Following the end of University of Pennsylvania swimmer and transgender woman athlete Lia Thomas’ collegiate career in March, the subsequent wave of nationwide anti-trans athlete legislation has jeopardized the future of inclusion in sports. But while the world becomes increasingly embroiled in legislative battles designed to maximize exclusion, the nuances of the controversiality of fairness and inclusion have been swept to the wayside.
Thomas broke barriers as the first trans female athlete to win a title at the NCAA Swimming and Diving championships. Despite following NCAA policy and undergoing over two years of hormone replacement therapy (HRT), she endured hate from not only her teammates, but also politicians and avid swim fans arguing about her eligibility. The uproar of concern about compromising the integrity and fairness of women’s sports could be labeled as transphobic – and for some, it certainly comes from a place of bigotry. But perhaps the arguments also stem from our curiosity surrounding the creation of the policy and how we reconcile existing laws with a future in which binary classifications no longer apply.
After consulting with athletes, sports organizations and medical experts in 2015, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) determined that while transgender men can take part in competitions without any restrictions, testosterone levels of transwomen must be below 10 nanomoles/liter for at least one year prior to competing. Later in 2021, however, the guidelines were adjusted to consider hyperandrogenism, a medical condition commonly affecting more women than men, which may result in higher testosterone levels irrespective of HRT. Instead of an overarching criteria for all athletes, IOC now shifts to an evidence-based, sport-specific framework where the data must strongly suggest “a consistent, unfair, disproportionate competitive advantage.” While the change is a step forward in the right direction, defining a “disproportionate advantage” remains vague and is not conducive to conversation.
Current political debates emphasize the most widely accepted definition of inclusion and equity: that all people, regardless of gender identity or expression, be afforded the same chances and opportunities. Transgender folks deserve the same basic respect as those who conform to now outdated gender binary classifications. At the same time, failing to consider the biological differences such as lean body mass, pelvic width and lung capacity neglects the full story.
Physicality is undeniably a more pertinent factor in sports than in other aspects of life. The innately different build of cisgender men offers them a significant and often insurmountable competitive advantage over women. For instance, men have a longer and larger bone structure which supports more powerful muscles and a wider frame. Their high muscle mass to body-weight ratio also gives men a noticeable advantage in speed-based competitions. In sports such as swimming, where athletes race against the clock and one another, female records will always be slower than male ones.
Different body compositions are advantageous in different sports, and forcing the same sweeping ban on all athletes would not be equitable or fair. Body composition can be measured by a number of factors, namely body fat and the ratio of strength-to-mass. While lower body fat and higher levels of lean body mass might benefit weightlifters, boxers and footballers, this body type doesn’t necessarily work for everyone. Many distance runners and track athletes would be faster with lower body fat as it reduces air drag. Higher strength-to-mass ratios like martial artists and gymnasts have may hold their bodies up with more ease and better counteract the effects of gravity. But for swimmers, it’s not as clear cut. Body fat may be more buoyant, but too much concentrated in one area will lead to drag. Too much lean body mass may also result in sinking. Optimal body composition is not universal, so we shouldn’t treat everyone the same way either.
In Florida, Texas and other traditionally right-leaning states, legislators have recently passed laws forcing public school students to only compete on sports teams based on the sex they were assigned at birth. The policies continue, despite a persisting lack of research and evidence indicating that innate biological differences give trans athletes a significant advantage. I would be remiss not to consider the nuance behind the substantial physical advantages of trans female athletes. HRT may increase body fat and decrease lean muscle mass. But with a lack of research, it is unclear how long it takes for this to occur, and to what extent it will affect the bodies of trans athletes and subsequently, their swimming technique.
It’s foolish to dismiss such stark time differences during formal competitions. For the duration of the 2021-2022 season and at the 2022 Ivy League Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships, Thomas competed on the women’s team; at the championships, she won the 200 freestyle with a time of 1:43.12. The top finisher on the men’s side, Dean Farris from Harvard University (Mass.), finished in 1:32.67. In many parts of life, nine seconds isn’t much: being nine seconds late to class or taking nine seconds to remove a pie from the oven is inconsequential. But in swimming, especially on an elite level such as the NCAA, being nine seconds slower could cause an athlete to fall behind by nearly an entire pool length.
Striving to bridge the gap between the divisiveness of transgender policies in sports is an admirable goal, but it grows complicated when we continuously try to consolidate contradictory research claims on sex and gender. For instance, HRT, which transgender women sometimes use to lower their testosterone levels, can be an essential part of the transition process for transgender people. It not only has beneficial physical effects, such as blocking testosterone or increasing estrogen, but also has psychological effects like mitigating gender dysphoria. On the other hand, a 2018 study also claimed that medicine would be unable to completely suppress testosterone levels in about 25% of the transgender women who participated in the study. Another quarter of trans women were able to lower testosterone levels, whereas another quarter could not reach typical female levels but remained below typical male testosterone values.
Scientific research, raging pundits and international sports committees on both sides of the debate have all put forth opinions and claims that often contradict with another. The effects of HRT and studies on hormones are still relatively new. Coming to a consensus on fair policies requires more than just political squabbling. No one can seem to propose a solution that is both equitable and inclusive, and I still have several unanswered questions: how long should an individual have to undergo HRT to be considered athletically equivalent to a cisgender women? How should fairness be defined in sports – is it about unequivocal inclusion or about ensuring equal competitive opportunity? Do trans female athletes have a significant competitive advantage over cisgender women and, if so, to what extent? Hopefully, with more research and involving transgender people in these discussions, we will be able to answer these questions and reconstruct fairness in sports.
I must admit that the news of Thomas’ record-breaking swims perplexed me, likely for the same reasons it has angered elite athletes: how could it ever be fair? At the same time, I can’t help but be in awe and admiration of the time and effort Thomas must have spent training in order to win so definitively in the face of so much vitriol.
Truly, asking Thomas to give up swimming or banning her from the sport would be a devastating blow. For any elite athlete, the dedication, passion and love they have for a sport is ingrained in their identity. Taking those opportunities away because of someone’s gender expression or identity fails to coincide with the spirit of sportsmanship we try to teach. Continuous accusations of injustice to women’s sports come from desperation, to be part of a fight for or against Thomas and all other trans athletes. The true root of the issue lies with clumsy, contradictory and uninformed legislative and administrative voices unwilling to do any research that might unravel their biases.