Athletes start to turn the tide in the trans debate
When the leaders of British sport sit down next month for their second governmental round table on transgender participation, the discussion is likely to take a rather different flavour than had the meeting gone ahead as planned last week.
Michelle Donelan, the new Culture Secretary, has made the issue an early priority and already signalled a similar approach to her predecessor, Nadine Dorries – which is to tell governing bodies that competitive women's sport "must be reserved for people born of the female sex".
It is a standpoint that has long held considerable unspoken support inside British sport, but the difference from last week, following news of World Athletics' proposal to allow transgender athletes to continue in the women's category, is that the voice of current athletes has become more audible.
First there was shot-putter Amelia Strickler, who told Telegraph Sport the "overwhelming majority" of her fellow athletes opposed including transgender athletes in women's sport but were "afraid to speak out".
Fear of losing sponsors or becoming a target for social media abuse is often cited by those unwilling to engage in the debate, but then came Beth Dobbin, Emily Diamond, Jamie Webb and Ellie Baker, four other British Paris 2024 hopefuls, who also outlined their opposition to World Athletics' "preferred option" ahead of their consultation. More will follow before the British governing bodies convene with Donelan in two weeks to collectively discuss an issue on which public silence among active athletes is fast fading.
It is, after all, only 10 months since Emily Bridges's planned participation in the national track cycling championships left her competitors secretly discussing a boycott of the event yet unwilling to publicly express their feelings.
Bridges had met all rules to reduce testosterone laid down by cycling's governing bodies – and is adamant she had no unfair advantage – only for a desperate about-turn by the authorities in the days leading up to a race that might have put her on the path to Commonwealth Games. It had followed American swimmer Lia Thomas's participation – and the first victory by a transgender athlete – in the NCAA championships despite studies showing male puberty provides athletic advantages that cannot be addressed through testosterone reduction.
The story also continues to ripple across the Atlantic, with 2004 Olympic long jump champion Dwight Phillips predicting this week World Athletics "will change their mind" once a world record is taken by a transgender woman. "We're walking on thin ice," he said.
A counter-argument – outlined by Philippa York, who transitioned after an outstanding cycling career as Robert Millar – is that there was no evidence of any takeover of women's sport by transgender athletes even when the testosterone thresholds were higher.
You spouted this myth when Laurel Hubbard took part in the Tokyo Olympics. She finished 16th from 16. Last. Where are these thousands of trans female athletes appearing from, training in secret camps presumably ?
And get the spelling right, it's trans women. https://t.co/w9aLI6cZvp
— Philippa York (@pippa_york) January 27, 2023
There is also a feeling within some governing bodies that the Government's sudden interest in what has been described by one performance director as the "biggest issue" facing women's Olympic sport would be more welcome if it were backed by further action to save sports facilities such as swimming pools, which are disproportionately crucial to keeping girls in sport.
Yet sport's undeniable internal reality is of many women executives, coaches and athletes who privately despair at how male-dominated leaders have handled the issue and want other sports to follow the path laid by swimming and triathlon. And that is to stop setting testosterone limits, create an open category and say that any transgender woman who has gone through puberty as a male cannot compete in women's events.
'They need to realise how serious this is'
One sporting executive has even said that the only end-game of continued inclusion would be women walking away from traditional sporting structures and setting up their own competitions.
"They need to realise how serious this is," said the source. "Some of the guys don't see it as a genuine issue, or they see it as a PR issue, but if women think sport is not safe and fair they will move away. People are aware that there is an issue and we see this growing confidence among athletes to speak out."
Various polls and scientific studies continue to emerge. A small sample of volunteers in amateur athletics found on Friday that 86 per cent were opposed to transgender athletes competing in women's events. An online poll for Athletics Weekly found an even stronger majority against people who have gone through any part of male puberty being allowed to compete in women's sport. A letter, signed by Daley Thompson and Mara Yamauchi alongside various club coaches and athletes, was also sent to UK Athletics chief executive Jack Buckner.
Despite the growing pressure and clear Government guidance, many of the national governing bodies have been waiting on their international federations to set the lead after the International Olympic Committee controversially handed the issue to individual sports. British Cycling suspended its transgender policy in the aftermath last year of the Bridges's case and, even though the UCI has enacted the same reduced testosterone inclusion standard being recommended by World Athletics, it has noticeably not followed suit.
As well as the ethical questions which are often presented as a choice between fairness and inclusion, the legal dimension – and specifically laws around equality – remain high on the minds of many governing bodies.
World Athletics has already spent more than £1 million in legal fees over its policy for athletes with differences of sexual development, which is also part of the current consultation. Indeed, athletes with differences of sexual development (DSD( such as double Olympic 800 metres champion Caster Semenya and Olympic 200m silver medallist Christine Mboma have achieved far more success at an elite level than any transgender woman.
World Athletics' "preferred option" would also mean that new transgender restrictions applied to DSD athletes in all events and so mean that Semenya and Mboma could no longer compete without reducing their testosterone to below 2.5 nanomoles per litre for at least two years. The present World Athletics transgender range is five nanomoles per litre for at least 12 months but, for DSD athletes, this applies to only three specific Olympic distances: the 400m, 800m and 1500m.
Lord Coe, the World Athletics president, has said "fairness is non-negotiable" and his organisation has not responded to suggestions this is a "stepping stone" moment and the long-term strategy will ultimately prevent trans athletes from ever competing in elite women's events.
"Putting forward a preferred option is the best way to gather constructive feedback, but this does not mean this is the option that will be presented to the council," said a World Athletics spokesperson.