Women’s sports and the IOC

I was surprised this week by the new International Olympic Committee guidelines on transgender women in sport. They say there should be no presumption that transgender women (humans who were born male but identify as female) have a physical advantage over females. This is an odd thing to say. All my life I’ve observed male physical advantage; it is what I was taught in high school biology and later observed at university in anatomy classes. It made me question whether everything I knew to be true about this was suddenly not true.

The literature says otherwise. A paper published in 2020 in Sports Medicine says,

These data overwhelmingly confirm that testosterone-driven puberty, as the driving force of development of male secondary sex characteristics, underpins sporting advantages that are so large no female could reasonably hope to succeed without sex segregation in most sporting competitions.

The authors explain the reasons. Males have larger and denser muscle mass, stiffer connective tissues, less fat, they are taller and larger, have superior cardiovascular and respiratory function with larger blood and heart volumes, higher hemoglobin concentration, and a lower oxygen cost of respiration.

There’s a 10-12% performance gap between elite males and elite females in sport. In the year 2017, the female Olympic champion for the 400m, Allyson Felix, had her personal best of 49.26 beaten 15,000 times by boys and men. That’s just in one year. Boys under 18 outperform the best women in all of the following events.

Source: https://law.duke.edu/sports/sex-sport/comparative-athletic-performance/

The difference is even greater when we compare men with women. See table 2 on Comparing Athletic Performances.

World Rugby is the only sporting federation to ban transgender women from the women’s category. Their reasons are very similar to the 2020 study I reference above.

Males have:

  • Larger and denser lean muscle mass
  • Greater force-producing capacity of skeletal muscle
  • Stiffer connective tissue
  • Reduced fat mass and different distribution of body fat and lean muscle mass
  • Longer, larger and denser skeletal structure
  • Changes to cardiovascular and respiratory function that include higher haemoglobin concentration, greater cross-sectional area of the trachea and lower oxygen cost of respiration

I haven’t read all the papers they reference but they list them if you want to look them up.

I don’t play sport so none of this affects me personally but I have a strong sense of fairness and this is not fair. Why have a women’s sports category at all if biological males can compete in it? I did compete in athletics in high school and came 8th in my state for high jump one year. I would never have achieved that had I been competing against males. Maybe that doesn’t matter to me but I’m sure it matters to elite female athletes most of whom are silent. A paper published in June this year found that the majority of athletes felt they couldn’t discuss this issue at all without being accused of transphobia.

I became interested in this topic during the Olympics this year when I saw the New Zealand weightlifter, Laurel Hubbard, compete in the women’s category despite being born male and going through male puberty. Although she did not win she’s in her 40s while the average age of Olympic weightlifters is 26 for men and 25 for women. In 2019 Hubbard won two gold medals in the Pacific Games in Samoa, beating two Samoan women. The Samoan women should have taken gold and silver. It’s a bit like me competing in a children’s running race and coming first. There is no integrity in that which is why we have juniors and seniors events. It creates a level playing field.

Transgender women can still compete in sport but in the male category. The male category is an open category that anyone can enter. There are also non-competitive non-elite sports that anyone can participate in. What is happening currently is wrong and unfair.

The Real Science of Sport Podcast has a good episode on this topic.

I’ll finish with a quote from Professor Ross Tucker who describes the IOC guidelines in the podcast as:

a politically influenced, cowardly unscientific document.

Prof Ross Tucker The Real Science of Sport podcast S3 E27

10 thoughts on “Women’s sports and the IOC”

  1. Good quote from Ross Tucker, which I wholeheartedly agree with. In a different podcast, he described allowing transwomen to compete against women as being the same as allowing performance-enhancing drug taking in sports (not his exact words – I can’t quite remember how he phrased it). Whilst not every athlete who takes performance-enhancing drugs will win, they always enhance their personal performance and will displace someone else in the rankings. To date for the Olympics, a transwomen only had to lower their testosterone to 10nmol/L – a level which was still 5 to ten times higher than women’s natural levels. The IAAF independently requires testosterone levels to be 5nmol/L for at least six months prior to competing in women’s competitions, which includes intersex women who may have unnaturally high levels of testosterone (think Caster Semenya). There are transwomen and others protesting this, because they say that this is so difficult to reach that it can impair their health attempting to do so, or any reduction in testosterone. The obvious answer to many of us then, both trans and not, is to not do that in that case, and compete in the men’s competition. Sounds fair and reasonable, imo, but of course none of the transwomen winning women’s competitions would rank highly in the men’s competitions in their natural state, so there lies a lot of the issue.

    1. Because of an accident which resulted in the loss of both my testicles and the fact that, for various reasons cannot take HRT, my testosterone levels are as low as a woman’s. Despite this, I have retained a fair amount of strength and sporting ability. My lack of balls and testosterone certainly hasn’t impacted my sporting ability all that much.

      1. That’s very interesting to hear. It shows that the development we undergo through puberty ‘digs in’ very significantly indeed.

  2. You defined transgender women as “humans who were born male”. Using your definition, your husband and your son are both “transgender women”. Is that really what you meant?

  3. The info in that link spells it out quite clearly that male-bodied people do not belong in female sports. I find it quite staggering how quickly women’s rights and safeties are being cast aside for the sake of accommodating men who identify as women – and not only by men, but by other women, too. It’s like going back in time to when all things male took precedence. We are living in a tiny time-anomaly in history where women have some rights and safeties, and there are those – galling that many of them are women, Nicola Sturgeon and Jacinda Ardern being two of them – who think there is nothing to lose by being casual about loosening up on them for men. Intelligent women are being duped by a sad story, as has been done since forever, and feel that it’s their duty to put men first, even if it’s clearly to their and their daughters’ detriment. Having said that about men, I’m ‘in love’ with those who are sticking up for women over this miscarriage of justice and fairness 🙂

    1. Yes, I couldn’t have said it any better. I shake my head in disbelief at Nicola Sturgeon and Jacinda Ardern. It has certainly put me off voting SNP in the next election.

  4. The most worrying things I read were observations of female martial arts participants who had to fight against transgender women. This appears to be a very unsafe thing to allow, as the transgender women were much stronger and more resistant to the power that those born women were able to use against them. I also read about women in professional cycling suddenly coming across someone with what seems like an advantage in terms of strength and stamina through having been born the opposite sex. It seems unfair for this to happen when people have trained so long.

  5. Yes, staggering that we’re now in a situation where women have to prove that men are generally bigger and stronger, and outperform women in speed and strength events. Humans have known this since forever, yet now suddenly it has to be proved. Sure, there are some rare overlaps, but they aren’t typical. We create sports categories on typical physical characteristics and abilities, not on the exceptions. Trans inclusion and fairness in women’s sports do not reside together without conflict. One has to give, and at the moment it’s women who are being forced to give up any fairness to them.

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