Throughout the continuing storm regarding transgender inclusion in sports, World Athletics president “Lord” Sebastian Coe has continually said “fairness is non-negotiable.”
However, the athletic body’s new rules regarding transgender women show that fairness for some was negotiated and nullified.
According to the new rules, which will go into effect March 31, transgender women in track and field cannot compete with cisgender women.
It’s quite ironic that on Transgender Day of Visibility, transgender women will be rendered invisible in women’s track and field.
World Athletics’ blanket ban is the third by a world governing body, joining rugby and swimming. Coe said the World Athletics decision came from input among varied stakeholders, including athletes, coaches, national governing bodies. He also said “transgender and human rights groups” were consulted.
“The majority of those consulted stated that transgender athletes should not be competing in the female category,” Coe said. “Many believe that there is insufficient evidence that trans women do not retain advantage over biological women.”
That’s an interesting starting point, given the International Olympic Committee Framework for Fairness. Coe’s statement goes against a key tenet of the framework.
Throughout Coe’s press conference, he consistently used the words “unfair” and “advantage”. That begs the question: What metrics guided this process when World Athletics’ head man also said, “There are currently no transgender athletes competing internationally in athletics and consequently no athletics-specific evidence of the impact these athletes would have on the fairness of female competition in athletics.”
I am reminded of Dr. Veronica Ivy’s theorem on such policy issues. As the two-time UCI masters cycling champion, ethics expert and activist states often, “In matters of human rights, the burden of proof is on those seeking exclusion.”
Where is the proof here, Lord Coe? In considering this question, I look at this through his enthusiastic support for the elite swimming ban last summer.
Why did FINA put up this regulation? Mainly because of the spectre of a college swimmer in the United States, Lia Thomas, who won a national collegiate championship in the 500-yard freestyle a few month before. Never mind that Thomas best effort was nine seconds slower than the NCAA record holder in that event.
Oh by the way, who holds that record? Her name is Katie Ledecky. Maybe you’ve heard of her.
Where is track version of Thomas? The closest would perhaps be CeCé Telfer’s 2019 NCAA Division II National Championship at the 400-meter hurdles four years ago. It would be a stretch of the truth that would make Tom Sawyer blush to think that she is a threat to Sydney McLaughlin or Dalilah Muhammad. Telfer’s career best time is seven seconds slower than the two fastest women in the event’s history.
Yet as bad as the trans ban is, the revision of the “Caster Semenya Rule” is worse. It doubles down on all the flaws of the past and makes it a blanket regulation across all events in the sport, not just races between 400 meters and 1 mile.
The serum testosterone standard drops to 2.5 nanomoles per liter and must be maintained for at least 6 months prior to competition. The new ruling affects athletes like two-time Olympic 800 meter champion Caster Semenya of South Africa and 2020 Olympic and 2022 Commonwealth games medalist at 200 meters Christine Mboma of Namibia.
With the rule will go into effect March 31, none of the elite athletes that fall under this policy would be eligible to compete at the 2023 World Athletics Championships this summer in Hungary if they started testosterone suppression immediately, but would be eligible for the remaining Diamond League season.
In explaining the logic behind tighter regulations, again we find Coe talking from both sides of his mouth. Coe noted that the six-month period for cisgender women who fall under DSD was built from what he called “the available science” in regard reducing hemoglobin level, a determining factor in how muscles are powered, from what he called “natural male levels to normal female levels.”
This has a basis in research work scientist and runner Johanna Harper has been working on since 2019 at Loughborough University in the U.K. In a 2021 interview with Harper, she walked me through the findings. They sound similar to what Coe said Thursday, but the key is in what Coe didn’t say.
The Loughborough research looked at transgender women, and showed the hemoglobin level in transgender women falls to levels in line with cisgender women in the space of three to four months on average.
“That is a huge change and it affects all endurance sports, and, in fact, any sport where you were being active for more than a few minutes,” Harper noted then. “The hemoglobin level in your blood is important for taking up and using oxygen in your muscle. It’s perhaps the single most important reason that men outperform women in endurance events, because of the higher hemoglobin level.”
Interesting how such a similar interpretation by World Athletics could not yield an inclusive policy for trans women, and yielded a more draconian policy in regards to cisgender women who in the DSD column.
Which brings us back to idea that this policy is more of the same and worse. Transgender women are seen as monsters who will harm women’s sport at any level again. Cisgender women throughout the sport will still deal with a status quo that American distance runner Nikki Hiltz, the first non-binary athlete to win a USATF national title a few weeks ago, pointed out via Twitter.
“there are currently no transgender athletes competing internationally in the sport."— Nikki Hiltz (@Nikki_Hiltz) March 23, 2023
Then how is this an attempt to protect womens sports?
Would be so cool if we addressed actual threats to women’s sports like sexual harassment, lack of women leadership, unequal representation https://t.co/Ub8lc7oG6H
Semenya will continue her defiant stance against a system that has continually demeaned her. She has face questions about her body, her physiology, and her gender for than a decade. She has dealt with a level of scrutiny I believe USA Track and Field would never tolerate being placed upon an American athlete.
Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi now must make a choice of testosterone suppression or sitting out for every event. The athletes who have been caught the wrong side of this is since the IOC ended chromosome testing in 1999 all have been athletes from either southern Asia or Sub-Saharan Africa.
African critics of the policy have been outspoken in the last few years about concerns of bias on the part of governing bodies ran in the perceived Global North vs. the perceived Global South. There is nothing in the revised policy that says this inequity will be addressed.
Coe said that in regard to transgender women, “We’re not saying no forever.”
Future considerations on trans inclusion will be studied by a working group to be composed of members of the World Athletics Council, athletes, representatives of the national governing bodies and representatives of the World Athletics health and science department.
Color me dubious at the prospect of a “working group.” World Rugby’s working group had professional transphobes in the room and but no transgender women who play rugby were invited. FINA’s process was decided in close session during a world championship held in a country ran by perhaps the most anti-LGBTQ head of state in the NATO alliance. The same country where World Athletics will hold their world championships this year.
It seems that fairness is negotiable at World Athletics, and certain athletes still are not part of the deal.