Will transgender athletes effectively obliterate the field of women’s sports?
New Zealand professor of physiology, Alison Heather, recently addressed the topic of transgender athletes in the sports scene, concluding that more research should be done before transgender females are allowed to compete against their biologically female competitors.
Heather said not only can testosterone levels give trans women an advantage over their CIS female competitors, after transitioning a trans woman's muscle mass, lung capacity and muscle memory all remain the same as when they were CIS male. That could give the trans female athlete a possible advantage when competing in activities that involve physical strength.
"The physiological attributes of males that makes them naturally stronger including anatomical and biological features such as size, muscle mass, lung capacity, and heart size would be an advantage."
A classic example of this phenomenon would be Kiwi weightlifter Laurel Hubbard, who was born male but now identifies and competes as a female. Although permitted to enter the female category by the International Olympic Committee, Hubbard has demonstrated a massive advantage over the other female competitors, since she has retained the mass and structure of a full grown male.
Heather believes there is a potential muscle memory effect for Hubbard, having competed previously as a man.
She said the increased numbers of myonuclei (muscle fibres) could potentially allow Hubbard's muscles to train better than if she had not previously been a male.
"Also, whether hormone therapy has reduced the larger skeletal muscle fibre area of her previous male physique is questionable."
But not only does the physical makeup give these transitioned females the upper hand, but their testosterone levels also register much higher than those of the other female competitors. This testosterone is responsible for performance enhancing effects such as increased lean body mass and haemoglobin levels.
Attempting to account for this, the IOC created a regulation stating that the trans females’ testosterone levels must register 10NMOL and under. However, Heather argues that this regulation is not enough:
The IOC based the 10NMOL regulation on the lower level of a CIS male of 10 NMOL/L - the upper range for a female is 3.1 NMOL/L.
At highest level, a CIS female with polycystic ovary syndrome can have up to two times or more higher levels of testosterone, meaning around 6 NMOL/L.
So what does this mean for women’s sports?
Although a few believe that transgender athletes should be warmly welcomed into the world of competitive sports, many women are worried that they will no longer have a chance at winning.
Even with the little data we have available, we can already concur that their concerns are valid. With women’s divisions open to anybody who identifies as female, the door is open to any male who sees the women’s division as an easy road to an Olympic medal. Even with this factored out of the equation, biological women will not be afforded fair competition, since trans women will have many, if not all, of the advanced physical structure of a grown male.
Is this what the majority of Australia said “Yes” to?