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Forget supershoes and PED debates…

Every coach, every athlete, every devoted fan of athletics knows that a decision around supershoes is simple, manageable and equitable. Make all shoes conform to a certain set of rules; you achieve an even playing field, sort of speak — well not quite. The shoes may all be made to a certain set of rules, but different humans react in various ways to the physological benefits created by them. So not quite an even playing field (the athletics phrase of the century) but for now the rule book is closed-ish on this subject.

Performance enhancing drugs are listed in the World Anti-Doping Agency list for all to see. Solution? Coaches, agents, athletes should read the document, and then abstain from those drugs. However, some athletes will cheat regardless, but there are repercussions for doing so. Therefore the management of doping operates similarly to civil law, everyone can relate, digest and understand how things work in doping and the policing of it.

Make no mistake, these issues are major problems for the sport of athletics. And they are not going away anytime soon. However, in terms of complexity, they absolutely pale in comparison to the protection of the women’s category in sport.

UK Athletics’ latest statement

In a statement issued by UK Athletics (UKA) on Friday, the national governing body said it wished to be a welcoming environment for all however it does not agree with the use of testosterone suppression for transgender women. Like supershoes, individual people react differently to exogenus and endogenusly produced testosterone levels.

UKA said the female category should be reserved for competitors who were female at birth in order to ensure athletes can continue to compete fairly.

The organisation also said efforts should be made to allow transgender women to compete in an open category which would replace the current male category and be open to all sexes. As there are no women who can compete at the top-level against men and apparently no trans athletes are interested in competing against men, the category will default to the same as it is.

UKA stated that a change to current equality legislation is required for changes to be implemented.

Proposing a protected women’s category and an open men’s category

World Athletics has proposed to allow transgender women to compete in female international track and field events. A vote in March will decide the fate of the transgender athletes and the women’s category.

However, one year after transgender athletes first competed at the Olympics, sporting federations began reconsidering whether transgender women should be competing in elite women’s events. A debate rages in sports and politics circles over who has the right to play and more importantly where.

The International Swimming Federation (FINA) will now only allow transgender women who began transitioning before the age of 12 to compete in international competitions, including swimming, diving and water polo. FINA’s rule also affects athletes with a condition known as 46 XY DSD (intersex), who have genitalia that is not clearly male or female, but who self identify as female.

The following day the International Rugby League banned all transgender women from international matches while it reviews and updates its rules on participation.

The US tabled 35 bills

Throughout the US, 35 bills were introduced in 2021 alone by state legislators to limit or prohibit transgender women from competing in women’s athletics. There were 33 in 2019.

In March 2021, Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves signed into law the Mississippi Fairness Act. A law that prohibits schools from allowing transgender female students to compete in female sports. If it sticks, it might become a precedent within various levels of US lawmaking.

The common debate is centered on whether transgender women and girls have an unfair advantage over women. Apparently, they do.

European federations statements

In January, 2022 the international and European federations of sports medicine issued a joint statement that said, “high testosterone concentrations confer a baseline advantage for athletes in certain sports, and that to uphold the integrity and fairness of sport, these advantages must be recognized and mitigated.”

Regarding FINA’s and Rugby’s quick action, the scientific community has asked for research to take place and to base decisions on scientific evidence. On the other hand there are anecdotal demonstrations that intersex and trans athletes indeed enjoy an advantage over female athletes.

For example, the 2016 Rio Olympic Games women’s 800m final was one by Caster Semenya, the next two medallist, like Semenya, are intersex. The first none intersex athlete was Melissa Bishop-Nraigu who finished fourth. There were no other intersex athletes in that competition. Lia Thomas in swimming may be the most noteworthy.

The science of it

Men have hormone levels that are typically 10 to 15 times higher than women. They benefit by having larger muscles, denser bones, and higher amounts of lean body mass. Males retain athletic advantages, for example, men on average run faster, lift more weight, and throw faster and farther than women, by nine to 10 per cent.

Testosterone is a sex hormone considered highly beneficial in all sports. As World Athletics stated in their 2019 eligibility regulations, “To the best of our knowledge, there is no other genetic or biological trait encountered in female athletics that confers such a huge performance advantage.”

For women to benefit from testosterone at the same level as intersex athletes they would have to lean on a doping regimen to do so — to cheat.

The average male testosterone level sits between 7.7 and 29.4 nmol/L. The average female ranges from 0 to 1.7 nmol/L (Handelsman et al. 2018). Raising testosterone outside of a normal female range is so potent that even at levels just below the lowest male range of 7.3 nmol/L, there is a 4.4 per cent increase in lean muscle mass, 12-14 per cent.

We know that when males go through puberty, their testosterone levels increase 20 times the rate of from when they were prepubensent. In contrast women’s testosterone levels do not change, resulting in males having a 15 times higher testosterone than females. Although the response (benefit) to testosterone varies per person, we know that it provides a powerful benefit.

As complicated as the issue seems to be, the most equitable solution at this time appears to protect the female category across all sport, full stop and to allow the men’s category to be open for all men, women and transgender or intersex athletes. The two categories could be referred to as: women’s and open.

Once this is settled across all sports, the governing bodies can get back to policing shoes and drugs.