Transgender women in sport: the new guidelines

Should transgender women be eligible to compete in female sports? The debate surrounding this question has gained a lot of media attention and promoted a huge amount of discussion amongst the general public, sporting world and transgender community. The main argument against this group’s participation concludes that transgender women still maintain the physique of a biological male such as bone structure, height, muscle mass and organ size. Consequently, it is asserted that fairness, equality and a level playing field cannot be achieved if transgender women engage in female only sport. However, it is also claimed that this view may compromise the inclusivity and acceptance of transgender athletes, which in itself promotes inequality and unfairness.

On the 30th of September new guidelines were published regarding the inclusion, safety and fairness of transgender athletes competing in local and national level sport across all of Britain. The acceptance and allowing of transgender women to compete in female sporting events has been a widely discussed topic over many years due to the natural controversy of the debate and different perspectives to be considered. To summarise the argument The Sports Councils Equality Group has stated that ‘for many sports, the inclusion of transgender people, fairness and safety cannot co-exist in a single competitive model’, which highlights the complexity of the decision to permit transgender women to compete in female only sporting categories.

There is no denying that a lot of sports compete based on one’s physicality; strength, speed, and stamina are what edge one athlete over another. However, it is also important that sport’s governing bodies are accepting of transgender people and promote inclusivity across the board. Therefore, the new guidelines, as stated in the Independent, have been carefully developed after detailed qualitative research over an 18-month period involving conversations with over 300 people and 175 organisations. Aiming to encompass all three elements, inclusivity, safety, and fairness, the guidance published has declared that sporting National Governing Bodies (NGB’s) will have to choose which aspect they want to prioritise; every sport is different and so there is not one solution that can applied to each individual competition, as sourced in The Guardian. This approach aims to provides flexibility and consideration to ensure that all three components are being equally reviewed to create the best possible outcome for the specific sport and their current format.

However, in 2015 the International Olympic Committee (IOC) stated that transgender athletes are permitted to compete within international competition if their testosterone levels are below a certain threshold (10nmol per litre), as sourced in BBC News. The IOC have also stated that they aim to try to strike the right balance between fair competition and not excluding transgender athletes from the opportunity to compete at international level sport.

A historic milestone for transgender athletes was the recent participation of Laurel Hubbard from New Zealand who competed in the women’s 87kg weightlifting event at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. Hubbard has taken part in men’s events prior to coming out as transgender back in 2013. The women’s football competition at this year’s Olympic also witnessed the success of transgender and non-binary athlete Quinn who helped Canada to win the gold medal.

There is no simple answer or magic solution; issues of such are neither black nor white. Ultimately, no final conclusion is able to guarantee inclusivity, fairness, and safety in every competition or sport in its current format and this issue will continue to be a controversial one. However, with compromise on both sides and adaptations of current sporting formats and competitions, it is to be hoped that transgender women can move towards full participation in sport and acceptance within it at both a grassroots and national/international level.

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