Trans athletes in sport: debate on ‘unfair advantage’ divides athletes and supporters

Some women athletes think they could be disadvantaged competing against transgender athletes, but the Malta Gay Rights Movement insists there is no unfair genetic advantage

New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard Inset: Claire Azzopardi, Martha Spiteri and Malta Gay Rights Movement
New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard Inset: Claire Azzopardi, Martha Spiteri and Malta Gay Rights Movement

Transgender weightlifter Laurel Hubbard’s inclusion in Tokyo Olympics next month has sparked a global debate on inclusion and fairness in women’s sport.

The 43-year-old met eligibility standards set by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the New Zealand Olympic Committee ahead of the competition. She will be competing in the 87kg-plus super heavyweight category.  

In 2015, the IOC issued guidelines allowing any transgender athlete to compete as a woman provided their testosterone levels were below 10 nanomoles per litre for at least 12 months before their first competition.

Compliance with the conditions may be monitored by testing, with non-compliance leading to eligibility to compete in events being suspended for 12 months.

The news has raised questions about whether competing against trans women who were previously gender-identified as men, could lead to inequality in competitions.

But athletes like Small Nations long-jump champion Claire Azzopardi thinks she would feel disadvantaged should she compete against a transgender athlete.

Claire Azzopardi
Claire Azzopardi

“Personally, I think it’s unfair, and more studies should be carried out on the subject. While International Olympic Regulation states that trans women athletes should have certain levels of testosterone before a set period of time before competing, more studies should be carried out on the issue,” she said.

“The athlete in question had already developed as a male having transitioned in 2013, giving her lots of advantages over the female body type – some examples are lung capacity, the size of her heart and muscle formation.”

The sentiment was also shared by 400-metre runner Martha Spiteri. “Personally, I feel it is unfair, the anatomy of a trans athlete could lead to and does lead to an unfair advantage. I think female athletes in all disciplines will be disadvantaged.”

But a spokesperson from the Malta Gay Rights Movement spokesperson has countered these assertions, saying having a trans woman qualify for an Olympic event, and even win, was not a sign of unfair genetic advantage.

“One cannot tell trans people that they can compete as long as they never win anything, because this discussion only seems to resurface every few years in the extremely rare case that a trans athlete makes the headlines for enjoying some success,” the spokesperson said.

The gay rights NGO said that like everyone else, trans people also have the right to non-discrimination in access to sport and competition.  

“There is very little research on trans women's performance in sport, however what we do have shows that there is a significant decrease in performance for trans women after suppressing testosterone,” the spokesperson said.

“On the other hand, IOC rulings for trans participation in sport have existed since 2003. In these 18 years, we have not seen a single case of a trans woman dominating any sport.”

On female athletes’ concerns on trans women competing in sport, the MGRM said that while studies have shown that trans women might retain some advantage after testosterone suppression, the studies have had several limitations.

“For instance, one study found that trans women lost all athletic advantages over cis women 2 years after they start feminising hormones, however the sample showed that they remained 9% faster than cis women in 1.5 mile runs. Most articles that quote this study focus on the 1.5 mile run alone, and more crucially fail to mention that it was carried out amongst members of the air force, who undergo very specific training that is not comparable to that of athletes. No insight was given as to why this happened, beyond the fact the subjects were trans.”

The MGRM spokesperson also said there are far more pressing issues facing women’s sport than trans athletes.

“To give an example, the performance of the #100 ranked male in a given sport is nowhere near being equivalent to the performance of #100 ranked female.

“This is not necessarily a question of a difference in skills and abilities. It is more likely that women's sports are lacking access to funding and sponsorships, have lower salaries, less competitiveness, less media coverage of events, issues with access to coaching and training, sexism, and culturally pushing girls and women away from sports.”

A Malta Olympic Committee spokesperson said its official position on this issue is in line with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) guidelines on the eligibility of transgender athletes.

“The MOC will abide with IOC guidelines and ensure that any framework would, among other things, ensure fairness, safety and non-discrimination of athletes on the basis of gender identity and sex characteristics,” Maria Vella-Galea said.