CW: This article includes comments concerning transgender athletes.
Exercise is such an important element in maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and there is a wealth of information online to promote the physical and mental benefits it brings, particularly in the twenty-first century where an ironically modern online lifestyle offers less and less “natural” options to exercise, where we can now work, shop, and socialise without having to leave the house.
From the outset, exercise and sport has seemingly all the elements which can make it accessible to all. It can be played at amateur or professional levels, at various budget levels, and participants can take part as an individual or part of a team, or both. You can go for a quick walk round the block, or pay gym membership/sports club fees. Either way, you are accessing some form of exercise, privately or publicly.
I have often wondered about the gender dynamics between different sports. Why has it taken so long for team sports, such as football, rugby, and cricket, to offer exposure to women at the same level as men? Likewise, why is netball considered a female sport? And yet some sports, such as athletics, swimming and tennis, offer seemingly equal, and in some cases, mixed, exposure to male and female participants?
Further, how does the shift in amateur sports, seemingly inclusive to ensure its survival at a local level, change when we approach competitive sport, whose main focus is performance? Does sex and gender matter more now?
And where do trans athletes fit in competitive sports?
Trans athlete considerations
In 2019, Men’s Health magazine published an article regarding trans athletes, whose sports include cycling and swimming. This included interviews with various trans athletes, who have been subjected to hate comments over their sexuality and performance, and reports of opinions from professional gender binary athletes. These opinions were clear - trans athletes, in particular women, are not welcome in competitive sport.
The reasons cited by the professional athletes is due to “certain advantages”, and the article then considers if there is any truth behind this, and further, the position regarding transgender men. A lot of the science revolves around hormone levels and how male and female bodies physically change during puberty. For example, Olympic guidelines at the time requested that testosterone levels ought to be measured for trans women, yet not for trans men. This not only highlights existing gender discrimination within professional competitive sports but also promotes further discrimination for trans athletes.
More recently, in April 2023, Science Insider reported that with effect from 31 March 2023, World Athletics have announced that, in order to maintain the “integrity of female competition”, “transgender women who went through puberty can no longer compete in women’s events at international competitions”. Further, they have tightened the hormone levels used as an indicator of sex.
Discrimination and the science behind it
Similar decisions have been made by cycling and swimming’s governing bodies - the Union Cycliste Internationale and FINA - alongside World Rugby. The International Olympic Committee appears more sympathetic, declaring that no athlete should be excluded or be pressured to “undergo unnecessary procedures.” This brings a further added dynamic to trans athletes who wish to compete, as not all sporting competitions will allow them to compete. As, say, a trans swimmer, you may be able to compete at the Olympics, but not at any swimming World Championships.
Science Insider's article also highlights the inaccuracies of using testosterone levels, as it is unfair to athletes who have DSD, such as South Africa’s Caster Semenya, who have naturally higher than “normal” levels of testosterone. Further, the article explains that athletes can take short-lived medication to lower testosterone levels, which can render the process of measuring them pointless and opens up a potential further web of substance abuse.
Both articles cite the binaries of sport, of x and y, men and women, and the debate over trans athletes seriously questions whether this is a relevant indicator of a sporting performance. Should it matter if you are man or woman? Does the measure of performance make a difference if you are playing a team sport or as an individual? As transgender swimmer James Wilson quotes to Men’s Health - ““I just want to have my time recorded.””.
Where do we go from here?
Despite being open, sport can easily be discriminatory. There is of course a difference between amateur and professional levels of sport, but this should not overshadow the physical and mental health benefits of sport and exercise in general.
It clearly is a global issue which needs careful consideration to protect all competitors. The immediate future does seem quite clear, but I would really like to see positive changes happen. It does not seem right that you are told you cannot do something because of your sex. Elite sport draws huge media attention and has the power to be inspirational and influential, and I really hope it can find a way to be fully inclusive.