Why the excellence of trans athletes raises difficult questions

April 1, 2022 — 12.00pm
April 1, 2022 — 12.00pm

The making of laws, or sporting regulations, isn’t easy. There isn’t a rule book for writing the rule book.

We may aim for fairness, equity and integrity but what often happens instead is we establish an entirely new paradigm, which in reality eschews each of those ideals.

Transgender athlete Lia Thomas

Transgender athlete Lia ThomasCredit:Getty

This is why important policies must be enacted only once there’s a proper, reasoned and sound basis for doing so. Educated guesstimating is akin to conducting brain surgery blindfolded – it is an insufficient method of solving complex issues. It’s also dangerous.

Crudely crafted rules can have drastic, detrimental, unforeseen outcomes for particular classes of athletes.

Given that, what should the precise rules be regarding binary male and female competition classes across all sports in circumstances where gender itself is not binary? Such rules affect the right of certain people to freely participate in sport at all, which means great care and consideration is demanded.

The British cyclist, Emily Bridges, was due to compete in the British National Omnium Championships this weekend. Now she isn’t allowed to because the sport’s international federation, the Union Cycliste Internationale, has determined she isn’t eligible. Emily Bridges is a trans female athlete and her right to compete has been squashed.

In 2022, organising elite athletes into either the “male” box or the “female” box, as elite sports invariably do, is a borderline impossible task to complete well. The potential for damage to be caused to athletes, like Emily Bridges, is clear.

These questions can’t be considered inside a vacuum-excluding emotion. Yet that’s exactly how such questions perhaps must be examined, even if not answered.


Improperly considered and non-comprehensive schemes of regulation will definitely generate outcomes such as the material distortion of the competitive balance across a spectrum of competitors of the same gender.

Conversely, a severity of regulation disproportionate to any legitimate concern might result in a subset of female athletes being indefinitely banned from all competition, a fate that is worse than that which befalls all but the most wicked of dopers and cheats.

The objectively excellent performances by Penn State athlete Lia Thomas during the recently completed US college swimming titles must be applauded for being exactly that: excellent performances. Thomas’ results and achievements must, however, bring into question the credibility of the very competitions in which she excelled.

Lia Thomas’ achievement in winning the NCAA 500-yard freestyle raises issues that need to be confronted, by aquatic sports and indeed sport generally.

Thomas is a transgender female athlete, studying and competing in elite US college sports. Her collegiate swimming career results, achieved before she began transitioning from male to female, were altogether humdrum.

Swimming at the just-completed NCAA championships, though, Thomas won an NCAA title. In achieving that result, she defeated two cisgender female athletes – Emma Weyant and Erica Sullivan – each of whom won silver medals at the Tokyo Olympics.

And it’s at this point that one must at least question whether the participation of the archetypal Lia Thomas – a transgender athlete participating in a single-sex sporting competition – distorts the Utopian “level playing field” to the degree it challenges the concept of fair and equal competition.

Protestors hold up signs as Lia Thomas swims at the NCAA championships in Atlanta.

Protestors hold up signs as Lia Thomas swims at the NCAA championships in Atlanta.Credit:AP

Not everyone who validly questions the participation of a Lia Thomas in an elite female sporting competition deserves to be tarnished a “transphobe”. These are not questions about only the rights of trans peoplebut are rather questions about fairness in competition and the rights and interests of all athletes and the consequences of upturning that finely balanced table.

Again, the issue is one of trying to fit a whole kaleidoscope of gender into either the box labelled XX or the one labelled XY.

Certain sports, obviously, lend themselves to competitions in which men and women can compete on an even basis, where gender isn’t a factor. Horse racing, motor racing and darts are perfect examples, and implementing regulations permitting unhindered participation rights for transgender athletes is a comparatively straightforward process.

But some other sports are inherently more difficult to organise so that transgender athletes have the same rights as cisgender athletes while simultaneously maintaining fairness for all athletes. The relative importance of strength, stamina and physical size in sports such as rugby league, boxing and wrestling means that those sports don’t offer up obvious ways in which a trans female athlete might be permitted to participate in female competition.

Laurel Hubbard competes at the Tokyo Olympics in the women’s over 87kg weightlifting category.

Laurel Hubbard competes at the Tokyo Olympics in the women’s over 87kg weightlifting category.Credit:AP

It must, however, be observed, that the reaction to the participation of the trans female Kiwi weightlifter Laurel Hubbard in the men’s program at the last Olympics was unwarranted based on her results alone.

Moreover, although most people wouldn’t quibble at the concept of a trans male athlete competing in a heavyweight wrestling competition against a cisgender male opponent, such a scenario actually presents its own conundrums in terms of athlete safety, specifically that of the transgender athlete.

Which means that although questions as to how the binary nature of elite male/female sports competitions should, and can, be adapted are confused, they are also compulsory.

A core failing is there exists no overarching guidance, at least not at any detailed level. In late 2021, the International Olympic Committee released its Framework on Fairness, Inclusion and Non-Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity and Sex Variations. Good, you would think.

Laurel Hubbard is jubilant after dropping the bar - but she failed to win a medal in Tokyo.

Laurel Hubbard is jubilant after dropping the bar – but she failed to win a medal in Tokyo.Credit:AP

Disappointingly, but unsurprisingly, the IOC’s framework comprises six pages of high-falutin’ principles and waffle that any lawyer could drive a bus through. In one section, the IOC says the starting point is that an athlete should be allowed to compete in the category that best aligns with their self-determined gender identity.

In the following section, the IOC qualifies this ideal by stating that where sports organisations elect to organise competitions into men’s and women’s categories (and very few don’t), those organisations should do so with a view to ensuring that no athlete within a category has an unfair and disproportionate competitive advantage.

Now, back to Thomas. This isn’t at all about Thomas, but in another way this must be about Thomas.

How can it be fairly put that a trans female athlete in the position of Thomas, who was ranked so far down the pecking order as a NCAA male athlete that nobody ever uttered her name, now could be said to have no unfair and disproportionate competitive advantage?

But if Thomas does have a disproportionate athletic and competitive advantage, how can her sport offer her the opportunities there she should rightfully be afforded? Therein lies the conundrum.

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