As you might already know by now, Laurel Hubbard (NZL) became the first openly transgender Olympic Weightlifter, after she competed in the Women’s +87 kg category in Tokyo 2020.
She failed to record a successful attempt and was not classifed. She then proceeded to gracefully walk off the stage thanking the audience and making a heart symbol with her hands (pictured).
Although Hubbard did not win an Olympic medal, she was a medal contender. It has been compellingly argued that a big factor in her being a medal contender is the fact that she is transexual and underwent male puberty.
This is further reinforced by the fact that she is 43 – very unusual for a World-Class competitor in this sport- and that she was never a World-Class competitor as a male during her “peak” years as a man.
It is very hard to argue against the fact that she had some advantage from having gone through male puberty.
Scientific reviews point that such factor contributes to a 30-40% athletic advantage compared to a loss of performance from testosterone suppression of almost 5%, according to a study by Emma N. Hilton and Tommy R. Lundberg, published in Sports Medicine (2021, 51, 199-214).
The current rules adopted by the International Olympic Committee and the International Weightlifting Federation allow Hubbard to compete because it allows trans athletes to compete as long as they prove a certain maximum of testosterone level (10 nmol/L) for the 12 months prior. Hubbard -it must be noted- also complied with the previous regulations from 2003, which were stricter.
Testosterone definitely helps improving athletic performance.
The clearest cases of its influence have been those of women with «Differences of Sexual Development», where a person’s sex develops different to most other people.
Examples can be intersex and “XY” women. Men are generally born with XY chromosomes, while women are generally born with XX Chromosomes.
However sometimes women are born with female-normative genitalia (or not) and XY chromosomes as well as elevated testosterone levels.
The policies taken by international bodies have been mostly reactive to high-profile DSD cases.
In 2014 Dutee Chand (IND) brought a case before the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) challenging IAAF’s (now World Athletics) «Regulations Governing Eligibility of Females with Hyperandrogenism to Compete in Women’s Competition»,
These regulations limited women to 10 nmol/L, back in 2011. Chand was allowed to compete. The ruling found that there was no satisfying evidence that testosterone improved female athletic performance performance to a degree that warranted the regulations.
It did find that the increase in lean body mass at puberty due to testosterone provided an advantage.
But Chand did not challenge for world-class wins. It had been Caster Semenya (ZAF), an XY woman, that dominated the women’s 800 meters for the majority of 2009 to 2017 and that triggered the policy changes.
It was World Athletic’s perception that Semenya’s testosterone levels gave her a World-Class advantage so they further moved forward with rules that limited testosterone levels to 5 nmol/L for «46 XY females».
This limit is double stricter than weightlifting’s limit towards trans competitors we have previously cited.
It was in the last part of this period that Semenya -2012 Olympic Champion- moved down to 8th at the 2015 World Championship.
The Court of Arbitration in Sport ruled to lift the testosterone regulations for two years. Semenya went ahead and won the Olympic Games and World Championship gold medals.
IAAF reinstated the testosterone rules in 2019. That year, the CAS found that the orgniazation succesfully dicharged its burden of proof to show that testoterone was the key factor driving performance.
The most notable argument presented by the IAAF highlighted in the Executive Summary was one where IAAF submitted «the many different factors that contribute to sport performance» and the only factor where men and women differed was testosterone.
The Summary read:
«The IAAF submitted that if the purpose of the female category is to prevent athletes who lack that testosterone-derived advantage from having to compete against athletes who possess that testosterone-derived advantage, then it is necessarily “category defeating” to permit any individuals who possess that testosterone-derived advantage to compete in that category.
The majority of the Panel accepts the logic of the IAAF’s submission.»
The Panel concluded that the statistical over-representation in the «Relevant Events» (400 to 1500 meters) created «a significant and often determinative performance».
As such, they allowed the «DSD Regulations» to be implemented, as they seemed to be proportional. But the Panel also noted concern towards the applicability insofar as it could be very difficult for some athletes to comply with the regulation, even through no fault of their own.
These limits were imposed only in distances where athletes under “Differences in Sex Development” were visibly dominating.
As a result of not being allowed to contest the 400 meters, in 2021 teenage Christine Mboma (NAM) moved to the 200 meter event and took home a surprising silver medal without any previous world-class competition in the event, triggering new discussions regarding perhaps not only limitinf the «restricted events».
46, XY DSD females and male-born females are very distinct cases in one key issue: hormone therapy. While transgender athletes generally already suppress testosterone as part of their transition, XY DSD females’ bodies, mood and health in generally might be altered by hormone-suppressing therapy in ways they did not intend.
For the same reasons that it sounds cruel to make women take testosterone therapies in order to perform better -as is known was a widespread practice in some pseudo-Communist regimes such as Eastern Germany- it could be cruel to ask to alter the hormone levels of XY females if they wwere to suffer health consequences, particularly via contraceptives.
Having said that, it is even more incoherent that trans female athletes are allowed double testosterone levels than XY DSD females.
The governing bodies and sports are different, and the IOC prefers to side with inclusiveness, which is a fair cause. But as an exercise of comparative analysis, it does provide a reference of where the system could be better.
Athletes like Hubbard, Mboma and Semenya should have a place in sport, respecting their gender identity.
Their competitors should also have a fair shot at beating them. In a utopia perhaps we could measure how much of a “handicap” each body has vis-à-vis others considering every factor and then balance results – such as is done in some powerlifting competitons, where the mody bass index is factored to the final result.
That scenario is not possible. It would also be unsound, as naturally some people are gifted with genetic advantages that make them to go higher, faster and stronger, if disciplined. That is an inherent part of sport.
Some proponents of full inclusion of trans athletes in competition refer the previou idea. They say that indeed some people are genetically more gifted and predisposed towards success in some sports. Some trans people fall in that category too.
Those against their participation also contend that the difference is that some individuals could abuse of the system and «fake» their gender in order to win. They point at the regimes that forced females to undergo testosterone as examples of what could happen even if they were to accept that individuals could have no ill-intention.
The conversation then can move towards the argument that innocent people should not be punished for the potential of others to abuse od the system, especially if the punishment means vanishing them from competition.
For the extreme ends this is a situation about allowing one’s dreams to be a Champion athlete not be frustrated due to sexual differences in other people’s bodies.
The pool of world-class DSD or trans athletes is currently so small that it would not warrant a separate category.
DSD females – unlike most transgender women – do not undergo male puberty and would be uncompetitive against XY males.
Bodies are the interface upon which these sportspeople compete. Maybe a compromise could lay in considering that the sex division exists only in sports where the interface -the body- is considered to give a significant intrinsic advantage.
In some sports, such as auto racing, a machine is an added interface. Since it is more deterministic than the body, then women are allowed to compete against men.
Sometimes the cars are so fast against others that an extra ballast is added or a budget cap is set in order to make the competition more equal.
This is a solution similar to reducing testosterone levels, forgetting the fact that reducing testosterone levels could be detrimental and not very practical. It’s the status quo that seems not to be the best solution available.
Another measure in endurance racing is that faster cars are allowed to compete with slower cars for the overall win, but there is also a sub-class added as needed.
Perhaps something similar could be applied here: letting all of them compete for the overall triumph, keeping testosterone limits -in order to avoid hormonal doping but to levels that do not affect DSD females’ health- but recognizing the top 3 within each category.
This could happen only in the instances where you have transgender or DSD females, which will be in a few occasions.
The dystopian scenario where competitions will be “full” with females under this condition is extremely unlikely to happen, just based out of relative numbers of «DSD» or trans individuals that engage in world-class sport.
The strongest counter-arguments would seem to be that first, this would single out some female competitors. They are already singled out, sometimes in very unhealthy ways. Non-unique impact.
Secondly, that this could alter medal tallies. This would not be significant if, for example, for the overall records you only consider the overall result, even if two or three podium ceremonies are being held.
At least it could allow all women to not be concerned about the fact that other’s testosterone levels -when there is no ill intent to gain athletic performance- would frustate them from the perks, prestige and glory that come attached to a world-class title.
This would be awkward, certainly, and does not sound like the best option to implement. But it is a baseline that improves the status quo both in terms of accesibility and fairness: you don’t bar anyone but also you don’t make it impossible for «XX» cisgender women to compete against trans females.
This «subcategory» division however probably also does not make sense for the same reason that a separate category would not: the pool is too small.
So we are back to status quo and the need for further discussion.
The cases of DSD females and transgender females are very different, but they share some similarities in principle that should be considered when implementing policies to come.
At the very least, the different testosterone limit requirements need to be reconciled.
It is not unlikely that the CAS will have more cases in the future.
Let us retake the argument by World Athletics. The spirit of a differentiated men and female category is to separate people with different body developments due to testosterone.
A «female» category does not exist in major competitions in the first place to add diverse identities. For that reason an argument about adding trans female athletes in order to be inclusive of identities is not an argument that will be sound to the legal precedent.
Competitions where identity is important already exist, such as the Deaflympics, the Maccabi Games, the Firefigther Games or indeed the OutGames. Perhaps a similar avenue could be a place who consider their identity of such importance.
The arguments contending that trans women are just genetically benefited «just as a taller or stronger person is» will also not hold for the same reason: the men and female division is not a gender division but rather a «testosterone-advantage-based» division.
Trans female sportspeople have succesfully competed in women’s division in sports such as Ultimate Frisbee, Freestyle BMX and Basketball.
They might still have some physical advantage but it seems to be less clear due to the large role that skill and teamwork also play. These are sports where trans sportspeople currently also seem to fit in place and thrive.
It seems likely that in cases where trans females have a significant advantage due to sheer power, strength and explosiveness, such as weightlifting or athletiscs there will be further testosterone limits imposed.
Perhaps Hubbard would have not been a world-class female sportsperson had it not been for the physical advantages that having undergone male puberty gave her.
She did nothing wrong, but followed the rules. But that is why rules evolve and adapt to their needs, in order to follow general principles from where they stem.
It seems that a case like Hubbard shows that the system needs to be better.
If that means that in the future there «men’s category» will rather be the «10 nmol/L testosterone category» so be it.
In some cases individuals change their national identities for reasons that they need to give no explanation for. But even national allegiance is limited. There is a point of no return and commitment, even if it conflicts your identity. Individuals sometimes have to make tough choices and take uncomfortable decisions in life.
Whatever the outcome is, there is still a long road to be walked. Let’s be guided by reason and not just by loudness.