UK Sports Council guidance on trans women in sport unlikely to settle the controversy

Laurel Hubbard of Team New Zealand competes during the Weightlifting - Women's 87kg+ Group A on day 10 of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Tokyo International Forum on 2 August 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo: Chris Graythen / Getty Images)

The UK Sports Council says in a new guidance document on trans women in sport that there are three imperatives – inclusion, fairness and safety – that sports will have to consider and then choose between.

Sport’s most controversial problem is no closer to resolution, but developments in the past two months have at least made it increasingly apparent that the concept of resolution may be a mirage, unreachable except in the imagination.

Instead, with every passing controversy, sport should be moving closer to recognising that, rather than pretending the issue can be resolved to the satisfaction of all, it may soon be time to make difficult choices and be clear and honest about what is being prioritised.

Sport has long struggled with, and failed to solve, the problem of how to accommodate trans women. The tension exists because the premise of women’s sport is that a separate and closed women’s category ensures fairness and safety for women by excluding biological males who develop into adulthood with the benefit of androgens (literally, male-making hormones like testosterone).

These hormones are responsible for enormous biological differences between the sexes, so large that literally thousands of men and even boys outperform the very best women in almost every sporting event.

Given that the women’s category excludes those who have been able to use testosterone to drive biological and performance differences, trans women create a dilemma because they violate that crucial “condition for entry”, since they have, and use, testosterone during development. 

Reduce testosterone

The “fix”, first proposed by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) almost 20 years ago, was to require a reduction in testosterone levels for 12 months, the idea being that if you took the source of the difference away, you’d take the difference away.

The possibility that this could work would have been embraced by those in sport in the same way that a drowning man grabs a life jacket, because it would allow inclusion of trans women in women’s sport without any negative consequences for fairness and safety for women.

Alas, as appealing as this sounds, biology doesn’t work with such simple symmetry, and there is now abundant evidence to suggest that simply lowering testosterone cannot undo years of testosterone’s effects on the body. As a result, in almost all the biological systems, significant portions of the male difference and advantage are retained.

Faced with this reality, sport has floundered. The life jacket, so eagerly grabbed, turned out to be cast of stone, and is sinking rapidly under the weight of new research that has undermined the premise that inclusion and fairness can coexist, combined with the growing voice of women who have begun to stand up and insist that they be heard on a matter that, if we’re being honest, primarily concerns them.

And so we arrive at the latest developments. First, the IOC, the architect of the initial policy that allowed inclusion provided testosterone had been reduced, has admitted that its policy is “not fit for purpose”, but has not yet delivered any changes to it.

The sporting world has been waiting since 2018 for an updated IOC policy, but unable to juggle emerging evidence, as well as existing and new stakeholders, that update has stalled. Most recently, the IOC indicated that a new policy may be released only after the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games.

More confusingly, the IOC has continued to stick to a message that multiple imperatives can be juggled without difficult choices being made.

The IOC’s chief medical director was recently quoted as saying that, in the new policy, there would be an “emphasis on the priority of inclusion and the avoidance of harm, but always bearing in mind the importance of fair and meaningful competition”.

Quite what this means is difficult to discern. It seems to suggest that sports must juggle three imperatives, two of which come out as priorities, while a third (fair and meaningful competition) appears as an afterthought, but one that should never be put out of mind.

Further, the IOC has indicated that it would provide a guideline rather than a policy, with every individual sport tasked with coming up with specific regulatory policies for their own contexts.

This certainly makes sense – what rugby and judo consider important may be very different from what shooting, archery and table tennis consider important.

If the quotes are anything to go by, however, the guidance will not provide the necessary leadership or clarity of scientific argument to direct those individual sports to make evidence-based decisions. Instead, a mixed message where inclusion and safety must be emphasised while a third imperative is not forgotten is likely to result in continued stalling at the sports federation level.

Enter the UK Sports Council, which stepped into the transgender leadership vacuum when it released an exceptionally detailed, well-researched guidance document in early October.

This group, made up of sports councils from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, recruited independent consultants to engage with stakeholders from around the world to develop a guidance document for sport in the United Kingdom.

That consultation process interviewed more than 300 people from 175 different organisations, gathering input from athletes, coaches, advocacy groups, medics and scientists (the author was among the 300-plus who were consulted). 

Striking conclusions

Its conclusions were striking and definitive, though not binding for any sports. Three key findings and conclusions stood out, echoing what World Rugby found in 2020 when its own consultation process resulted in a guideline that prioritised safety and fairness over inclusion, and thus prevented trans women from playing women’s rugby.

The first is that: “No one was able to offer a single solution which would resolve all the identified issues, or that would satisfy all stakeholders.”

It is a telling statement, because independent consultants, with no obvious conflicts, agendas or political pressures, have explored all options and concluded that this is not an issue that can be resolved to the satisfaction of all stakeholders. Some 20 years of attempts have been in vain, and it is time to change the paradigm and approach to the question. Rather than seeking balance, sport will have to be prioritised.

Second, the UK Sports Council guideline clearly outlines the three imperatives – inclusion, fairness and safety – that sports will have to consider and then choose between.

Does a sport wish to include trans women at the expense of natal females, to the detriment of fairness, and potentially safety in some sports? Or does the sport choose fairness by elevating the biological differences between males and females to the top priority, and recognising that current methods of reducing testosterone in trans women do relatively little to remove these biological differences and thus performance advantages?

And then, of course, in many sports, the biological differences responsible for the performance gulfs that exist between men and women are also responsible for risk of injury.

Just as we recognise inherent risks if children play sport against adults, or lightweight boxers fight against heavyweights, so too females would be required to accept risks born of physical differences were their category not protected. Therefore, sports that involve or indeed require contact, collision and combat may have to very seriously elevate safety to the top of their priority list, at the expense of inclusion, as World Rugby had done.

All this is described in the guideline document, with the emphasis that sport cannot have all three – it must choose.

Third, a crucial contribution made by the UK sport guideline is the revelation of the extent of the fear experienced by people who offer opinions contrary to prevailing social and political opinion.

One section of the report made for startling reading, describing how interviews frequently ended in tears of frustration, with the expression of fear that if people were to say publicly what they felt about this issue, they would lose their jobs, salaries and future opportunities to develop a sporting career. Some reported direct threats of sanction and disciplinary action if they expressed any viewpoint that opposed inclusion of trans women.

It cannot be stressed enough that this viewpoint – caution about inclusion, a position that argues for the protection of women’s sport as a closed space – is actually the one backed by the biological principle (why does women’s sport exist to begin with?) and the scientific evidence showing that a size-able portion of advantage is retained.

Yet we have reached a place in the debate where supporting the evidence-based position invites risks of sanction and possibly even unemployment. The debate has become so toxic that those who are directly affected by the decisions are the ones whose voices are heard the least.

The UK Sports Council guideline concludes with the statement that: “The system requires a reset.” It calls for a new conversation, and the need for clarity and transparency.

My own hope is that the more we see and read comprehensive, evidence-based documents, the more rapidly we can move on to assessing our priorities. That we can put behind us the fallacy that “inclusion, fairness and safety go hand in hand”, a myth perpetuated by Stonewall, one of the UK’s prominent trans advocacy groups, in response to the UK Sports guideline.

Similarly, we can dispense with weak, illogical and often dishonest arguments that invoke the length of Michael Phelps’ arms, so-called “natural advantages”, or the fact that many women are taller than the average man to argue for inclusion, when in fact, there are arguments against the existence of women’s sport entirely.

The more this assessment of priorities involves women’s voices, the better. They have been remarkably under-consulted thus far, given that it’s women’s sporting spaces that are the subject of debate and target of change.

Their views should no longer be ignored or even silenced by threats of reprisal, and hopefully the UK Sports Council document adds volume to their voice and momentum to the all-inclusive conversation.

And, finally, the sooner all this is accepted, the better. It will free sports up to make difficult decisions, rather than to avoid them, as they have done under the guise of “meeting everyone’s needs equitably”.

It may well be that many sports choose the inclusion option, as kickboxing in the UK did, and as professional ice hockey in the US has done recently.

This will not resolve the disagreements, but at least it will create honest disagreement about priorities, rather than continuing to perpetuate the myth that fairness and possibly safety for women is not compromised by inclusion. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.


Comments - share your knowledge and experience

Please note you must be a Maverick Insider to comment. Sign up here or sign in if you are already an Insider.

Everybody has an opinion but not everyone has the knowledge and the experience to contribute meaningfully to a discussion. That’s what we want from our members. Help us learn with your expertise and insights on articles that we publish. We encourage different, respectful viewpoints to further our understanding of the world. View our comments policy here.

All Comments 4

  • One can support transgender people’s rights without insisting that trans- women be allowed to compete against women in sport. The irony for me is that African women can be excluded for naturally high testosterone levels, while trans- women exhibit the same sense of entitlement as white men as many still do. Choices involve sacrifice and what’s more important to become woman or continue as a weight lifter? There is so much racism in sport and discrimination in sport that it is ludicrous to this is the issue – it affects a tiny minority of people – but clearly a group wedded to their privileges.

  • Great Article. Surely the solution is to have a third class of sport – for trans contestants? This will consist almost entirely of men who have chosen to change to women as it is extremely unlikely that a woman to man transformed athlete would want to compete against biological men. Let the trans athletes raise their own sponsorship and organize their own competitions/tournaments. Women’s sport will still have plenty of other challenges, but having to compete against trans athletes that so obviously have an inherent advantage should not have to be one of them. Bruce Danckwerts CHOMA Zambia

  • A very good article covering a difficult subject.
    I think, in the end, a 3rd category is the only way to solve this in a way that is fair to all.
    Incidentally, considering how much has been said about the subject, I wonder just how many trans sportspersons there are?

  • Excellent article. Let us stick to biology and celebrate and reward our human differences honestly and fairly. Unfortunately politics and sociologists by slipping in gender “studies” has only muddied the waters and achieved nothing but chaos, confusion and bitterness. All the same let us support those in a state of transition but be clear that it is a private journey only which will inevitably encounter natural, physiological and for some God given, barriers.

  • Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted