Ask any armchair sports fan, and without any real knowledge or involvement in elite sport this is what we all assume. We all know that every sporting event we watch, whether it be the Olympics 100m or a Football Cup Final, there are rules in place that dictate the way each event is run and lays down qualification rules for its participants to be able to compete – so in other words, this ensures a level playing field of fairness. An obvious rule that is pretty universal across all competitive sport is the banning of illegal performance-enhancing drugs – because that is rightly outlawed as cheating, and sport has to be fair.
So yes, your average armchair sports fan will believe that the competitive sport we all watch is fair, and that is why when the recent issues of Transgender Women competing ‘fairly’ in Women’s sport started being raised as a serious concern to Cisgender Women we keep hearing people say that we simply need to ensure we maintain a ‘level-playing-field’.
In many ways, the issues surrounding the whole fairness of Caster Semenya competing in elite sport embodies this whole issue – Caster is not transgender but the narrative and arguments used against her come from the same place. For those unsure of the issue, Caster is an Intersex Cisgender Woman, who was assigned female at birth, who has XY Chromosomes and naturally elevated testosterone levels (please note that I will come back to the word ‘naturally’ within this piece).
Having dominated the 800m for several years (her achievements including 2 Olympic Gold Medals in London and Rio, plus 3 World Championship Gold Medals), her differences have now been ruled as unfair by the sporting authorities and she has been ordered to medically reduce her testosterone levels to an accepted level to be eligible to compete any further at elite level in her chosen event. I have no intention of delving into the scientific issues regarding being intersex or the sporting advantages of higher testosterone levels as I have no scientific background and there are those way more qualified to make representation in this area – so my interest here, as that armchair fan, is based purely on the matter of fairness.
Before I go any further, I must state most emphatically that I totally agree that fairness should apply in sport. My interest in this whole issue has only come about due to my having an adult transgender daughter and becoming aware that the identical narrative used against Caster, so those Intersex, was being used against Trans Women competing in Women’s Sport, and putting aside the scientific issues the same reasoning of unfairness is levelled at both. I, therefore, took a far greater interest, but my initial reaction has still not changed – competing in sport should be fair.
A level playing field
Any belief that rules implemented in competitive sport are primarily there to ensure a level playing field simply aren’t true. In almost every single sport there are clear advantages that will benefit those competing at the highest level. If you look at team sports, like Football, it is the richest clubs that can afford the best players and the best managers, so it’s a very rare occurrence that any team outside the top wins trophies. Formula 1 Motor Racing is dominated by the team with the best cars, as they do not all race in cars of equal quality or reliability. And if you consider the biggest spectacle in the sporting calendar, the Olympic Games, athletes competing from the poorest Countries must do so on a level footing with those from the richest, whose athletes have the considerable advantages of better training facilities, better coaches and access to the most advanced technology to help achieve the fastest, longest, highest performances from their athletes; there are clearly identifiable advantages in practically every sport , and in competitions where tiny margins can mean the difference between failure and a Gold Medal, these advantages produce anything but a true and genuine level playing field.
But even if we accept that these global sporting differences exist, surely all individual athletes compete on a level playing field. Well unfortunately this also isn’t the case, and sporting history is littered with clear examples. Here are just two.
When Kenyan distance runner Wilson Kipsang won the Berlin Marathon in 2013 he ran the fastest time ever recorded (ref link #1) – at an average 4:42 per mile it was a remarkable performance, but maybe what was more remarkable was that Kenyans also came 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th in what was a major international event. In the Women’s race Kenyans also finished 1st, 2nd and 4th. Then just two weeks later Kenyan runner Dennis Kimetto broke the course record, and yet he had only been running for four years – the following three fastest runners were also Kenyans. That’s remarkable enough, all being Kenyan, but what is even more remarkable is that all of these athletes came from the same Kenyan tribe known as the Kalenjin.
According to reports in 2011, there were 17 American men in history that had run a marathon in under 2:10 – in the month of October 2011 alone, this was achieved by 32 Kalenjin runners. Clearly, this was in part due to the incredible effort, work and determination of athletes who concentrated their efforts in long-distance running, but there was also the fact that those born into this tribe had a natural genetic advantage for long-distance running – those within this tribe were all born with particularly thin ankles and calves, a physical trait that is highly advantageous in long-distance running. It was so advantageous that their sporting achievements were clear for all to see.
This isn’t cheating, this is just how they were born, and their natural advantage gave them an advantage that enabled those from this tribe to excel and dominate long-distance running for many years.
We are all different so it’s not surprising that any difference we naturally have may enable us to excel in certain sports and therefore gravitate toward that sport if the personal desire for competition is also there. Anyone that grows to over 7 feet tall (2.13m) is unlikely to compete in gymnastics, but a basketball/netball court is clearly a place they might excel and enjoy success – so is it unfair to other competitors if this is what sport they choose to play?
Now let’s also look at one of the worlds most celebrated sportsmen in history – the swimmer Michael Phelps (ref link #2). He is the all-time Olympic record holder with 23 Olympic Gold Medal victories and 26 World Championship Gold medals - he totally dominated his chosen events for over a decade. So why was he so dominating, and again, let’s not dismiss his hard work and dedication to perfect his natural abilities, but the facts are that he had an unnatural body that was considered perfect for swimming. He had a longer than average torso; at 6’ 4” he had the torso of a man of 6’ 8” and the legs of a man 8” shorter – this body proportion was deemed highly beneficial to powerful swimming and provided him with legs that produce less than normal drag (water resistance). His wingspan (the distance from fingertip to fingertip when your arms are outstretched) was 3” longer than normal (it’s usually about the same as your height) - this meant his arms could reach further which makes a genuine difference in finishing a race first. And if that wasn’t enough, he had size 14 feet, which were effectively like having flippers, combined with double-jointed ankles that bent more than 15 per cent more than his top rivals. He was also hyper-joined in the chest and had double-jointed elbows, and finally, it was identified that he produced half the lactic acid of his competitors, which gives advantages in recovery time during major competitions consisting of multiple heats day after day - all of these were natural conditions, but they gave him considerable advantages over his swimming rivals.
So how did the sporting world look upon this as his physical differences were not unknown? His achievements have been cheered and celebrated all around the world – he is rightly heralded as a sporting legend and acknowledged as one of the greatest sportsmen of all time. He didn’t cheat – he didn’t take performance-enhancing drugs – you could say that he simply made the most of what cards God had dealt him. But was this fair to those he competed against?
So now we come back to Caster. Did she cheat? No – her differences are as natural and as God-given as those afforded to Michael Phelps.
And my question is; what is the difference? – and here lies the biggest problem.
The only difference is the way both have been treated. One revered, the other vilified. It was never questioned that in order to compete, Michael Phelps should have surgery to remove his clear physical advantages or take medication to increase his levels of lactic acid. With Michael Phelps, there was never any insistence on ensuring a level playing field.
So having understood that there is no genuine expectation or requirement for a level playing field and there is never an issue with champions benefitting from any natural born difference, why was there such an issue made over Caster Semenya? If it was considered fair for Phelps, Kipsang, Real Madrid, Lewis Hamilton et al to win with clear unfair advantages, then why is this issue being raised in seemingly just one area - Intersex and transgender. What has caused these issues to be raised?
The issues being raised against Trans Women is troubling for even greater reasons. Clearly it would be understandable to question fairness if Trans Women were truly dominating Women’s Sport (which is a claim that has been repeatedly made in the media by the likes of Piers Morgan) and if Trans Women were genuinely smashing all World Records and beating all in front of them, just like the Kenyan distance runners.
But no, Transgender Women are simply not having anything like that level of impact.
Not only has no Trans Women ever won a single Olympic Gold Medal, not one has even managed to qualify to participate. Trans Women have been eligible to compete since 2003, and since that date an enormous total of 54,442 Olympians have qualified to compete in the games – but not one has been Transgender. If you listen to the cries on social media you’ll invariably be shown details of a single Trans Masters (aged 33-45) cyclist, a Trans boxer, a weight lifter and a couple of high school runners, as if any success at any level was somehow irrefutable evidence that Transgender Women are somehow dominating Women’s sports – well none of these were at an elite level and are we honestly saying that not a single trans women is ever permitted to excel in any sport at any level? Being Transgender is not an illness that hinders sporting ability – the fact that Caitlyn Jenner won Olympic Decathlon Gold before she transitioned clearly proved this as she was born with the required sporting attributes of an Olympic Champion.
According to Wikipedia, in the entire history of mankind, there have been only 34 trans women who have had even the slightest impact in sport – and out of that tiny number, only 22 even merit their own page entry. And I repeat, not one single Olympian amongst them. So I ask again, what could possibly merit such a backlash when they are simply having no impact? They are so invisible, why is anyone even taking any notice or interest in them?
One valid reason could be on grounds of safety, so maybe this is an issue. We know that Male strength develops during puberty and it is clear that the Sporting Regulators consider, rightly or wrongly, that the resulting disparity in Testosterone levels to be a serious issue. This is why, in order to be able to compete in all elite sporting events like the Olympics, Trans Women have to prove they have reduced their T Levels down to what’s considered a fair and safe level for two years. This in itself is not intrinsically a bad thing as clearly Cisgender Men do have an unfair advantage over Cisgender Women and if Trans Women are to compete it should not be with such an advantage – as stated, I do believe in fairness – there is an argument as to whether testosterone levels are an important factor, but that’s a discussion for another time and not necessarily relevant to the point I am making here.
So the clear conclusion when looking at actual results and sporting records, is that Trans Women are not retaining any genuine male puberty advantage and therefore not winning. But here is the thing – if it has been established by the sporting authorities that having a high T level gives heightened strength which, depending on the sport in question, could be unfair or dangerous, then why is no one else tested?
Surely if this was such an issue that urgently needed regulating due to fairness and safety then why is it only applied to those that are Transgender or Intersex? If this was genuinely an issue then every athlete should be tested and all those with naturally high levels should be required to reduce levels to compete. As a side note, it has been established that natural T levels do vary considerably, so those with high levels are simply being permitted to compete. There has been no such requirement and there is nothing being discussed or debated whether this should be introduced – it is only demanded for regulating Trans Women and those Intersex like Caster.
This also doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be safeguarding as there is always a fear raised that any opportunity to find an advantage will be exploited by those willing to do anything to cheat, so the cry you often hear is of cisgender men pretending to be transgender to get into Women’s Sport to win. Well putting aside the clear evidence that it simply wouldn’t give them a genuine opportunity so why bother, we really do need to apply logic to this - in order to qualify by reducing their T levels, the hormone treatment they would need to undertake will have other side effects including them growing breasts, making them infertile and will give themselves the mental issues of suffering with dysphoria by intentionally ensuring their body is no longer in-tune with their brain (as they will always remain cisgender).
What young male athlete would honestly go through this process, as well as legally changing their name and want to be seen socially presenting as a woman every day for two years before even being able to compete. Yet the threat of cheating this way is banded around so easily as a genuine consequence when the likelihood of it actually happening and succeeding is simply not an issue of genuine concern.
So as long as there are rules in place to punish anyone in the unlikely event that any Cisgender man that did attempt to cheat this way, safeguarding will be in place so this is not an area for any genuine concern.
When you can find no genuine or acceptable reason, unfortunately, the only reasonable conclusion I can come to is discrimination. Yes, it could be argued that Caster Semenya had an advantage, but it was a natural one – it was how she was born. Remember I said I would come back to that word ‘natural’ – and Caster had a natural advantage in the same way that Michael Phelps had a natural advantage – so you explain to me why both have been treated so differently.
Toward the beginning of this piece, I stated that I stood for fairness in Sport – and I repeat that I do.
Everyone in sport deserves to be treated with the same degree of fairness and respect – and yet here it is clear that not only is there no unfairness being forced upon Cisgender Women, but the ones not being treated fairly are actualy Transgender Women and Caster Semenya as everyone else is permitted to compete with an un-level playing field – and quite simply put, that’s just not fair.