FIRST IT WAS rugby union. Now it is swimming. On June 19th the Fédération Internationale de Natation (FINA), swimming’s global governing body, ruled that transgender women—ie, biological males who consider themselves women—would not be allowed to compete in women’s elite races if they have gone through male puberty. Two days later International Rugby League said it would not allow transgender women to play in the international women’s game, pending further research. Sebastian Coe, the head of World Athletics, welcomed FINA’s decision, suggesting that the global track-and-field authority may soon go the same way. FIFA, which governs football, is rumoured to be considering a similar ruling.
All are following in the footsteps of World Rugby, the international governing body for rugby union. In 2020 it ruled that it was both unfair and unsafe for transgender women to compete in the international women’s game. When World Rugby made its decision the issue was still mostly theoretical. A handful of trans women had competed in women’s sports, including cycling and mixed martial arts, and had done well.
Recently, though, the issue has become harder to ignore. Laurel Hubbard, a New Zealand weightlifter and trans woman, made it to the final of the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 despite being 43 years old—an age usually considered well past a lifter’s prime. In March this year Emily Bridges, a trans woman cyclist and the holder of a British men’s junior record, was prevented from competing in an elite race a few days before it took place. In America Lia Thomas, a transgender college swimmer, went from being a middle-ranking competitor in men’s events to a top-flight one among women, winning a prestigious college race this year.
Critics—and an increasing number of sporting bodies—think that is unfair. When World Rugby made its decision, it looked at several scientific studies. Some confirmed what common sense suggests: most males are bigger, stronger and faster than most females, and some males are bigger, stronger and faster than any female. Another batch, which looked at whether that advantage could be removed with drugs or other treatment, came to a conclusion that was perhaps less obvious: that it couldn’t. Following the lead of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), some sporting bodies allowed transgender women to compete with females if they took drugs to suppress levels of testosterone in their bodies.
At first glance, that looked like an artful compromise. Testosterone, after all, is the original anabolic steroid. High levels in males, which begin in puberty, are responsible for much (though not all) of their athletic advantage. But, just as it is impossible to unboil an egg, the science showed that suppressing testosterone after it had done its work does not remove all the advantages it bestows. Levels of haemoglobin, for instance, which transports oxygen through the blood, fall quickly to levels typically found in females. But muscle size and strength fall only slightly, and by much less than the typical gap between the sexes. Skeletons do not shrink. As a landmark report published last year by a group of British sporting bodies concluded, there appears to be no way to balance the inclusion of transgender women in women’s sport with fairness. Governing bodies would have to pick one.
FINA’s decision has been misreported in some quarters as an outright ban on transgender competitors. It is not. Transgender men (ie, females who identify as men) remain free to compete as men if they choose, since they possess no unfair advantage—though any taking testosterone as part of their treatment will need a permission to carry on using what is, after all, a performance-enhancing drug. Transgender women are likewise free to race, but must do so in the men’s category. FINA also plans to introduce an “open” category in which anyone can compete (though in practice, most victories are likely to go to young, able-bodied, healthy males).
One reason change has been slow to come is that many athletes and sports administrators who might have disagreed with allowing biological males into women’s sport have felt too frightened to say so. The British sports bodies’ report talks of female athletes fearful of being threatened and abused, or losing sponsorship deals or places on teams, for speaking up. Much of the public opposition has been led by retired athletes such as Martina Navratilova, a tennis star, or Sharron Davies, a swimmer, with thick skins and less to lose.
Nevertheless, FINA’s decision, and that of International Rugby League, deepens an existing split in the sporting world. The IOC, whose rules many other sports follow, admitted before the Tokyo games that its existing rules were not up to the job, and promised new ones. When they came out, in November, they removed the requirement for transgender women to suppress their testosterone levels—and asserted that there should be no a priori assumption at all of male sporting advantage. Sport now looks increasingly divided between those that continue to follow the IOC and those that are rebelling against it.■