• Alex Parry

Trans Athletes In Sport: A Comprehensive Scientific Overview

Updated: May 14, 2021

The topic of trans athletes in sport is at the forefront of many current debates and discussions. Not just relating to sport itself, but relating to broader topics of fairness, inclusion and equality.

Moreover, I think we can all agree that successful discussions MUST be based around factually accurate, logical thinking.

The issue we're currently facing, however, is that the discussion of trans athletes in sport is often not being handled logically or accurately.

This article will define key terms, explore the arguments both for and against trans athletes in sport, and examine key scientific literature where relevant.

First Up - Who Am I to Talk About the Topics?

Alright, before we jump in, I wanted to start with a quick bio so you know that I'm not just some armchair critic shouting things into the internet. Professionally, I'm a strength and conditioning coach, and weightlifting coach. I've worked with 2 major universities, 2 talent pathways, dozens of elite athletes, and I've run a weightlifting club. So I've got a good idea of what sport and performance look like.

I've also had the opportunity to work as the coach for an LGBTQ Powerlifting team, and actively get to know some of the awesome people within the community. So whilst I can't say that I speak for LGBTQ athletes, I can say that I have a better understanding of the issues they face than most other commentators on the topic.

Defining Key Terms

No discussion or debate can work unless all parties understand and agree on the definitions of the terms they're using. For clarity, here are some key definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary...

Sport: An activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.

Fairness: Impartial and just treatment or behaviour without favouritism or discrimination.

Equality: The state of being equal, especially in status, rights, or opportunities.

Cisgender: Denoting or relating to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex.

Transgender: Denoting or relating to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender does not correspond with their birth sex.

Recreational Sport Vs Professional Sport (And Tiers of Sports)

Discussions about trans athletes participation in sport often ignore the fact that there are lots of different levels of sports involvement. As a professional coach, I can tell you that the difference between recreational sport and pro sport is night and day.

Recreational athletes might train a couple hours a week, and maybe compete every now and again. Research shows (discussed in detail below) that there are various reasons why people engage in recreational sports, and that enjoyment and fitness rank especially high. Professional athletes train multiple hours per day in multiple sessions per day every day. They compete anything from 3 to 36 times per year. It is by definition their profession, they do so as a career and because they want to be the best in the world, and competitive drive ranks very high as a reason for participation.

And of course, there are various levels and tiers of sporting involvement in between these two ends of the spectrum. Recreational sport can mean anything from a few friends having a kick around, to organised multi-team leagues at various different levels of ability and commitment.

This distinction is crucial to make as we go forwards.

Why We Play Sports

This is a complex sociological discussion, which is sort of beyond the scope of this article. The important thing to note is that reasons for participation in sport include (Kerr et al. 2004, Spivey and Hritz 2013)

  • Fitness

  • Enjoyment

  • Improving mood and mental health

  • Socialising and sense of belonging

  • Skill mastery

  • Approval from peers and parents

  • Competition

So, whilst the majority discussion of trans participation tends to centre around competition, we do also need to actively consider the wider roles that sport plays within people's lives.

The Arguments Against Trans Inclusion in Sports (And their validity)

Competitive advantage and fairness

The primary argument against trans athletes in sports is centred around fairness. It is argued that trans athletes, specifically trans women, have an unfair competitive advantage over cis women.

Is It a Valid Argument?

It is important to note that there is little direct research comparing the physical performance of trans athletes against that of cis athletes. So this is an emerging area of research.

Harper et al. (2021) conducted a systematic review of the literature and found that in trans women "hormone therapy decreases strength, LBM and muscle area, yet values remain above that observed in cisgender women, even after 36 months."

Hamilton et al. (2021) concluded that "the use of serum testosterone concentrations to regulate the inclusion of trans female athletes into the elite female category is currently the objective biomarker that is supported by most available scientific literature, but it has limitations due to the lack of sports performance data before, during or after testosterone suppression." What this means is that... A) Far more research is required

B) Arguments about competitive advantage also have to be derived from physiological principles regarding things like testosterone levels, bone structure, muscle architecture etc.

Regarding point B, we know that due to these factors cis male athletes perform better in most athletic activities than cis female athletes, hence we have distinct mens'/womens' categories. The reality is that even many years post-transition, trans female athletes are still benefiting from the years spent with male physiology. An apt, if very simplified, analogy might be that if a cis female athlete took performance-enhancing drugs for 20 years, and then came off them for 3-4 years in order to compete clean, that athlete would still have derived significant benefit from training for 20 years with the enhanced physiology.

So on likelihood, I would have to conclude that yes, there is validity to this argument, and trans women do in fact possess a competitive advantage.

However, and this is a big however, whilst this competitive advantage may present an obstacle to participation in elite sport, where the stakes are incredibly high, it presents little to no obstacle in recreational sports, where the stakes are incredibly low, and play is simply for enjoyment.

Safety of Cis Female Athletes

This is actually two distinct arguments, so pay close attention...

Argument 1 is that trans female athletes are dangerous to cis female athletes in full contact sports such as boxing, mma, rugby.

Argument 2 is that trans female athletes are somehow dangerous to cis female athletes in day to day life, and should be kept out of locker rooms, changing facilities etc.

Are They Valid Arguments?

For argument 1, based on the competitive advantage and physiological differences, there could be an increased risk of injury to cis females in contact sports.

For argument 2, No. There is zero evidence to support any such conclusion. Research actually shows that trans women are far more likely to be the victims of crime than the perpetrators. (Violence Against Trans Statistics) Nearly half (47%) of trans respondents in the survey were sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetime and one in ten (10%) of the trans respondents were sexually assaulted in the past year.

Trans Female Athlete Inclusion Will Ruin/Destroy Cis Women's Sport

The argument goes that by allowing trans women to compete in sport, women's sport will become inaccessible or impossible to play, access or win for cis women.

Is It a Valid Argument?

No. There is zero evidence to support such a conclusion, and mathematically it's a ridiculous assertion to make.

Current estimates suggest that about 25% of women worldwide play sport. We're fast approaching 4 billion women in the world (4'000'000'000) which gives us around 1 billion women playing sport in some capacity.

Of the 4 billion women in the world, data from UK, EU and US estimates suggest that less than 1% are trans (likely FAR less in other countries) which gives us at most 40 million trans women (40'000'000) and of those trans women, research shows that although we don't have an exact percentage, significantly fewer take part in sport than cis women (Kavoura 2020, Jones 2017, HRC 2017). For the sake of argument, let's say that 12.5% of trans women participate in sport, this gives us 5'000'000 trans women in sport. 5'000'000 (trans women in sport) divided by 1'000'000'000 (cis women in sport) is 0.005%. Trans women make up 0.005% of the female sporting population, so the notion that they could somehow take over or control womens' sport is mathematically ridiculous.

Statistically, it's like arguing that a country such as Malawi or Mali is going to take over the entire world. (I did the maths)

And you might be thinking, but surely those numbers are higher in elite sport where trans women could gain a competitive advantage? That would also be incorrect. Since 2004 there have been 50,000 total olympians, and yet there has never been an openly transgender athlete. In fact, weightlifter Laurel Hubbard is set to become the first in Tokyo 2020 (or 2021 technically). That gives one trans athlete per 50'000 competitors or 0.00002%. Even less than in recreational sport.

Interesting Side Note:

It's interesting that a lot of the same people and/or organisations that have historically and even currently blocked, denigrated or ridiculed women's sport, are now the same organisations that apparently care so much about protecting it. A long history and sociology lesson is beyond the scope of this article, but if you're interested, you can take 5 minutes and start with a super basic Wikipedia search.

The Arguments For Trans Inclusion in Sports