s why we have always needed a separate protected category for females, and still do…

“This guidance puts an end to the idea that it is possible to allow people who were born male into the female sports category without women and girls paying the price.”

However, Williams added that she would like to see the sports councils go even further by completely ruling out any possibility of trans people playing in the sex category of their choice.

“It cannot be right that a sport could continue to prioritize trans people’s wishes over fairness and safety for women,” she said.

“The Sports Councils have put forward an option that is fair and inclusive for everyone in sport: an open category for all alongside a fair and safe female sex category. If sports really want to be maximally inclusive, that’s what they’ll do.”

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Former British Olympic swimmer Sharron Davies – another activist for women’s rights – also welcomed the report, tweeting: “This is very good, and fair news, based on the science & truth.”

In contrast, trans activists are likely to argue that the guidelines will lead to trans women facing more barriers to entry into female sport.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) recently delayed its new guidelines on the issue, but an updated version is expected after the Winter Games in Beijing in February.

The IOC’s medical and science director admitted in July that the science had “moved on” since the last guidelines from the organization in 2015.

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Currently, the IOC says trans athletes can compete in elite sport as a woman, as long as their testosterone levels are below 10 nanomoles per liter for at least 12 months before their first competition.

The issue came to the fore at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in the summer, where New Zealand’s Laurel Hubbard competed in the weightlifting.

Hubbard, 43, initially competed as a male before transitioning in 2012. Hubbard failed to register a lift in the women’s +87kg, although that did not stop anger from many quarters over the Kiwi’s participation at the Games.  

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