Paddy Upton

Swimming provides the most compelling solution to the transgender inclusion debate in sports.

transgender swimming

This isn’t solely because snug-fitting swimming costumes reveal much of the answer. 

This post was sparked when I learned that a friend had just received the maximum 4-year ban from their sport for testing positive for a banned substance. They tested negative in all previous and subsequent tests. It was once-off contamination. Despite exhaustive efforts and significant expenses, the source of the contamination—whether from tainted food or a supplement—remained elusive. This person has never knowingly engaged in doping practices but was nonetheless handed a 4-year suspension.

A few months prior, on the opposite side of the world, an incident unfolded in which a bearded male powerlifter entered a women’s competition and shattered the women’s record. Avi Silverberg, the head coach for Team Canada Powerlifting, entered the competition after identifying as a female. Sporting a beard and dressed in men’s clothing, he casually bench-pressed nearly 167kg, surpassing the women’s record by a staggering 45kg. It gets better. The previous record was held by another transgender Anne Andres, who also holds the women’s dead lift record. And Anne took to social media to berate Avi, labelling him a ‘coward and a bigot’. You can’t make this shit up.

Many may also be familiar with the stories of transgender cyclist Rachel McKinnon, who became the women’s world track cycling champion, trans swimmer Lia Thomas, or New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard. And the list goes on*.

When we compare the substantial advantages offered to transgender women by sports policies to what happened to my friend, the disparities become stark. While it may not be a perfect nuts-to-nuts comparison, but in the world of sport, a man with a beard and dressed in man’s clothing can win a female national body-building competition. Meanwhile, a woman who unknowingly ingested one single dose of a random steroid was banned for four years. To make it worse, this substance, known for its weak muscle-building effects, had been discontinued in nearly every country since the 1980s, except for Japan.

We live in a time of artificial intelligence, gene editing, machine learning, telemedicine and space exploration. But the people who are leading these advancements are often not the same ones running our sports bodies or governments.

The discussion around transgender participation in sport is nuanced, complex and subject to a wide range of opinions. Each of which are valid, at least from one of the many plausible perspectives. Even the concept of biological sexes is fraught with nuance, as exemplified by cases like Caster Semenya, who was born female but possessed XY (male) chromosomes, undescended testes, and elevated testosterone levels. There are numerous instances of individuals born as hermaphrodites, pseudohermaphrodites and so-called ‘intersex’.

Despite some people’s inclination to view matters in black and white, right or wrong and male or female, the reality is that life has more colour, which means there will often be grey areas of confusion. In these instances, it is best to ‘narrow the grey area’ through a combination of facts and common-sense, and when necessary, to agree to disagree.

Let’s examine some facts. The fastest 100m time ever run by a woman sprinter was 10.49, achieved by Florence Griffith-Joyner in 1988. In contrast, 1888 men have run 10.30 or faster, and have done this on over 20,000 occasions. Thousands more men have run between 10.30 and 10.49 seconds.

When it comes to powerlifting, the 69kg category men’s record is 22 percent higher than the women’s record, and the men’s deadlift record surpasses the best female performance by 31 percent.

What about combat sports? Given the significant physical advantages men typically possess in terms of strength, speed, and power, it’s only a matter of time before a transgender female in some fighting discipline severely harms or kills their opponent.

I want to be clear that I have no issue with someone choosing from the ever-expanding list of pronouns, or deciding to transition. The decision to transition requires immense courage, commitment, and often considerable financial investment. I respect and admire their courage, and I don’t envy the challenges they face internally, from within their body, family and social circles, and from the outside world.

In trying to solve the transgender participation debate, science and sport bodies are struggling to define acceptable hormone levels, time period at these levels, and how they apply across the different sports and disciplines. The International Olympic committee established a maximum hormone level that formerly male athletes must fall below for a period of 12 months before competing as a woman.

As a sports scientist (one of my master’s degrees is in this field), I can assure you we will not establish clear and universally agreed-upon biological or physiological criteria for determining who qualifies as a man or woman. Not within the next 5 or even 10 years, and likely never.

There is, however, a straightforward solution that can cut through this complexity, and it sits with the freestyle event in swimming.

Freestyle in swimming means ‘any style’, the most common of which is crawl. Swimmers are allowed to use any style they prefer in the freestyle event. For instance, Michael Phelps swam butterfly in the 50-freestyle event in the 2014 Arena grand Prix event. The primary limitation is that swimmers cannot remain fully submerged underwater for more than 15 metres. The other three official styles are breaststroke, backstroke, and butterfly, and participants must adhere to these specific styles when competing in those events.

Building on the freestyle example and recognizing the growing list of genders and pronouns, sports would benefit from having two categories: a women’s division and an open division. The women’s division would be exclusive to individuals who were assigned female at birth, while the open division would be open to all, provided they were born human.

Implementing these two categories in sports may not address every physiological and biological anomaly, nor will it resolve all inclusivity, affirmation, non-discrimination, and other socially sensitive issues. However, it would significantly reduce the grey areas and bring us closer to a fair, safe, inclusive, and common-sense system, alleviating the confusion faced by many sports today.

* It would be remiss to not point out one notable exception to trans women winning women’s events. Chris Mosier started competing as a female triathlete after being born a women. She started her transition in 2010 and in 2015 earned a spot on the Team USA sprint duathlon men’s team for the 2016 World Championship. This made him the first known trans athlete to join a U.S. national team different from his sex at birth.

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