How is sport engaging with the issue of transgender athletes?

Adam Addicott on the cases of Tia Thompson and Laurel Hubbard

BY Adam Addicott 16:48 Wednesday 12 April 2017, 16:48 12 Apr 2017

Image: Michael Kappeler/dpa

Tia Thompson has a dream similar to that of millions of athletes - to play in an Olympic Games. Unfortunately for Thompson, her road towards Tokyo 2020 will be one under heavy scrutiny as the sporting world continues to debate the presence of transgender athletes in sport.

In January, the American made headlines in her home country after the USA Volleyball Association (USAV) allowed Thompson to play as a woman. The decision occurred some 14 years after she started transitioning from male-to-female. It was a far from simple process. In order to be eligible, she had to undergo hormone replacement therapy for a minimum of a year and change all identity documents to her new gender.

“It took me three years to finally get approved with all the transitioning and all the hormone therapy and submitting all my paperwork to the gender committee,” Thompson told NBCI News.

The move has caused a considerable divide in Hawaii, the city where the 32-year-old plays. Local media have quoted "unnamed sources" saying some figures believe it has created an unfair playground in the sport. An allegation the governing body of the sport has denied.

"USA Volleyball supports the inclusion of transgender athletes in USA Volleyball events in the gender in which they self-identify, yet also prioritises a fair and competitive landscape," they said in a statement.

Thompson’s case is far from isolated. 39-year-old Laurel Hubbard, a transgender female weightlifter from New Zealand, raised eyebrows following her latest triumph. Last month at the Australian International she blew her competitors away in the over 90kg division. Lifting a total of 268 kg, it was almost 20kg more than her nearest competitor.

"We all deserve to be on an even playing field," fellow competitor Deborah Acason told Australia’s 1 News Now.

"It’s difficult when you believe that you’re not. If it’s not even, why are we doing the sport?"

Hubbard is now a top contender to be selected for the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia.

Cases similar to that of Thompson and Hubbard were addressed by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 2016. In a change of their policy, female-to-male athletes can compete "without restriction". Meanwhile, male-to-female athletes must undergo hormone therapy to be eligible for an Olympic Games. Previously it was mandatory that all transgender athletes undergo a complete sex change.

Is it an unfair advantage?

The physical difference between males and females is well documented in sport. Kenya’s Dennis Kipruto Kimetto currently holds the marathon world record at 2:02:57, almost 13 minutes faster than that of the women’s best. This suggests that athletes born male has an advantage over females. On the other hand, one of the most comprehensive studies has found otherwise.

In 2016 a group of academics conducted an evaluation of all the key research into transgender athletes. The paper reviewed eight research articles and 31 sport policies regarding transgender athletes. According to the findings of the four academics who wrote the paper, there is no evidence to prove male-to-female athletes have an advantage.

"There is no direct or consistent research suggesting transgender female individuals (or male individuals) have an athletic advantage at any stage of their transition (e.g. cross-sex hormones, gender-confirming surgery) and, therefore, competitive sport policies that place restrictions on transgender people need to be considered and potentially revised," the paper concluded.

Bethany Jones, one of the researchers involved, told Loughborough University in January that many sporting bodies are "over-interpreting" the topic.

"Rather than alienating athletes, efforts need to be made to create environments which are inclusive and that allow transgender people to more easily access the mental and physical health benefits which can be brought about by engaging in exercise," said Jones.

A common ground?

Despite the research conducted by Jones and co, reservations are still raised over the integration of transgender athletes. Some believe that IOC policy change is wrong and does create an uneven field. On the other hand, female-to-male dualthete Chris Mosier argues that some non-transgender athletes have their own unfair advantages.

"People come in all shapes and sizes," Mosier told The Washington Post. "We don’t disqualify Michael Phelps for having super-long arms; that’s just a competitive advantage he has in his sport. We don’t regulate height in the WNBA or NBA; being tall is just an advantage for a center. For as long as sports have been around, there have been people who have had advantages over others. A universal level playing field does not exist."

The divisive subject is one that may never be agreed by everybody. The best hope now is that the world of sport will agree to disagree and allow athletes to participate in the sport they desire as the person they want to be.

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