The rules on trans athletes reward cheats and punish the innocent by Martina Navratilova in The Sunday Times 17.02.19
The original article is here.
Shortly before Christmas I inadvertently stumbled into the mother and father of a spat about gender and fair play in sport. It began with an instinctive reaction and a tweet that I wrote on a serious forum dealing with the subject. “You can’t just proclaim yourself a female and be able to compete against women,” I tweeted. “There must be some standards, and having a penis and competing as a woman would not fit that standard.”
Perhaps I could have phrased it more delicately and less dogmatically, but I was not prepared for the onslaught that followed, chiefly from a Canadian academic and transgender cyclist named Rachel McKinnon.
McKinnon won the Masters Track cycling world championship in Los Angeles last October in the 35-44 age category. It was a victory that gave rise to controversy — not least because the woman who came third, Jennifer Wagner-Assali, said it was “not fair”.
McKinnon has vigorously defended her right to compete, pointing out that, when tested, her levels of testosterone, the male hormone, were well within the limits set by world cycling’s governing body. Nevertheless, at 6ft tall and weighing more than 14 stone, she appeared to have a substantial advantage in muscle mass over her rivals.
My tweet brought an angry response from McKinnon, whom I had not named (I had no idea who she was at the time). She accused me of being “transphobic” and demanded I delete my tweet and apologise. Since I have spent much of my life fighting injustice, on my own behalf and for others, I was pretty put out, especially when the bullying tweets from McKinnon continued, like incoming fire.
Ever the peacemaker, I promised to keep quiet on the subject until I had properly researched it.
Well, I’ve now done that and, if anything, my views have strengthened. To put the argument at its most basic: a man can decide to be female, take hormones if required by whatever sporting organisation is concerned, win everything in sight and perhaps earn a small fortune, and then reverse his decision and go back to making babies if he so desires. It’s insane and it’s cheating. I am happy to address a transgender woman in whatever form she prefers, but I would not be happy to compete against her. It would not be fair.
Simply reducing hormone levels — the prescription most sports have adopted — does not solve the problem. A man builds up muscle and bone density, as well as a greater number of oxygen-carrying red blood cells, from childhood. Training increases the discrepancy. Indeed, if a male were to change gender in such a way as to eliminate any accumulated advantage, he would have to begin hormone treatment before puberty. For me, that is unthinkable.
Hundreds of athletes who have changed gender by declaration and limited hormone treatment have already achieved honours as women that were beyond their capabilities as men, especially in sports in which power rather than skill is paramount. McKinnon is just one example. That may uphold the International Olympic Committee’s charter, which holds that “the practice of sport is a human right”, but it is surely unfair on women who have to compete against people who, biologically, are still men.
I know the argument is made that sport is always unfair and that the notion of a level playing field is a myth. Someone who is 5ft tall has next to no chance on a basketball court. But I still believe that fairness should always be valued and strived for, and that unfairness introduced through human action and chemical means should be condemned and outlawed.
Let me make a critical distinction between transgender and transsexual athletes. Transsexuals have decided to change their gender and have had the deed done, surgically. They have made the full commitment. They are few in number and rarely enjoy a competitive advantage.
Back in the 1970s, when I was competing, Renée Richards appeared on the women’s tour. Originally a man named Richard Raskind — a strong but not outstanding player who competed at the US Open — Raskind changed his sex through surgery, changed his name (Renée means “reborn” in French) and began to compete as a woman.
I had no objection (she later became my coach and a friend), but some players refused to compete against her and the United States Tennis Association prevented her from competing at the US Open. She took the organisation to court for discrimination and won. She competed once more at the US Open, with very similar results to those she achieved two decades earlier as a man.
Judgments are difficult and dilemmas abound (Richards, now an ophthalmologist, these days has misgivings about her actions herself), but the ruling principle most be fairness.
That brings me to the most controversial current case, involving Caster Semenya, the Olympic 800m champion. She was designated female at birth and has been raised as female throughout her life. Suspicions were aroused because she was such a dominant runner and her body shape looked male.
It turned out that Semenya has a condition called hyperandrogenism, which produces naturally occurring, but elevated, levels of testosterone. She has never taken medication or sought an advantage. She has just trained and run.
Unfortunately, the International Association of Athletics Federations decided to bring in a rule requiring female athletes with naturally high testosterone levels to take hormone therapy for six months and then to maintain lower testosterone levels.
The new rule, which was due to come into force last November until it was legally challenged by Semenya and Athletics South Africa, was to apply to track events from 400m to a mile. Leaving out sprints and longer distances seems to me to be a clear case of discrimination by targeting Semenya. And can it be right to order athletes to take medication? What if the long-term effects proved harmful?
Semenya’s case will come up tomorrow at the Court of Arbitration for Sport. It is expected to last a week and the outcome is expected on March 29. I hope she wins.
Semenya, Richards and many others have been subject to vilification, ostracism and the awful human inclination to identify anyone who is different and start a witch hunt. I had problems of that kind myself when I came out as gay in 1981, and it hurt, terribly.
McKinnon, who says she received more than 100,000 hate messages on Twitter after winning the world championship, has presented herself and other transgender athletes as victims of prejudice. Certainly, there can be no excuse for such ignorance and nastiness.
But I also deplore what seems to be a growing tendency among transgender activists to denounce anyone who argues against them and to label them all as “transphobes”. That’s just another form of tyranny. I’m relatively tough and was able to stand up for myself in my Twitter exchange with McKinnon, but I worry that others may be cowed into silence or submission.
Here’s how I concluded my Twitter spat: “Rachel, you may be an expert on all things trans, but you are one nasty human being. Attack, attack, attack. I will not take it from you. You did not engage; you bullied. Not blocking you [though I later did, because who wants all that negativity], but enough already. All I want is fairness.”