Sports Can’t Just Ban Transgender Athletes From Competition

Lia Thomas
Brett Davis/USA Today Sports/Cover Art

I know I’m late to this, and I appreciate I’ve already spoken about the FINA ban on my podcast. But I thought it was important to write some of this down and see if I could find any research and try and conduct some rudimentary research of my own.

In case you’ve missed this one. FINA (the world swimming body) banned transgender athletes from competing in elite female swimming (unless they transitioned before age 12). The decision comes mostly because Lia Thomas won a national championship 12 months after beginning her transition. Lia as a male competitor was a middle-of-the-road swimmer. But, as a female competitor has separated herself as one of the top female collegiate swimmers in the USA. Before her transition, Lia was a scholarship holder for swimming with the University of Pennsylvania.

The decision paved the way for World Rugby League to impose a similar ban for the upcoming women’s Rugby League World Cup. And the RFU have done the same.

I can see where the outrage has come from, but to ban all trans athletes from competing in elite female competitions is not a well-thought-out approach. Sport at its core is everyone, and by effectively excluding trans athletes, we forget one of the core values of sport.

I’m also not sure we should be rushing children to decide their gender by age 12; that seems reckless.

The Problem With A Blanket Ban

Look, I’m not an idiot. I know that there are sports where size has a considerable advantage. And one thing we know about Male and Female physiology is that, on average, men are taller and denser than women.

I was speaking to a friend of mine about this issue. He’s a former NBL athlete, and he told me, “Liam, the problem is if I transitioned today, I’d still be 6ft 9 inches”. At 6ft 9 inches, he would be one of the tallest players in Women’s basketball history. I’m not going to tell you how much he weighs but let’s also say that he would be one of the heaviest too.

Similarly, if I transitioned today and came out of retirement to play women’s Rugby, I’d be one of the tallest (at 189cm) and one of the heaviest (at 115ish kgs) women’s rugby athletes in Australia.

When I began searching for any research on this topic, I found it very scarce. A few studies explain how male body composition changes over time during hormone suppression. But I couldn’t find any research on how hormone suppression impacts recovery, strength or aerobic capacity (fitness)—additionally, there are no studies (available or to my knowledge) on transgender athletes.

I get it; this goes both ways. We must protect all our members, regardless of gender, colour or orientation. But, excluding transgender people from elite competition doesn’t do anything but further alienate an already marginalised community.

But, I think I have a possible solution.

Common Sense Approach

What I am proposing is taking a case-by-case approach.

Every national sporting body, or maybe every national sporting body with their sh*t together, has an enormous database of all the athletes who’ve come in and out of their programs. The databases generally include age, height, weight, strength testing scores, conditioning testing scores, and any other metric you could think of that might help an athlete perform at their best.

The beauty of having data like this is that you can benchmark every athlete against this data. Over time, you develop criteria and an athletic profile for successful athletes in your sport. And, if you’re doing it correctly, you’ll probably start to see patterns with the athletes who tend to have success.

But what does this mean for transgender athletes, Liam? It means national bodies can test transgender athletes against the same criteria. Then, determine if an athlete fits within a typical elite female height, weight, strength, body composition and aerobic capacity range. Some additional considerations around testosterone and length of transition will also factor. But, sports will be able to determine if there is any significant performance advantage objectively.

Practical Example

To use me as an example. And for this example, I used NRLW as they had the heights and weights of the players listed. Additionally, I only used props as the sample size (because that’s my position). The average prop height in NRLW is 172.8cm, with the tallest athlete being 187cms tall. The average weight for a prop in the NRLW is 91.5kgs, with the heaviest athlete being 109kgs.

Based on this (albeit rudimentary) information, my height and weight would put me outside a normal range for an NRLW prop. And therefore, it would rule me ineligible for participation in the NRLW even before the need to conduct the strength, conditioning, body composition and testosterone level tests.

This process (in my mind) allows sports to make decisions based on objective evidence and not have to guess. My size in NRLW would unequivocally give me a performance advantage (assuming I was fit and fast enough, which I am not), as it was deemed in Hannah Mouncey’s case when she attempted to enter the AFLW draft in 2017.

Process Presents a Way Forward

As sports start to implement this process. They can offer the athletes an opportunity to be part of a broader study into transgender participation in sports.

The national bodies can begin to track the athletes regularly. This will help to understand the impact on a previously male body’s recovery, strength, body composition and aerobic capacity under hormone suppression while training as an elite athlete.

Additionally, it leaves the door open for athletes to participate in the sport if they were deemed ineligible in their first attempt. Over time they may fall within an acceptable range and be free to participate at all levels.

As I’ve previously stated, this type of study (as far as I’m aware) doesn’t exist. By agreeing to do something like this, sports could take an active role in ensuring their sport (and others) becomes more inclusive for future generations while also filling a huge gap in our knowledge.

Obvious Caveat

When I tested this with a few people, the first thing said was that the athletes could just pretend to be weaker and less fit than they are.

I get that, but I’d like to think that a strength and conditioning coach employed by a national sporting body would be good enough at their job to spot that. And, in my experience, they generally are.

Additionally, if an athlete is really serious about wanting to participate, they’re not going to game the system so that they can participate.

In summary, I understand both arguments. We want to protect our sports and their members, but we also have a responsibility to keep our sports inclusive. I believe this process presents a way forward and could positively impact all sports and pave the way for evidence-based and logical decision-making. Right now, I think we’re shooting from the hip, and history would tell us that’s not a great way to make decisions.

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