When Laurel Hubbard put her hands on the barbell at the Pacific Games in Samoa in July, she would have been keenly aware that many dispute her right to compete in international weightlifting as a women.
Hubbard, who took home two golds at the games for New Zealand, is at the centre of a row over whether trans women athletes have an unfair advantage over their cisgendered rivals. Controversy had already flared up when Hubbard qualified to compete at the Commonwealth Games in 2018 after meeting International Olympic Committee requirements to keep her testosterone levels below a given threshold for a year.
Shortly after Hubbard’s victory in Samoa, a ruling against the runner Caster Semenya vindicated similar restrictions, a Swiss court okaying testosterone limits on runners in women’s sporting contests. This meant runners with abnormally high testosterone levels could be barred from races between 400m and a mile.
Though some dispute the requirements themselves, others see them as beside the point. Speak Up For Women, a New Zealand campaigning group, argues for athletes to be segregated based on sex rather than gender identity. “Kiwis know that males competing in women’s sport is blatantly unfair,” the group’s spokesperson Ani O’Brien said.
The argument underpinning these and similar controversies is that men and trans women have an unfair advantage in sport because of the effects of testosterone and other elements of male physiology, which cannot be fully mitigated by things like hormone therapy.
A BMJ Journal of Ethics article published in June said the International Olympic Committee policies lead to an “intolerable unfairness” when trans women compete with cisgendered women. Their preferred solution is to abandon male and female categories in favour of “a more nuanced approach satisfying both inclusion and fairness”.
Right now those opposing trans participation in women’s sport – trans participation in men’s sport being a less prominent issue – are claiming that broad genetic advantages should be able to disqualify categories of people, in this case the male-born or those with the attendant genetic advantages.
But why stop at the crude category of sex?
A rigged game
Athletes win sports due to a mix of innate ability, preparation, decisions made during a contest, and luck on the day. Not only do we weigh the fairness of these things differently, but we weigh the fairness of each one differently in different contexts.
Luck can be viewed favourably if it allows an underdog to outfox a disliked favourite. Athletes that play with what pundits call “heart” are often preferred over the technically gifted who do little to inspire fans’ love. For the same reason, an unlikeable underdog will be scorned for cheating someone better out of a “deserved” win.
No preparation can outlaw an unexpected ricochet, an unfortunate injury or an unintended stumble. For sports where endgame scores tend to be low and the impact of each point scored high, such as soccer, luck is a regular source of upset, with fans cursing or praising the fickle nature of the game, usually depending on whether their team has benefitted.
Winning through preparation or smart strategy inspires similarly split responses. Michael Lewis’s book Moneyball charted the attempt of Oakland Athletics to win Major League Baseball by outsmarting their opponents through using unconventional metrics to hire players undervalued by traditional metrics. Outsmarting a better-resourced opponent in this way is usually viewed positively, so long as it doesn’t rely on cynical play.
However, rigorous training and professional standards can be viewed dimly if it is not in keeping with the amateur ethos of a sport or because it means rich sports clubs can buy their way to success. Rugby union’s move to professionalise in the late 1990s was met with some resistance, while Chelsea and Manchester City’s recent footballing successes in the English Premier League through big spending invites scorn from purists.
Even so, provided rules are in place to stop underhand behaviour, conscious effort can be seen as the noblest way to win, relying neither on luck or innate talents.
These distinctions are where trans athletes have stumbled. Those wanting to exclude them from women’s sports or even men’s sports think their innate advantages are unfair – even though elite athletes without innate advantages are rare.
That physical advantage can be unsporting was acknowledged in the creation of weight classes for boxing. Unequal physical capacity is also mitigated in the classification system for the Paralympics, which considers the extent of athletes’ disabilities.
However, sporting bodies have not taken this process to its logical conclusion: compensating for all innate physical advantages in all sports.
Take the case of Usain Bolt, the fastest 100m sprinter in the world. Analysts have partly attributed his achievement to his unusually large leg length for a sprinter, a product of his 6 foot 5 inch height that means he takes fewer steps than most elite sprinters to clear 100m.
Most people cannot grow to be that tall, and most people that tall can’t accelerate like Bolt. Whatever other preparation went into his performance, he clearly had some genetic advantages over his rivals. If that’s intolerably unfair for trans athletes competing in female competitions, why is it fair for him?
An artificial distinction
The restriction against men competing in female sports is fundamentally artificial. Elite male athletes can generally beat their female equivalents, but elite female athletes are much better than the average man, and probably more genetically advantaged than a significant proportion of men.
In terms of achievements, accolades and prestige the best female athletes do far better than equally good men, the latter receiving little attention. This is actually quite peculiar, even if we are accustomed to it. Outside of sport it would be strange to lavish praise on those performing at the 99th percentile simply by virtue of their sex. But in many sports we do just that.
Advocates for female contests are defending a discriminatory system set out to benefit a special interest group: women, and generally cisgendered ones. This could even be termed a form of positive discrimination or affirmative action.
If female contests weren’t protected in this way “there would be no Serena Williams, no Dina Asher-Smith, no Megan Rapinoe as role models for millions: Novak Djokovic, Christian Coleman and Lionel Messi would smash them into dust every time”, as the Guardian’s chief sports reporter Sean Ingle put it recently.
But why should the careers of some women be protected when no such succour is given to almost everyone else who lacks the genetic aptitude increasingly necessary to be competitive in professional elite sports? If Ingle’s affirmative action reasoning is persuasive, would it not make just as much sense to promote contests for different ethnicities, or even have contests to inspire those born without any aptitude for sport?
I offer no good fix to compensate for unearned genetic advantages enjoyed by elite athletes. For most spectators the priority will be to watch the best athletes competing, regardless of why they are so good.
But the quarrel over the fairness of trans athletes’ genetic advantages in sports is absurd. Elite sports already are deeply unfair, with athletes frequently winning based on factors outside of anyone’s control. Whether trans athletes are excluded or included, that will not change.