Steph's Place

Are Trans Women competing fairly in Sport? The IOC have spoken yet the media debate goes on

by Co-Editor Paul

I love sport and I am incredibly patriotic.  Combine the two and I get excited watching anyone competing in any sport that is under the banner of the Union Jack.  I have always said I could cheer on an ant if it was racing for England or GB and there was a medal a stake! Like many sports fans in Britain in 2014 I found myself wildly cheering on as both Men’s and Women’s GB Curling teams won Medals in the Winter Olympics.  I’d never watched Curling before or watched it since.   

Both Men’s and Women’s curling teams were made up of 5 team members and quite obviously I had absolutely no knowledge of the sexuality nor the gender identity of any of those within the British teams – why should I and why should I care?

Clearly ones sexuality is totally irrelevant to sport, although there is no reason why anyone should feel the need to hide who they are and I have so much admiration for Tom Daly and his call for LGBT openness and acceptability within all sport.

And in truth it’s the same for knowing anyone’s Gender Identity. This may have an impact on a person’s qualification, but the only important factor I need to know when watching the Games is that all those who qualified are doing so fairly and within the rules – that no one is cheating. It’s not up to me, or in fact anyone else to question anyone’s right to compete if they fully abide by the rules as set down by the relevant sporting authorities.

Yet over the years I have read so much nonsense bandied about the inclusion of Trans Women in elite sport being akin to drug cheats, even though the taking of testosterone blockers and hormones is anything but sports enhancing! I can safely declare that no elite athlete will be caught secretly taking these drugs attempting to enhance their sporting ability – these drugs achieve the complete opposite.

But unfortunately adhering to the rules is not considered good enough for some and not everyone who competes strictly within the rules is allowed to compete free from overbearing scrutiny that is in truth fuelled by downright hatred. Laurel Hubbard was subjected to an unbelievable level of such treatment for simply qualifying to compete in the 2020 Olympic Games, and now swimmer Lia Thomas is the latest to receive such treatment, as reported by one media outlet:

“Lia Thomas, a transgender swimmer at the University of Pennsylvania has been shattering pool, meet and program records at the school.

The 22-year-old took down her competition in the 500-yard women’s freestyle preliminaries and finals at the Zippy Invitational at the University of Akron. Her winning time of 4:34.06 is now the best in the country for the event.” 

So now let’s put that statement into true context – did Lia break a Woman’s record, yes she did – so is she now the fastest female swimmer at this distance, no she isn’t.

Because at another event within days of Lia’s widely reported ‘record shattering swim’, in the Women’s 500 free at a Junior Nationals (west) in Austin, 16 year old Bella Sims recorded a time of 4:32:28, and in the very same race 15 year old Katie Grimes touched the wall just behind her in 4:32:97 – So when two girls beat Lia’s time by around 1.5 seconds did those media outlets revise their ‘smashing all women’s records’ statement?  

Lia also swam in another race in that event and this race also delivered media sensationalist headlines – Lia won the 1,650m race by a massive distance of 38 seconds! Surely this is a sign that everything is not right? But again, let’s keep calm, take a step back, and look at the facts rather than the sensationalist headlines – yes, Lia won this race by a massive distance, but all this proved was her ability compared to those competing on that day – so how did her winning time compare to the Women’s NCAA record for this event – and the answer is Lia’s time was 56 seconds slower! So no, Lia is not dominating women’s Swimming, and here are her times compared to the US record times:

 

100 freestyle: Lia Thomas 49:42 - NCAA Women’s record 45:56

200 freestyle Lia Thomas 1:41:93- NCAA Women’s record 1:39:10

500 freestyle Lia Thomas 4:34:06- NCAA Women’s record 4:24:06   

1,650 freestyle Lia Thomas 15:59:71 - NCAA Women’s record 15:03:31

The current NCAA women's records for those events are currently held by Olympic gold medallists. Missy Franklin holds the record for the 200 free at 1:39:10. Katie Ledecky set the records for the 500 free at 4:24:06 and the 1,650 Free at 15:03:31.   

 

It is also important to note that Lia is only one year into her transitioning.

Lia herself may not even fully appreciate what her continued requirement for hormones and testosterone suppressants will continue to do to her body. As stated, these are not sport enhancement drugs, they are quite the opposite.

Bella and Katie are 6 and 7 years her junior. Whilst the two teenage swimmers who have already comfortably eclipsed Lia’s 550m time will (assuming they remain injury free and fully commitment to the sport) continue to improve and develop their techniques, physicality and experience by looking after and nurturing their bodies to reach their full potential, Lia will battle against her essential medication that will continue to reduce her sporting abilities.

Another important fact to acknowledge is that Lia didn’t suddenly appear out of nowhere. She wasn’t, as is so often claimed ‘a mediocre Male athlete that is now smashing Female records’. Years before transitioning Lia was identified as a talented Male swimmer, and it shouldn’t go unnoticed that many media images chosen to show Lia pre-transition are of her proudly wearing swimming medals she had just won.

It should also be understood that her drop in form around the time of coming out in 2019/20 was fully understandable due to her struggling to come to terms with her Gender Identity and how to deal with this in such a cruel world – hardly conducive to achieving any kind of sporting success. As Lia has said of this time ‘my mental health was not very good. There was a lot of unease about basically feeling trapped in my body – it didn’t align. It was a very awkward experience of basically being a woman competing in a men’s meet. It was uncomfortable and so I didn’t compete that much’ – too many look at performance levels just prior to transition and totally ignore the mental state and how difficult or even impossible it would have been to fulfil any true sporting ability. But once transitioned and mentally so much stronger about herself, as an athlete she was finally in a position to concentrate on sport and see if she could reach her full sporting potential.

 

But are some implying that the only acceptable position for Trans Women to exist within elite sport is if they are not successful?

And this is the whole point. If by some chance, through unbelievable hard work and commitment, Lia manages to overcome these odds and achieve a successful career in elite level swimming, then she will have done so on merit – which is after all what sport is all about. Maximising whatever is your natural, God-given potential. She isn’t cheating, she didn’t choose to be Trans. Sport has never been about demanding or achieving a level playing field, no matter how appealing that might sound (see my article here which asks:  does sport provide a level playing field).

All we ask is that Sport is perceived to be fair and honest, and those born with an advantage and have sporting talent make the most of it. And the truth is that Trans Women are no different, they ask for the same thing. They simply want to be respected for who they are and permitted to compete fairly and safely.  

And this is now exactly what the International Olympic Committee (IOC) now agree fully with. In the words of the IOC’s Medical and Science Director, Dr Richard Budgett:  “The other important thing to remember is that Trans Women are Women. You have got to include all women if you possibly can. If you don’t want to take any risks at all that anyone might have an advantage, then you just stop everybody. If you are prepared to extrapolate from the evidence there is, and consider the fact there have been no openly transgender women at the top level until now, I think the threat to women’s sport has probably been overstated.”

So the issue about demanding fair completion surely applies to both sides. The premise on which the IOC is now basing their new policy has been due to the evidence they now have of the genuine impact of hormone therapy on Trans Athletes. And as a result they have effectively disregarded the findings from that solitary Swedish study that so many Trans exclusion supporters still want to rely upon. Their findings claimed evidence that Transgender Women lose less muscle volume than it had been believed and that Trans Women therefore do retain male puberty advantages that would be unfair and a threat to Cisgender Women’s safety in contact sports. However the issue with this solitary study (of just eleven Trans Women) is that it failed to include one single Trans Athlete, therefore giving it no credence with regard to relevance for use in the area of Trans Sport- even the reports key researcher Tommy Lundberg openly admitted this when questioned this on twitter on 29/9/2019:

Tommy Lundberg  “We have just done one study so far and I have always said more research is needed. How relevant the findings are for sport bodies, I am sure others will decide”

Kirsti Miller “Thank you for your honesty, a pity @Scienceofsport and other social media ‘experts’ have instigated false headlines like this that have gone viral and used as cannon fodder to attack trans athletes like myself

Tommy Lundberg “Of course it is since we did not study transgender athletes within Women’s sport

Lundberg may have since ignored his own clear advice, but thankfully the IOC haven’t – they acknowledged that more research was needed and realised there simply had to be a reason why Trans Women were still not having any significant impact on Women’s Sport if they truly retained a male puberty advantage. 

It is also important to note that like Lia, all 11 participants of the Lundberg study had only been undertaking hormone treatment for a period of 12 months when the study took place. No two humans are identical and the impact of the treatment will vary from case to case, but 12 months is simply too short a period to come to any definitive conclusions being pushed by believers of this study.

Given the level of criticism received since this study, it would not be unreasonable to think that Lundberg would have returned to those 11 Trans Women to repeat the tests over a longer, more accurate period. But to my knowledge this hasn’t happened and the results from the original study are still the results being peddled.

But as the saying goes, time waits for no man (whether they be Cis or Trans!) and further more reliable studies have taken place - like this one published in May 2021:

Muscle Strength in Transgender Women After Long-Term Hormone Therapy: A Cross-Sectional Study

Its conclusion:  “After Gender Affirming Hormone Therapy muscle strength of Transgender Women is equal of Cisgender Women. There is a decrease in the functionality of the muscular unit in producing strength in this group of Trans Women’s since strength decreased disproportionately to muscle mass which leads us to believe that there are important functional changes in intracellular oxidation mechanism

 

It’s also worth recalling that the last time an athlete, at a similar stage of their transition to Lia, came to draw such media attention, was CeCe Telfer back in 2019. Her success at becoming the first Trans Women to win a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) title resulted in similar dramatic newspaper headlines claiming the ‘death’ of Women Sport and the likes of Piers Morgan to claim ‘So you’re OK with transgender women athletes born to male biological bodies dominating women sport and smashing all existing female records? Because that is starting to happen and will only get worse it’s not fair to women born to female biological bodies.’

As I said that was 2019 and since then CeCe Telfer has failed to register any further impact. She may well have recorded some impressive times at the start of her career but that was also one year into her medical transition, so did her times set three years ago improve as she developed as an athlete  or has the effects of the hormone therapy had the greater impact? Believe me, if she has been smashing records we would all have heard about it!

Let’s again remember Lia is taking drugs that have a detrimental impact on her sporting ability that none of her Cisgender competitors are taking as they strive to improve and build on their own ability, careers and achievements. And I make no apologies to repeat once more, not a single elite level women’s record is held by anyone other than Cisgender Women. Not one.

Caroline Layt is a journalist, personal trainer and most importantly is the only Trans Woman that has ever played elite rugby or rugby union. Like all those who have first-hand experience of the impact of hormone treatment on the body and sporting ability of a Trans athlete, this is what she has stated about her experience:  “I can already hear the naysayers baying for my blood and saying all manner of unkind things about my “male advantage” and that “men shouldn’t be playing women’s sport” etc. But the crux of the matter is I’d fully completed my medical feminising transition years earlier, I’d been cleared by a sports doctor and sports scientists to compete as a woman in women’s sport. As a transgender woman (I ) was two seconds slower over 100 metres  - 11:28 (h.t) to 13:54 (e) - and (had) lost almost a third of my strength - my bench press went from 115 to 70 kilograms 1 repetition max - after transition”

Ask any Trans Women who has had hormone therapy for a viable period and they will tell you how much weaken they have become. And of course the experience will be different for everyone depending on their prescription. My own daughter stated her treatment on a very low dosage and the impact over the first year was negligible, but on increasing the treatment the impact is having far greater impact, so again, the treatment schedule of each person will play a role.

So how about Lia, who is just 12 months into her treatment - has she retained all he male puberty advantages? Let’s not forget that pre transition Lia was recognised as a star swimmer and at High School 2016/17 was a Boy’s Regional Champion swimmer in the University Interscholastic League. This is her best time comparison that clearly shows a reduction in her sporting ability since transition: 

 

200 freestyle Lia Thomas 1:43.47 – pre transition 1:39:31

500 freestyle Lia Thomas 4:35.06 - pre transition 4:18.72   

1,650 freestyle Lia Thomas 15:59.71 - pre transition 14:54:76

The impact is clear for all to see and only 12 months into her treatment it is clear that her sporting ability has dropped.

 

We can now only wait to see what additional detrimental impact her required treatment will have on her body. Lia herself is talking of improving further and is clearly working really hard to achieve whatever she can from her natural sporting ability and why shouldn’t she?

Surely the truly fair position would be for her to be able achieve the same level of success in Women’s rankings that she would have achieved in Men’s rankings.

It is clear that the scientific reason is not yet fully understood and even the IOC have finally dismissed testosterone levels as the defining factor (the reduction requirement recommendation has been dropped as it has been proven to be no direct correlation with testosterone level to success or ability). What is not questioned by the IOC is that the required treatment reduces male puberty advantages and this understanding is backed by the lack of any elite sport success.  

Almost every day in good old Twitter-land, someone demanding Trans exclusion from Women’s Sport will highlight isolated individuals, like Lia, to claim this awful unfair advantage. Back in 2019 I was arguing online with the likes of Sharon Davies and Kelly Holmes who flatly refused to acknowledge the fact that having no evidence of any Trans Women success was proof of a lack of retained male puberty advantages. Both refused at accept this but rather than produce any genuine proof of advantage (other than citing completely irrelevant Cis Male times and repeating the words ‘bone density & muscle mass’), they both simply blocked me.

Around that time in July 2019, and to back up my claim, I started posting extracts from the Wikipedia page Transgender people in sports  which included their full list of ‘Notable Trans Women athletes’ - this list gave a link to each athletes Wikipedia entry  (where the inclusion had its own Wikipedia page, as not all those listed had achieved sufficient notoriety to merit one)  and at this time there were just 26 names listed. That’s 26 notable inclusions in the entire history of mankind and the number was so low that they even included the likes of Kellie Maloney, a boxing manager & promoter, so not even an athlete but still included in a list of notable Trans athletes! 

So now let’s bring this fully up to date and see the true impact of Trans Women ‘dominating women’s sport’, because even in 2019 I was told ‘oh but it will happen!’ – well since that date the page has been regularly updated as we know that elite sport is one of the few activities that kept going through Covid and behind closed door whenever crowds were prohibited. So all successful Trans athletes over the last two and a half years will have been added and I have seen that their inclusion of athletes that didn’t merit their own Wikipedia page have now been omitted from the page. The point is that this list now stands at just 23. That is it, so far from dominating, the number has been decreased. In the entire history of Sport there are only 23 Trans Women deemed worthy of Wikipedia entries and none having achieved any recognised elite level success – and yes, Kellie Maloney is still included – but NO gold medal winners, NO elite records, NO dominating of Women’s Sport. 

Remember the words of the IOC  “If you are prepared to extrapolate from the evidence there is, and consider the fact there have been no openly transgender women at the top level until now, I think the threat to women’s sport has probably been overstated.”   Boy has it been overstated!

As I have always said, the lack of any success at elite level is all the proof you truly need to see that Trans Women cannot be retaining their male puberty advantages, and I must admit it is really vindicating hearing the IOC Director stating exactly this after so many years of being told how irrelevant this clear evidence was. Just because we may not fully understand the scientific reasoning that hormone therapy reduces sporting ability we do know that the impact is sufficient to allow fair competition.

If evidence is now showing that Trans Women’s strength reduces to that of a Cisgender Women then that is competing on a level playing field and is all any armchair sports fan could ask for. After that it’s down to the individual to reach their full potential.

 

In 2022 there is simply no justification for excluding anyone purely based on an outdated belief of biology.

As importantly acknowledged by the IOC ‘Trans Women are Women’ and if anyone is still questioning biology, then I suggest watching this video interview with Julia Serano  - Julia earned her PhD in biochemistry and molecular biophysics from Columbia University. She researched genetics and developmental and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Berkeley for 17 years. But she is not just a professional in biology – she is also Transgender, so she is in a privileged position of fully understanding both the science and the reality of being Trans. Once again I am simply highlighting the importance to include and listen to real Trans experience and voices.

I hope this article will have shown that there was no true justification for the predictably overblown sensationalist headlines about Lia. Our challenge in 2022 is to help educate and help make the wider world, especially those in a currently hate fuelled UK, to understand the truth and separate the facts from the fiction – and after that, if anyone is still left refusing to accept the facts, quite simply it’s up to them to overcome their own transphobia, as once made aware of the truth there can be no other reason for anyone maintaining a call for Trans exclusion.

In 2021 we finally witnessed the first ever participation of any Trans Women at an Olympics, which is staggering in itself as their qualification within Women’s Sport has been legally permitted by the IOC since 2004, but this is still a far cry from having a Gold Medal Winning Trans Women -  but in 2022 we will no doubt be moving one step closer as the time will surely arrive when a Trans Women does achieve genuine sporting success – maybe it will be Lia Thomas, but  inevitably it will happen, and who knows, it may even be a British athlete who achieves this.

So it is important that we understand now that when this does happen it is being achieved ONLY through fairness, natural sporting ability and the unbelievable degree of hard work and commitment that is required from every sporting winner.

But when it does happen for a Trans Women it will mean that athlete will also have had to have had the unbelievable strength of character to not only beat their competitors, but to also beat the hormone therapy drugs fighting to slow her body down, plus a hostile tabloid media and social media attacking her mental state and fighting to stop her completely. 

To achieve success for any Transgender athlete under the current media spotlight will therefore be a simply remarkable sporting achievement and will deserve all the praise and recognition afforded to every other sporting champion, and knowing that this will have been achieved fairly means I for one will be cheering from the rafters …. and especially if they are representing Great Britain!

 

New Link added to an update on this article, added JAN22 Lia Thomas swims against Izzi Henig, a Trans Man, so was this fair competition?


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