Competitive equity and fairness within athletic competitions is a complex and controversial topic that has always shadowed the world of sports. Transgender atheltes in particular, have been caught in the middle of the debates and have aroused much controversy among competitors worldwide. The folloiwng essay goes into detail about female transgender athletes, and their role in athletic competitions. Due to its complexity, and the role of ethics in the issue, it is difficult to reach a clear consensus of whether or not it is fair to include male to female (MTF) transgender athletes in elite competitions; A definitive answer has not yet been reached by the IOC (International olympics Comittee) or the IAAF (International association of Atheltics Federations).
Even though “Playing fields have long been segregated on the basis of sex,” (Torre, 1) the issue only became serious in 1976 when Renee Richards – a transgender female tennis player- sued The Unites States Tennis Association, alleging discrimination by gender for requiring genetic screening for female players. She played a major role in changing sports for transgender athletes, and became a spokesperson for transgender people in sports at the time.
With the gender spectrum constantly evolving, and the transgender community growing rapidly in modern times, it is now more important than ever to understand the role of trasngender athletes in athletic competitions. Aswell, as many athletes worldwide have lost opportunities to pursue their dreams and careers because of their gender identity, it is essential that this particular topic is studied and understood in order to ensure fairness and promote inclusion and diversity in the modern world.
Currently, certain regulations have been placed in international competitions in an attempt to level the playing field, and to ensure fair participation of competitors. The current IOC policy regarding transgender athletes states that there are no restrictions for those “transitioning from female to male.” However, in regards to transgender females, “the athlete has to declare her gender as female and stay so for at least four years,” as well as show that their testosterone levels are below a certain amount before, and throughout the competition (Chen, 16). The IOC has further lowered their barriers for participating by no longer requiring transgender athlete to undergo sex change surgery in order to compete. Some competitors disagree with the aforementioned regulations, and believe they are not lenient enough, while others believe that they are too inclusive and unfair for other competitors. Therefore, the following question is raised: To what extent are athletic competitions a level playing field with the ever changing gender spectrum?
Many believe that the inclusion of transgender athletes in competetions is unfair, however, the majority of the voices in the debate agree that including them does not make the playing field uneven. After through research, and consideration of both sides, it was concluded that even though the irreversible changes transgender athletes go through during puberty are thought to affect the fairness of athletic competetions, the playing field still remains level due to the fact that hormone treatment controls performance, and all athletes are outliers due to unique advanatges that allowed for their prosperity.
Irreversible changes due to testosterone:
One of the biggest concerns of those who believe transgender athletes should not participate in competetions is the exposure to testosterone. Their argumnet is that athletic competitions are not a level playing field due to the fact that transgender ahtletes have an unfair advantage due to the irriversible changes their bodies go through during puberty. Even though hormone therapy can change the amount of testosterone in one’s body, it is not capable of reversing the effects that testosterone has had on one’s body during puberty. Therefore, if an athlete transitions post puberty, the effects that the testosterone has had on their body are irreversible as well as advantageous, and no injection has the capability to reverse what has already been done.
In his article “Gender identity and sport: is the playing field level?”, Dr. J. C. Reeser agrees with the aforementioned argument when stating that there are most definitely “ some effects of testosterone that cannot be reversed” (Reeser, 698). As a doctor working in the department of physical medicine at Marshfield Clinic, Reeser has thoroughly researched the role of transgender athletes in competitions and is a major, credible voice in the debate. Victoria Chen who majors in Neuroscience and biology at the University of Alabama agrees with Reeser and states that there are studies conducted that announce the “clear competitive advantage created by naturally producing testosterone” (Chen,15) in transitioning males. The reason for these competetive advantages due to testoseterone is further explained by Pablo Torre and David Epstein in their article “The transgender Athlete”. They go into detail about the major effect of testosterone on the postpubertal male body and how it is the “engine powering an array of a man’s competitive advantages: greater height and weight, higher bone density, increased muscle mass and greater proportion of oxygen-carrying red cells in the blood” (Torre, 4). This claim however is limited due to the fact that research has shown that with society becomeing more inlcusive and accepting towards transgender athletes, “ it’s more likly that more [people] will come out at an earlier age” (Torre, 5). This would allow for more teenagers to transition before puberty, and therefore not be affected by the effects of testosterone as much as those who have post pubertal transitions.
As a credible voice in the debate, Reeser also explores the implications of his claim that “testosterone induced attributes could influence performance capacity” (Reeser, 698) in athletes who transitioned after puberty. The objection to this statement is that success in many sports is not only due to physical advantages, and there is evidence collected from studies to prove it. As an example, reeser used volleyball and statistics collected from the sport in the past to explain this limitation. He expanded on the fact that even though volleyball players are tall, that is not the only contributing factor that allows for their success. Reeser claims that according to data collected by the FIVB, “the gold medal winning women’s team in every olympic games since 1968 has (with one exception) not been the tallest team in the tournament” (Reeser, 698). This information demonstrates that physical characteristics and advantages are not always the reason for success. Furthermore, the ranking of the final medal round in Athens 2004 summer games for men’s volleyball, was found to be “inversely related to average team height,” which further proves the limitation of physical advantages. Therefore in the case of volleyball, it appears that there are “actors more critical to individual performance and team success than average player height” (Reeser, 698). This data can be applied to other sports and demonstrates that there are multiple other factors that come into play when understanding athletic success. Therefore, a physical advantage due to exposure to testosterone during puberty will not specifically mean that the transitioning athlete will definitely succeed.
Even though most of the effects of testosterone on the body during puberty are irreversible, that does not mean that after hormone treatment, those effects will be able to give the athlete performance advantages. In his article, Reeser mentions testing that was conducted on multiple transgender athletes regarding their performance in competitions. It was concluded that after hormone therapy, the athletes fell “well within the normal range of female performance characteristics” (Reeser, 697). This demonstrates that even though testosterone already affected their bodies, it did not give them an advantage as they fell within the normal range of biological females while competing.
Joanna Harper, who is a medical physicist in profession, and a transgender athlete herself agrees with Reeser. Dr. Harper is currently an advisor to the International Olympic Committee in matters of gender and sport, and is the only person to publish a peer – reviewed article on the performance of transgender athletes. In her article “Do transgender atheltes have an edge? I sure don’t.”, she reports and summarizes the findings of her research on the trasngender athletes she observed. After collecting over 200 race times she concluded that not only did all of the competitors get slower after transitioning, but they “put up nearly identical age-graded scores as men and as women, meaning they were equally — but no more — competitive in their new gender categories” (Harper, 2). Harper’s research was published in The journal of Sporting Cultures and Identities, and her findings support Reeser’s claims as well as the rules of the IAAF, “which allows anyone who is legally and hormonally female to compete in women’s events” (Harper, 3).
She further dives into detail to demonstrate why transgender women dony have any advantage after treatment. She asserts that hormone treatment “involves a testosterone-blocking drug plus an estrogen supplement” and over time there is a “ decrease in muscle mass, bone density and the proportion of oxygen-carrying red cells in their blood. The estrogen, meanwhile, boosts fat storage, especially around the hips.” The two treatments coupled together lead to a significant muscle, and speed loss, which are all “key components of athleticism.” (Harper, 3)
Even though there is evidence in support of Reeser and Harper’s claims, Cheryl Radachowsky argues against their assertion in her article about the unfairness of including transgender athletes in competetions. She implies that even if the testosterone levels of a MTF athlete “matches that of a biological woman, the men’s competitive advantages remained almost fully intact, with muscle size and bone density remaining virtually unchanged in some and decreasing only 5 percent in others” (Radachowsky, 2). Even though there is scientific data in her argument, Ratachowsky lacks a medical education, and is biased due to the fact that her daughter is an athlete who has lost numerous times to a transgender athlete.
Her claim that the male body will remain unchanged after transitioning is refuted by Reeser when the findings in a study that was aimed to find the “ effect transsexual hormonal treatment has on athletic preformance.” (Reeser,697). Results were collected over a year of hormone treatment, and it was observed that the cross sectional thigh muscle area of the male to female transsexuals declined significantly, such that the mean muscle area approached that of the comparison group” (Reeser, 697). Furthermore, Torre agrees with the refutation when speaking on Harper’s performance and how it was “approximately equal” in both genders and how she did not have an advantage because she was “almost exactly as good a female runner as she was as a male” (Torre, 5); Therefore, Radachowsky’s data was inaccurate and should be disregarded as the refutation was backed up by scientific data collected by medical professionals. In summary, due to the fact that not all effects of testosterone specifically give an athletic advantage to competitors, the playing field remains level as most of their capabilities are within the range of biological female athletes.
Not only are athletic competitions a level playing field because of hormone therapy, but as well because all successful competitors are outliers of some sort. When it comes to a biological advantage, transgender athletes are not the only ones that should be crtisized, instead, it should be all sucessfull athletes, as they all have an advanatge that allowed them to succeed. As described in the article “Fighting Words” by Laurie Penny, all athletes have some sort of advantage, “that’s why they are athletes” (Penny,1). Cheng confirms this statement in her article by using Michael Phelps as an example. He is one of the most successful and known swimmers in history, however, he too has an advantage over other competitors. Not only does he “possess a huge wingspan, long torso and short legs, [and] large feet,” but he also “produces less lactic acid than a normal swimmer” (Chen, 16). All of these characteristics combined, create a major advantage that he has over many swimmers who work just as hard as the famous swimmer. Over time, only those athletes who have a big enough advantage are those who become successful and move to the top. Therefore, if there is “any such thing as an average female and male body, you’d have a hard time finding it in an olympic team” (Penny, 1). Reeser agrees with the argument presented and even argues that “elite sport selects for physiological outliers whose genetic potential for excellence has been realised through fortuitous interaction with” (Reeser, 698) different environmental factors.
To further elaborate, Reeser uses Flo Hymen, who was on the United States Women’s volleyball team and suffered from Marfans syndrome (which allowed her to have traits that favoured an athlete, such as: tall stature, long arms, long legs etc.) as an example. These traits most definitely contributed to her success in the sport and gave her an advantage, yet there was no limitation or regulation on her being allowed to participate. Even though “ she was clearly phenotypically different from the vast majority of her fellow athletes,” (Reeser, 698) she was never restricted and was able to develop into an exceptional athlete. So is there a difference between her abnormality, and a transgender athlete’s abnormality? No.
The statements made above demonstrate that a level playing field does not require sports to be fair in every single respect, as complete fairness would be impossible. Renee Richards agrees with this in stating that even though her height is a physical advantage she had while competing, other players had advantages as well. She further explained by stating that “ I am tall, but that’s the same advantage Betty Stove has in tennis, and Carol Mann in golf. Both of them are [biologically female and are] bigger and stronger than I. That is a physical advantage unrelated to sex” (Heldman, 1). Even though she had advantages due to her transition, other players had advantages due to their genetics. Reeser agrees with this when stating that transgender athletes are similar to “geneticdally uniqe individuals who by virtue of their genotype, developn attrbiutes that permit him or her to excel at that sport” (Reeser, 697). Therefore, the playing field is still level when including transgender athletes, becasue all competitors have a unique advantage.
Ratachowsky disagrees and argues with the claim above when stating that “fairness of play” (Ratachowsky,1) can be achieved through the exclusion of transgender athletes only. She illustrates her daughters difficulties when it came to competing against trasngender athletes, and went on to explain that her daughter lost “athletic opportunities to a pernicious gender ideology” (Radachowsky, 2). However, Harper disagrees when implying that opportunities are only lost to other successful athletes, not trannsgender athletes in particular. She further elaborates when stating that “All successful athletes have advantages over less- successful athletes”, regardless of gender identity (Harper, 2)
In conclusion, the debate on the inclusion of transgender athltes in athletic competitions has been one that has been changing the lives of many for years. Being inclusive, while maintaining a level playing field is a difficult task, but one that has to eventually be achieved as modern society evolves and becomes more accepting. With careful consideration of all factors, it is concluded that even though the irreversible changes transgender athletes go through during puberty are thought to affect thefairness of athletic competetions, the playing field still remains level due to the fact that hormone treatment can control performance, and all athletes are outliers due to unique advanatges that allowed for their prosperity. I believe that due to the two claims previously stated, athletic competitions remain a level playing field with the changing gender spectrum. There is substantial data and evience in support of the inclusion of transgender athletes. The balance between inclusion and a level playing field is diffficult to reach, however, the argumnets in favour of allowing participation of transgender athltes is uncomplicated, and there is inadequate evidence that suggests that these athletes will effect the level playing field.
- Chen, V. (2018). Ethical issues concerning transgender athletes. Penn Bioethics Journal, 14(1), 15-18. Retrieved from Ebsco: Academic Search Premier database. (Accession No.133535150)
- Dreger, A. (2010). Sex typing for sport. Hastings Center Report, 40(2), 22-24. https://doi.org/10.1353/hcr.0.0250
- Griffin, P., & Carroll, H. (2011). NCAA inclusion of transgender student athletes [Handbook]. Retrieved from https://www.ncaa.org/sites/default/files/Transgender_Handbook_2011_Final.pdf
- Harper, J. (2015, April 1). Do transgender athletes have an edge? I sure don’t. The Washington Post, pp. 1-3. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/do-transgender-athletes-have-an-edge-i-sure-dont/2015/04/01/ccacb1da-c68e-11e4-b2a1-bed1aaea2816_story.html
- Heldman, G. (1976, October 29). Tennis doctor’s dilemma. The Times.
- Penny, L. (2016). Fighting words. New Statesman, 145(5324), 27. Retrieved from Ebsco: Academic Search Premier database.
- Radachowsky, C. (2019, October 13). Justice’ for trans athletes is unfair to girls like my daughter. New York Post, pp. 1-2. Retrieved from https://nypost.com/2019/10/13/justice-for-trans-athletes-is-unfair-to-girls-like-my-daughter/
- Reeser, J. C. (2005). Gender identity and sport: Is the playing field level? British Journal of Sports Medicine, 39(10), 695-699. http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bjsm.2005.018119
- Torre, P. S., & Epstein, D. (2012, May 28). The transgender athlete. Sports Illustrated, 116(22), 66-73. Retrieved from Ebsco: Academic Search Premier database.
- Vilain, E., Martínez-Patiño, M., & Sánchez, F. (2013). The new policy on hyperandrogenism in elite female athletes is not about ‘sex testing’. Journal of Sex Research, 50(2), 112-115. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224499.2012.752429