The IOC’s decision to allow transwomen, i.e. trans-identifying males, to compete in the female category at the Olympic Games was based largely on information collected and presented by an American transwoman, Joanna Harper, a medical physicist and amateur runner. In March 2019 BBC World Service invited Dr Nicola Williams and Joanna Harper to discuss the policy with the BBC’s Shari Vahl on Sportshour.
Listen to the discussion or read the transcript below.
Presenter: The British Olympic swimmer Sharron Davies has reignited the debate about transgender participation in sport this week. Davies says anyone who was born male but now identifies as female should not be allowed to take part in women’s sport because of the physical advantage it brings.
Sharron Davies: “This is not something that aimed at the transgender community. I would find myself and most of my friends are all very, very pro. This is absolutely about a level playing field in sports and the fact that a transgender man that transitions to a woman will have a physical advantage. And we’ve made such massive strides in women’s sport over the last few years, it would be a real shame if we lost some of the impetus.”
Presenter: Now, Davies denies her remarks are transphobic, as did the 18-times Grand Slam tennis champion Martina Navratilova, who originally said participation by male-to-female transgender athletes in women’s sport was a form of cheating. Now she later apologised for using the word cheat, but insisted protections were required for those competitors born female. Marathon world record holder Paula Radcliffe also gave her view on the matter, saying transgender women should be given access to participate. But that elite sport could be open to manipulation if the rules surrounding transgender athletes aren’t tightened.
Paula Radcliffe: “I don’t think that you can deny that young boys that have gone through puberty have certain advantages that women will not ever get in terms of height, in terms of physical strength, in terms of haemoglobin bone strength, all of those things.”
Presenter: So where does this complex debate go next? With me on Sports Hour is Joanna Harper. She’s a medical physicist and she advises the International Olympic Committee on such issues and is herself a transsexual woman. And Dr Nicola Williams, a research scientist specialising in human biology and leads a campaign called Fair Play for Women. Welcome, both of you to Sports Hour. Hello. Hello, Joanna first, what did you make of the comments from Martina Navratilova and Sharron Davies?
Joanna Harper (JH): Well, I agree that elite level women’s sports should be protected from those athletes who have a male-like advantage. However, after one year of hormone therapy, trans women no longer have a male-like advantage. There are admittedly some advantages that remain, but these advantages are fairly minor and will not lead to trans women taking over women’s sport.
Presenter: When you say there are advantages that they have, what do you mean? I mean, after one year of hormone therapy.
JH: After one year of hormone therapy, trans women will still be taller, bigger and stronger on average than other women. But they will also have disadvantages. Trans women have a large frame, which is now being powered by reduced muscle mass, reduced aerobic capacity. So trans women are disadvantaged and things like quickness, endurance, and obviously some sports it’s better to be smaller, like gymnastics. So the advantage and disadvantage thing is much more complex than people think. But if we look at the statistics, we should be seeing at least twenty five to forty trans women in every summer Olympics. There have been none so far.
Presenter: Well, let me go to Dr Nicola Williams. As a research scientist specialising in human biology, Nicola, why are you against transgender women competing in women’s sport?
Nicola Williams (NW): Because it’s simply unfair. I mean, I would say this is a rather simple question at its heart, really, because it’s beyond doubt that males have a performance voltage over females, and that’s why we have different categories. And so the question here that we need to answer is, is 100 percent of that male performance advantage lost when someone transitions from male to female? Now, I would dispute what Joanna Harper has just said, and I’d say that there is a complete lack of robust, relevant and independent research saying that male performance advantage is fully eliminated. Plus, I would say that there’s both theory and observation that tells us that it’s not fully eliminated. And for those simple reasons, it would simply be unfair on the female athletes to allow male-born athletes who have transitioned to compete against them.
Presenter: Well, LGBT campaign groups have called Martina Navratilova transphobic, and they also say that Sharron Davies is promoting hate speech. So what’s your response to that?
NW: Well that’s such a nonsense. We’re talking scientific facts here. There’s nothing – facts aren’t transphobic. And certainly nobody has said anything in a language that would be considered to be transphobia. But we need to remember here that I am called transphobic for actually discussing transgender women and saying that they are born male and have male bodies. But that’s a fact. And so if we start to call facts transphobic, then it stops us having a debate and stops us getting to a fair solution for all.
JH: I doubt very much that Martina Navratilova is transphobic. She misspoke when she said cheat. I disagree with her on this, but no, I wouldn’t be calling her or Sharron Davies any names.
Presenter: Well, you have made the transition from male to female yourself, and you’ve researched your own performance as an avid runner. With this issue that seems to be the centre of this, which is whether or not there is any advantage, even post one year hormone therapy being born a male body, what did you find?
JH: Well, first of all, I did acknowledge that there are advantages. So let’s please, please keep that straight. Advantage itself is allowed. Overwhelming advantage is not allowed, and male-like advantage shouldn’t be allowed in female sports. I would contend that after a year of hormone therapy, trans women no longer have a male like advantage. After nine months of hormone therapy, I was running 12 percent slower than I was previously, and that’s the difference between serious male runners and serious female runners. I started to look at other athletes and I have a published series, I have two more series that have not yet been published, and this 10 to 12 percent change in athletic capability is very common.
Presenter: Well, you advised the International Olympic Committee, so what is their current position on the participation of male to female transgender athletes?
JH: The current position is a little blurry. The 2016 position was that after one year of hormone therapy where trans women brought their testosterone down to less than 10 nanomoles per litre, trans women would be allowed to compete. There is a revision in the pipeline to bring the limit from ten to five, which I think is a much fairer limit, and the IOC have not yet acted on the recommendation of our committee to reduce that limit.
NW: I need to pick up on what Joanna Harper said about her own evidence there. And I’ve got some major scientific criticism here because the study that Joanna Harper has presented to the IOC involves six non-elite athletes; four runners, one cyclist and a rower.. And it was simply a retrospective study comparing the self-reported performance before and after transition. And in some cases, it was twenty years between the data before and after. So the confounding variables on that study, and I’m afraid it simply makes that study meaningless. However, that study was presented to the IOC, of which Joanna is a member. So she was presenting her own work to herself. And that was used as the basis of the evidence to open up the category of female sport to males. Now I think that’s actually quite scandalous, that the IOC allowed that level of very poor data to actually influence basically the future of female sport.
And I would just like to finally point out that in the review paper, a year later, three of the IOC members, one of which was actually Joanna herself, published to say and I quote, ‘Given the paucity of relevant research, urgently need properly designed studies’. So a year later, after the IOC has used some data to change the rules, they’re acknowledging basically that there’s a lack of data. And that’s what I’m saying, is that there is a complete lack of robust data. Because we don’t know what the answer is yet, we can’t change the rules yet. We have to do the study first, then decide what the rules should be. Only then can you decide.
Presenter: Let me put that to Joanna. You’ve been accused there, Joanna, of not having done enough work to make the statements that you make and of having a conflict of interest. So how do you react to that?
JH: Well, first of all, I agree we need to do more research. And we are. I published a study in 2015. I have two more studies that are currently undergoing. In addition, there are a half dozen other places in the world that have studies that are undergoing. We are gathering robust data. In terms of the conflict of interest, I am not a member of the IOC, I’m an advisor to the IOC. They brought me in, they asked me to give advice. I was in a room of twenty five people when we made the decision. And so, you know, my voice was only one of twenty five people. There were eminent scientists from around the world and we made this decision and I stand by the validity of that decision.
Presenter: Well, Joanna, let me ask you what might be a sensitive or inflammatory question. Is it possible that you could have a separate category of competition just for transgender athletes? What do you make of that? Because some are suggesting that.
JH: Yes, some are. There’s not enough transgender athletes for meaningful competition. If England were to put together a transgender football team, it was very unlikely that they have another transgender football team to play. So that is the major problem with that. And I would just like to circle back and say I absolutely agree that scientific answers are needed. And I would point out that the twenty five people who sit down at the IOC meetings are scientists and we have divergent views and not everyone agrees. We reach a consensus and I stand by that procedure. It is a room full of scientists making that decision.
Presenter: So where do we go from here? Where do you see, let’s say, five or ten years’ time? Is there an answer that you can see?
JH: Well, if we get more robust data, I think we should probably enact sports-based regulations as opposed to a broad regulation. And so there may well be some sports and some categories within sports in which we need to be more restrictive of transgender athletes.
Presenter: And Nicola, how would you see a solution to this, what, in five or ten years’ time would you say, ah yes, that’s the answer?
NW: Well, Joanna has actually agreed with me on two major points here. One is that some male performance advantage is retained in trans women and that there needs to be more research because the research that she’s quoted is undergoing and has not been published. And so what I say to that is: because there is no robust evidence today that the performance advantage is eliminated, we cannot have rules that allow a group of male-bodied people into female sports. Because if we allow it to happen before we know the answer, then world records will be broken, medals will be lost, unfairly given to people with male performance advantage. The solution is, is we have to have a sex-based categorization for sports.
Presenter: That’s a sex-based. That’s a sex-based, not a gender-based.
NW: Well, of course not. Why on earth would we separate a performance-based sport on someone’s internal sense of their gender? Sport is about bodies and it’s about the performance of those bodies. So, of course, the sex of that body is absolutely relevant. There’s a 10 to 30 percent performance difference between males and females. That’s a fact. We all know that. There’s no disputing that. Let’s have an example. We’ve got someone like Gavin Hubbard who at 20 years old, was a weightlifter and could lift three hundred kilograms. Now, Gavin transitioned to Laurel Hubbard. Her best weight that she can lift is two hundred and eighty kilograms. So that’s just 20 kilograms less than she was lifting as a man 20 years ago. Now she has won. She’s come first at the world masters with a lift of two hundred and eighty kilograms. That was almost double the best female in that competition. And she would have won the gold at the Commonwealth Games if she hadn’t pulled out through injury. Her best lift would have been in the past 280 kilograms, but the gold was won by a female with two hundred and fifty three. So that shows that basically Laurel Hubbard would have got gold at Commonwealth Games and she will be favourite for the Tokyo Games in 2020. So the idea that there’s no evidence of trans women dominating women’s sport is just simply not true. The test is 2020, and we can predict what’s going to happen based on what we already see.
Presenter: Joanna, as you identify as a woman, do you not want to compete in women’s sport?
JH: Oh, of course I want to. But I actually agree with Nicola that if trans women would take over women’s sports, then we shouldn’t be allowed in regardless of our gender identity. However, that is not likely to happen and I would be willing to bet Nicola a thousand pounds that Laurel Hubbard does not win a medal in Tokyo and I stand by that bet. A thousand pounds.
NW: This is not a probability issue. This is a scientific issue. Until there is data, that’s the only thing that counts here, data. Facts.
JH: So you’re not going to take the bet?
NW: Well, it’s irrelevant whether I take the bet or not, because I’m a scientist and I’m deciding, I make my decisions based on the evidence, and at the moment there’s no evidence. So I won’t know that, will I? So I’m not certainly going to take a bet.
Presenter: Dr Nicola Williams and Joanne Harper, thank you very much for coming on Sportshour.
The original interview is here on the BBC Sounds app.
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