The Science is in. We don’t need “more research” to prove legacy male advantage in sport

The Science is in. We don’t need “more research” to prove legacy male advantage in sport

A growing chorus of female sporting greats and sports scientists are calling on authorities to provide clear leadership to resolve contention on the issue of trans inclusion in women’s sport. Australian Olympic gold medalist, Giaan Rooney, is the latest to speak up, joining Dawn Fraser, Emma McKeon and Emily Seebohm in opposing the current policies that favour trans inclusion to the detriment of women. Rooney points out that the controversy surrounding transgender eligibility will continue for as long as the rules remain unclear.

“If the rules aren’t clear and if a transgender athlete is successful, that leaves room for conjecture … A lot more research needs to be done to make those guidelines as clear and simple as possible because where it won’t work is if there are grey areas.”

According to sports scientists, however, the evidence is already in. We don’t need “more research” to demonstrate that male puberty confers a legacy performance advantage which, even with subsequent testosterone suppression, is sufficient to put trans athletes on the wrong side of the fairness-driven restrictions necessary to preserve the integrity of women’s sport.

In a recent article for The Australian, Dr Emma Hilton (a prize-winning developmental biologist at the University of Manchester) and Prof David Handelsman (Professor of Reproductive Endocrinology and Andrology, University of Sydney) explain:

“Categorisation (by exclusion of those with advantageous baseline biology) in pursuit of fair competition is not unique to sex, with similar fairness-driven stratifications defined by objective criteria for age, weight (boxing, weightlifting), skills (judo) and disability grade (Paralympics). As a subjective and variable criterion, gender identity cannot form a rational basis of fairness in sports stratification.”

Three retired sports science academics, Helen Parker, Beth Hands and Elizabeth Rose, concur with this conclusion. Together they have authored two peer-reviewed papers published in the International Journal of Sport and Society in January, which lay out the status of biological research on this subject. They point to the research of Hilton, Tucker, Pike, Lundberg, Handelsman, and others, which clearly demonstrates the necessity for maintaining the protected female category in sport.

“We could see from our reading of sport science, and endocrinological research that a male-bodied athlete, irrespective of gender identity or testosterone lowering therapies, retained a measurable performance advantage over a female-bodied athlete,” Parker said.

By contrast:

“There is no biological science supportive of overturning sex-divided sports categories … Matched for weight and/or height, the biological female player in the same event would always be beaten by a biological male player, regardless of current (testosterone) levels of the trans athlete.”

Given the clear evidence of residual male advantage – and the profound repercussions of this for the fairness, safety and integrity of female-only sport – Parker, Hands and Rose argue that the policies that have established “inclusion” as the default setting for women’s sport, require re-examination.

In March, they wrote a series of letters to the leaders of nine major sports codes, including Cricket Australia, the AFL, Hockey Australia, Tennis Australia and Netball Australia, in the hope that their evidence would prompt a review of standing trans inclusion policies. So far, their efforts have failed to elicit a response. They have not heard back from a single sporting authority and this, in itself, is a cause of concern.

According to Parker:

“My request was that the board take on the information and discuss the issue of trans women in sport at least at board level again, and ask: ‘Is our policy of transgender participation appropriate now that we have this biological information?’ …

“If they are going down this transgender inclusion role, then they really have not only dropped the ball, they’ve basically made a balloon out of the issue and just let it float away. It looks as if they’re not serious in their custodianship of their code and advancing women’s sport.”

Both in Australia and internationally, a good deal of buck-passing and obfuscation from the authorities appears to be thwarting the policy changes that are needed to protect women’s sport. The recent comments of John Coates, the outgoing head of the Australian Olympic Committee, are typical examples of this non-committal side-stepping:

“The sport needs to look at itself — even within a sport the benefit of being transgender varies as to what event you are in,” he said.

This implies that Coates agrees that trans inclusion should be the default setting, with exclusion only acceptable in cases where it can be shown that a particular transwoman enjoys unfair advantage. This is obviously unsatisfactory. It leaves the female category vulnerable to incursion and creates the conditions we have now, which promise endless contention.  

Netball Australia chief executive Kelly Ryan seems to agree that case-by-case or sport-by-sport decisions are the answer to the current problem:

“It should be up to each sport to represent whatever it is that is required in their own spaces to put forward their positions.”

Such prevarication will satisfy no one. The growing number of female athletes speaking up against the obvious unfairness of including Lia Thomas in University-level swimming or Emily Bridges in elite women’s cycling are unlikely to be placated by such a piecemeal approach. 

Further, this does trans athletes a disservice in creating the conditions for personal disappointment. Hannah Mouncey’s unsatisfactory experience in attempting to qualify for women’s rugby amid shifting rules is an example of the problems that arise.

In 2017, Mouncey was nominated for the AFL Women’s draft before being declined, in a late decision, under the “strength, stamina or physique” clause of the Victorian Equal Opportunities Act. In 2018, AFL supported Mouncey’s request to play in the VFL Women’s (VFLW) where he ended the season second in VFLW goal-kicking record. AFL seemed then to entertain the idea that Mouncey might join the 2018 AFL Women’s draft after all, but produced policies for trans inclusion at the elite level that were, according to Mouncey, by design, too difficult for anyone to meet.

On Twitter, Mouncey complained:

“The AFL has treated me like shit, with every effort made to wear me down to a point where I couldn’t continue. Eventually, what has gone on behind the scenes will come out, and it paints a sad picture of an organisation with no leadership, who cares only for its corporate image above all else.”

Asked by Piers Morgan about whether transwomen should be included in women’s sport, Caitlyn Jenner, a former Olympian and transwoman who is well qualified to comment, was quick to say that it is unfair to women:

“We must protect women’s sports. At all costs. What Lia has done, beating biological women to win a Division I national championship, is anathema to what sports represents and the spirit of competition.”

The comment that made headlines was Jenner’s assertion that “Lia Thomas is one of the worst things that happened to the trans community because it’s such bad publicity”. But Jenner was also very clear to emphasise that the blame for this situation does not lie with Thomas – it lies with the sporting authorities that allowed Thomas to compete. 

The fact is that recognising gender identity as the qualifying criteria for women’s sport represents a radical change from established convention. The sporting codes that introduced this change, without sufficient deliberation or broad consultation – as five-times Olympic coach Dennis Pursley has recently put it: in defiance of reason, logic, science and common sense; not to mention reality and truth” − have now apparently turned to putty at the prospect of reversing that decision.

In the absence of real leadership, everyone suffers. What is needed now is clarity and resolve to restore to women, girls and trans players alike, the surety that they are not wasting their energies in committing to their chosen sport.

No one is denying the importance of trans inclusion in sport. But this benefit can be secured without devastating the female-only category in the process. It is time for our sporting authorities to do their job, find real, evidence-based solutions and the necessary resolve to implement them.