Laurel Hubbard’s admittance to the Olympic Games has reignited controversy around the fairness of including trans-gender athletes in competitive sports. Missing from this debate is the acknowledgement that the ‘playing field’ has always been uneven, and naturally so.
Author: Casey Abel
Laurel Hubbard is set to be among the first openly trans-gender athletes to compete at the Olympic level. Hubbard has received much support from her national community in New Zealand, including from figures as prominent as Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
While many celebrate this further step towards global inclusivity in sports, vocal critics have reignited the debate over whether it is fair for trans-gender athletes to compete in sports. The discourse is, however, seemingly narrower than this. Criticisms typically revolve around trans-women’s participation in women’s sports. The most prominent argument being that on average men have biological differences to women that confer athletic advantages. This is a discourse less about trans-gender inclusion, and more about trans-women inclusion in competitive sports.
Men on average have biological traits divergent from their female counterparts that do confer athletic advantages. Some examples can include greater bone density, narrower hips and higher testosterone production. These tendencies lead some to conclude that permitting trans-women to compete in the gender-category of which they identity would create an ‘uneven playing field’.
The situation though is not as black and white as this. The rules that govern sporting events cannot truly create a ‘level playing field’, and the idea that all men and women are created equal is illusory at best. This is particularly true at the elite levels of sports, such as the Olympics, where a variety of factors combine to produce elite level athletes.
These factors include innate talent, skill level, socio-economic disposition and of course biological traits. Sporting bodies set standards for athletes’ talent and skill levels often through ‘try-outs’ and other forms of pre-competition. Some organisations offer scholarships and training programs for socially disadvantaged athletes. All sporting bodies concern themselves with the biology of competing athletes for single sex events; a particularly difficult task at the elite level of sports.
In his 2014 book The Sports Gene, sports journalist David Epstein assessed elite level athletes from across the world to examine how biology produces athletic brilliance. What he found, which was not totally unknown to science, is that elite level athletes possess biological traits which set them apart from the general population. That is to say, elite athletes tend to embody biological traits atypical of the general community, traits which confer athletic advantages.
In a conversation with Dr Scott Barry Kaufman on the Psychology Podcast, Epstein discussed some of the findings explored in his book. He noted that the sport of Basketball potentially presents the most obvious of atypical biological differences in elite-level athletes: physical height.
About 70% of American men are just in the 6-inch range of 5ft 8 to 6ft 2. If you know an American man between the ages of 20 and 40 who is at least 7ft tall there is a 17% chance he is a current NBA player.David Epstein; on the Psychology Podcast.
When we consider sports inclusivity from this perspective, that the athletically brilliant are typically physiologically different to the most of us, it dampens the criticisms targeted at trans-gender athletes. Boban Marjanović no more chose to grow 2.24 meters tall than Laurel Hubbard chose to be born trans-gender.
If the international community decides to disclude athletes who exhibit biological divergence from sports participation, under the pretence that such divergences are ‘unfair’, than governing bodies will ultimately have to bar entire social groups. Epstein makes interesting reference to the Kalenjin people of East Africa, a minority population from Kenya.
The Kalenjin people are physiologically endowed with thinner ankles and calf muscles which, crucial to long distance running, grant them greater running economy. Kenya has won gold at 25 of the 45 World Cross Country Championships in the senior men’s teams division. As well, 5 of the top 10 fastest male runners in the 1500m sprints were born in Kenya.
To put their achievement into perspective, there are 17 American men in history who have run under 2 hours 10 minutes in the marathon, that’s 4 minutes 58 seconds per mile pace. And 32 Kalenjin men did that just the October before my book came out, just in that one month.David Epstein; on the Psychology Podcast.
The caution that trans-women athletes may have biological advantages over their cis-gender counterparts is somewhat of a moot point given that most elite-level athletes possess divergent biological traits which confer athletic advantage. Some critics refuse to acknowledge trans-gender people as the gender they identify with, recognising only the sex they were assigned at birth. Asides from being blatantly transphobic, this view does not consider the complexity of human biology. A sordid example of this is the cruel treatment Spanish athlete Maria José Martínez-Patiño received from the sporting community.
During the Cold War, it became common policy during large international sporting events for female athletes to have their sex medically verified before being permitted to participate. The international community was suspicious that female athletes from Communist countries, particularly the Eastern Bloc, were taking testosterone supplements to enhance their performances.
In 1985, 24-year-old Patiño failed a sex verification test to compete at the World University Games being held in Japan. She had a cheek swab test which returned results indicating she had XY chromosomes. In other words, it was revealed that she was chromosomally a man. She was barred from the games, her fiancé left her, Spain stripped her of her national titles and for a time she was expunged from athletic records.
The pertinent question remained, was she a woman? Patiño was assigned female at birth, was raised as a girl and lived as a woman. Her chromosomal status was entirely unknown until she was tested in 1985. Later, it was discovered she lacked physical ovaries and a uterus, while having internalized testes in her labia. From a medical perspective, Patiño is intersex. She was born with biology outside of what is typically considered ‘male’ or ‘female’, though she rightfully identifies and lives as a woman.
It was later discovered that Patiño has a condition called ‘Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome’. This condition renders her body deaf to testosterone, so despite her testes producing male-levels of it she developed as a female. Epstein wrote it succinctly, “The trouble is that human biology simply does not break down into male and female as politely as sports governing bodies wish it would.”.
In the Psychology Podcast, Epstein noted that women with conditions such as AIS is 1 in 40,000 in the general population, but it is closer to 1 in 400 at the Olympics. He said that “While having XY Chromosomes these women will be on average unusually tall with longer proportional limbs… these conditions are natural, they are not any type of cheating, but they can confer an advantage and they are very highly over-represented at the elite levels of sports.”.
The International Association of Athletics Federations, the same governing body that organises the World Cross Country Championships, introduced a ‘hyperandrogenism’ rule in 2009. The rule sought to exclude women from participating who had naturally high levels of testosterone production, whether they were intersex or not. Curiously, they did not ban athletes of Kalenjin lineage, who also have naturally occurring biological advantages. Due to this rule, there is on record 4 female athletes who agreed to undergo body-altering surgeries and estrogen-replacement therapy so they could be admitted to participate.
The Court of Arbitration for Sport eventually ruled against the IAAF’s ‘hyperandrogenism’ rule in 2015. They cited a lack of scientific evidence to support the IAAF’s claims of unfair competition. Serious ethical issues are raised by the IAAF’s discriminatory policies, and the suggestion that women-athletes, or any athlete’s, bodies must undergo surgical alteration to be permitted to participate in sports. Particularly when the same level of criticism is not applied to non-gender related biological divergences, such as height, arm-span, or thinness of skeletal and muscular structure and so forth.
Most commentators agree that there are some reasonable body-altering procedures, such as testosterone suppression for trans-women athletes. The International Olympic Committee permits trans-women to participate so long as their testosterone levels register lower than 10 nanomoles per litre of blood for at least 12 months prior to competition. This is still roughly 5 times the average level of testosterone found in the average woman.
Many critics claim this rule is demonstrative of an unfair advantage given to trans-women athletes, however, as sexuality and sports journalist Cyd Zeigler attests, most trans-women athletes report having close to 1 nanomole per litre. This places them comfortably in the testosterone range of the average cis-gender woman.
Laurel Hubbard has met this testosterone threshold, and in doing so has qualified to compete in the 2022 Tokyo Olympics. Sporting events have often acted as unifying events bringing communities together. It seems counterintuitive to make divisive policies to exclude groups from inclusion based on advantageous biological divergence, particularly when these principals cannot be universally or equitably applied.
The beauty of human variability reveals a fundamental truth of the sporting arena: the ‘even playing field’ has always been an illusion. Elite level athletes stand out from the norm because they are intrinsically different, typically possessing physical characteristics which benefit their sport of expertise. Hubbard may have a slight advantage at the Olympics with her stronger bone density. But is this reason to disclude her, and other trans-women, from participation? No doubt her diverse and equally brilliant competitors will bring with them their own physiological differences. The games will be much more competitive, and the sporting community stronger for it.
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