Let Her Play
Why Intersex and Transgender Women Should Compete in the Olympics According to Their Gender Identity
(IAN MACNICOL / GETTY IMAGES)
The Olympics season is upon us. As an avid fan of winter sports myself, last February 4th, I diligently tuned in to CBC in the morning to watch the participating countries of the 2022 Winter Olympics parade down Beijing’s National Stadium. Although it was hard to watch at some points due to the controversies surrounding politics, health guidelines, and doping, I like to think there’s always a silver lining.
With 35 out athletes, including the pair figure-skater Timothy LeDuc, the Winter Games’ first non-binary athlete, the Beijing Olympics officially hold a record number of LGBTQ+ athletes in a Winter Olympics. If all Games are included, however, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics still wins gold by a landslide with the number of out LGBTQ+ athletes. This step forward in 2020 wasn’t done without stirring the pot, though, especially in regards to gender non-conforming athletes.
Laurel Hubbard, an Australian transgender weightlifter, and Caster Semenya, a South African intersex sprinter, created controversy with their participation.
Hubbard was the first openly transgender athlete to compete in the Olympics. She had all the requirements of World Athletics—the international governing body for athletics formerly known as the IAAF or International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF)—surrounding transwomen, which made her participation totally legitimate. Nonetheless, her participation was heavily criticized. Some said she was taking the place of a cisgender woman, and others downright said that she was cheating as her former male body would grant her an unfair advantage in her event: weightlifting in the women’s +87kg category. The latter group of people would be proven wrong as Hubbard failed to place in her division during the competition.
Semenya seemed to beat records everywhere she went, winning gold twice in the 2012 London Olympics and in the 2016 Rio Olympics, both in the 800m. Semenya was banned from competing in these events after the 2016 Olympics, on the grounds that she had levels of testosterone too high to compete with cisgender women. If she wanted to participate again, she was going to have to take estrogen supplements which would most likely come with horrible side effects, and would also heavily defeat the purpose of agencies like the World Anti-Doping Agency that actively prevent athletes from using drugs that would alter their performance, which is what World Athletics is asking of Semenya.
However, is it true that transgender women and intersex women really have an advantage over cisgender women in sports that makes it impossible for both of them to compete together?
There is an unequivocal difference between male and female bodies that make male bodies more prone to greater muscle mass. When it comes to strengths and power, male bodies have on average 75% more muscle mass and 90% more strength than female bodies in the upper body, (University of Utah). In a recent study from the University of Utah, it was also found that men have up to 162% more strength in a punching motion than women.
Nonetheless, to say that men have an advantage in all sports would be a grave mistake, a cultural and political mistake that is at the root of the exclusion of intersex and transgender women in sports.
While men seem to have the upper hand in most sports requiring a lot of strength, like sprinting and weightlifting, female athletes find their strength in endurance sports. As a basic rule of thumb, the greater the endurance required, the more similar men and women perform, as female bodies tend to have more slow-twitch muscle fibres, according to Dr. Nicholas Tiller, a senior lecturer in applied physiology at Sheffield Hallam University (BBC).
While women’s performance in endurance events can be attributed to physiology, some experts are attributing it to mental preparation, as these events are extremely strenuous on the mind. Dr. Carla Meijen, a senior lecturer in applied sport psychology at St. Mary's University, says, “Typically females use more emotion-focused coping, so they focus more on how to reframe what they are feeling than males in general. That might be a reason why they may be more suited to those more ultra-endurance events”.
Male and female bodies both have physiology that gives them advantages in certain sports. In that case, to target only transwomen or intersex women as having an unfair advantage when they are competing with cisgender women would be wrong. In fact, all regulations surrounding transgender athletes and intersex athletes are centered around those who identify as women. World Athletics doesn’t have regulations for transgender men or intersex men that want to participate with cisgender men, simply because the assumption that females are weaker in every sport still lingers.
There is also a problem with the fact that World Athletics base themselves on testosterone only to determine whether a gender non-conforming woman is eligible to participate in international competitions. If their testosterone levels are too high, they aren’t a woman anymore. By doing so, World Athletics is essentially saying that the only indicator of good athletic performance is testosterone levels. However, there is a cruel lack of credible scientific evidence to prove that testosterone is enough to influence performance by itself. Furthermore, the only study on which the World Athletics based its decision to put the testosterone limit to 5 nanomoles per litre in female athletes had been commissioned by World Athletics themselves. It would then be safe to assume that they were more inclined towards confirming their position rather than finding compelling counterevidence.
Testosterone is far from being the only advantage that athletes can have, but it is still the only one being regulated. Height, VO2 max, heart size, and lung capacity, are also some physiological advantages that make athletes more prone to outstanding athletic performance. These advantages have as much of an impact on performance as testosterone, and they are accepted and even sought out in the Olympics.
Michael Phelps, an Olympic swimmer and the most decorated Olympian of all time, has a body made for swimming. Standing at 6’4”, he has a greater lung capacity than most people, his arms are longer than his whole body, he has short legs, and a long torso. His physiological advantages make it almost impossible for anyone to compete against him.
Before getting caught in a doping scandal, Lance Armstrong was often seen as the best cyclist of all time because of his 7 consecutive Tour de France wins. He also has a physiology that is perfectly adapted to his sport. “The extraordinary sportive results of the racing cyclist Lance Armstrong made us realise that a high capacity of hepatic gluconeogenesis was the basis of his success, because it might have provided him with less pain complaints caused by lactic acid and with an extra source of energy from lactic acid,” says the National Library of Medicine.
Just these two examples of human physiology prove that the “level playing field” World Athletics is trying to preserve by banning athletes like Semenya, doesn’t exist at all. In fact, if the Olympics started categorising every physiological advantage, no one would ever win.
What about external factors? To say that everyone has the same chances is completely wrong. Access to coaching and equipment are at play in an athlete’s performance. The overall wealth of a country also weighs a lot in the balance of athletes' training, even if we don’t want to acknowledge it. It isn’t for nothing that the United States has accumulated over one thousand more medals in total at the Olympics than the next contender. Therefore, is testosterone the only thing that plays a role in a woman’s athletic performance? Absolutely not.
Maybe Caster Semenya’s body is just purely made to sprint, like Phelps’ was made to swim and Armstrong’s was made to cycle. Semenya’s high levels of testosterone are, first and foremost, completely natural. Her height as well as her muscle mass make her an explosive and talented sprinter. All of those biological factors that inherently make her an athlete should never interfere with her identity as a woman, nor can it justify her being banned from the Olympics.
We can’t stop ignoring the issue of transwomen and intersex women in professional sports. It’s not like Semenya and Hubbard are the last transgender and intersex women to want to compete at the professional level. If anything, they are paving the way; They are giving more visibility to the young athletes that think they might not have their place in the sex-binary-cursed world of sports. In fact, these women are breaking the mold and because of them, it is more obvious than ever that they are excellent athletes beyond their testosterone levels. Wasn’t it Yogi Berra himself that said that sports, and most precisely baseball in his case, are “90% mental and 10% physical”? If that is the case, after dealing with the whole Olympics against her, it’s no wonder Semenya breaks all the records.