Addicted to novelty since 2001

Should Transgendered People Participate in Elite Sports?

A local controversy stirred up some interesting questions about gender, transgender and sports yesterday. The Downhill Nationals–a mountain biking race–were held at Whistler this weekend:

A downhill mountain bike racer has been suspended for three months for wearing a T-shirt that mocked transgender cyclist Michelle Dumaresq.

Dumaresq won the women’s race with Schroeter second. During the podium ceremony, Schroeter wore a white T-shirt with black print that said “100 Per Cent Pure Woman Champ.”

It was Dumaresq’s third championship in this sport. Here’s an editorial on the subject (note the ironic use of the term ‘sportsmanship’ in the first sentence), a discussion of the issue on About.com and some discussions on cycling bulletin boards.
The only medical opinions I’ve seen on the issue have been decidedly wishy-washy. Apparently a male-to-female transgendered person loses 30% of their weight when they make the switch. I’d still imagine, however, that their body fat-to-muscle ratio would compare favourably to other women.

To me, it reeks of unfairness that’s resulted from political correctness. I also think that there’s a big difference between participating as a transgendered person at an elite, national level (where there are sponsors and money at stake) and somebody playing pick-up hockey at the local arena. That said, my and everybody else’s opinion is moot.

Here’s what needs to happen: Canada’s sports bodies need to convene a commitee of brave medical professionals who can make a legitimate assessment of the issue. That’s how they decide which narcotics an athlete can take, so they should take the same approach here.

24 Responses to “Should Transgendered People Participate in Elite Sports?”

  1. Matt

    I will weigh in with a few thoughts though I’ll say from the outset that I don’t really know. My sympathies are with transgendered peoples. I understand the concept of infinite genders and readily consider myself as outside the traditional dichotomy.

    That being said, I tried to think of this through the lense of the female to male (FTM) person. It would seem that this man would be at somewhat of a disadvantage. Even through the use of testosterone, the muscle and body mass of the gauy would still be based on an originally female frame. Would that put him at a disadavantage just as it put the MTF at an advantage in the women’s races? Or are these perceived advantages and disadvantages just illusions.

    I don’t know. But perhaps there might be a third sex for sports. These would be governed by different rules. For instance, FTMs need to take testosterone. It’s synthetic. And who would be able to tell if he took a bit more to enhance his performance? Testosterone is banned in so many sports. It wouldn’t need to be in the third sex sporting events.

    Well, that’s more than enough to say.

  2. Gar Fisher

    As a gay person, I am naturally sympathetic to the plight of transgendered people. However, as a sports person, I can also see the other point of view. I don’t think that FTM transgendered people should be allowed to compete at an elite level until there is conclusive scientific proof that this does not confer an advantage over someone with a pair of X chromosomes. I don’t think this will be soon in coming, and if it did, it would still be controversial.

  3. JohnB

    Having solved all other pressing problems …

    This issue almost certainly only becomes important if we find that people are changing their gender so they can win a particular sporting event. (Hmmm, what a disappointment if one changes ones gender and then loses.)

    On all other occasions: it’s a sport, people; it’s a game. That’s why it doesn’t matter if Michelle Wie beats the men or not just like it didn’t matter if Bobby Riggs or Billie Jean King won. What matters is … well, nothing, really. The sun still comes up the next morning, my Corn Flakes don’t taste any better and, fwiw, my love life has been affected. (The conspiracy theorist in me wonders who exactly is trying to market this “issue”.)

  4. JohnB

    [sigh]

    ones gender = one’s gender
    been affected = been unaffected

    [/]

  5. Matt

    As a transsexual person (female-to-male), I was dreading reading the comments on this. Thank you for surprising me, folks. The general public is generally not as level-headed and kind as y’all have been.

    Personally, I just don’t understand how people can think that a male-to-female person on hormone replacement therapy has an advantage over non-transgendered women in competitive sports. There may be a slight “advantage” in that they’re taller than the average woman, or perhaps have slightly more muscle mass than the average woman (which isn’t usually the case at all), but, er, that’s true of a lot of women who compete in certain sports.

    It’s like saying that women who are taller than 6′ or who have a certain percentage of body fat shouldn’t be allowed to compete in sports because they have a biological advantage.

    It just doesn’t make sense to me.

    And even if Canada’s sports bodies got together and had some doctors make an opinion on the matter, what happens when those sports teams have to compete with teams in other countries?

  6. darren

    Matt #2: Thanks for that–I’m glad to hear from a transsexual person. Can you expand a bit on what you mean by “I just don’t understand how people can think that a male-to-female person on hormone replacement therapy”? I don’t know much about this therapy, so I’m not entirely sure what you’re getting at.

    My thinking goes like this:

    We divide sports by gender. In doing so, we indicate that the sports are more fair if men and women play against only their own gender. We thus have a baseline for segregating people in sports. In many sports, we’ve decided that it’s unfair for men to play against women.

    What is the exact nature of that baseline? Athletically speaking, where does being a man end and being a woman begin? That’s the fundamental question that I’d have my imagined committee of experts answer.

    Each country will have to resolve this issue for themselves. Likewise, international sports bodies (the IOC, FIFA and so forth) will have to arrive at their own decision. Sometimes those decisions cascade down from the international to the national level, sometimes they don’t.

  7. Laura

    Darren, I was with you right up until I read Matt #2’s comment. But I realize now that I think the line is too blurred.

    Because it’s absolutely the case that elite female athletes often have very masculine bodies, no less so than a MTF transgendered person. Otherwise, shouldn’t someone like Venus or Serena Williams, for example, have to compete against the men because they are so tall and their bodies are so muscular? And talk about being un-PC. Somehow I don’t think they’d take too well to being told they look too much like men to compete against women.

    Matt #1, I don’t see how a “third sex” category would work, how could you ever come up with enough contestants to make this a valid category? And wouldn’t you need a third AND fourth sex category then? One for MTF and one for FTM, right? I don’t see that as being feasible.

  8. Matt

    Thanks, Matt2. I think you make a valid point. And, indeed, something similar can be said about FTMs. Not to be purient, but I was making out with a strong, masculine gay guy once when it became obvious that he didn’t come naturally equipped with what we’ve traditionally associated with being male.

    Laura, you might be right that there aren’t enough trans folks. But my experience in San Francisco tells me otherwise. I never assume gender here (and try not to elsewhere, as well) because there are more trans folks here than you can shake a dildo at. At any rate, I’d probably attend (even more so than I would the Gay Games) a set of athletic performances by trans folks.

    On another, but related, note. Whhy is it that I tend to comment here from time to time but almost never do anywhere else? Part of it is that I know the author will most likely read my comment. Part of it is the particularly high intelligence level of the commenters. Part of it is that the topics interest me more. But I wonder if anyone has done a study about what achieves commenting on blogs.

  9. Ryan Cousineau

    If you’ll pardon me for the self-promotion, I mentioned this incident on der metblog.

    Since I am so clever and have such deep insights into the physiology and psychology of transgender issues, it is of course required reading.

    No, I’m kidding. What I said there was similar to what you said. Note that Michelle Dumaresq went from never having competed as a man to instantly becoming a pro-level racer on the women’s circuit. Natural talent and a lot of non-competitive experience and training, sure, but also something to make one’s eyebrows rise.

    Here’s a useful experiment: how competitive do you think that an FtoM transsexual would be in any reasonably athletic sport you care to name? My bet (without hard evidence) is that the answer is roughly “not competitive at all against elite male athletes.”

    The same instinct leads me to guess that there’s some advantage to being an MtoF transsexual, hormones and all.

    Laura: please look at a photo of either of the Williams sisters, then look at a photo of Michelle Dumaresq. One of these photos will show a very strong, very fit woman. The other shows a woman whose body is a massive, massive statistical outlier among women.

    My wife is quite fond of reminding me that average male heights run around 5’10” these days. this chart I found online says that 6 feet is about the 75th percentile for white men: 25% of caucasian males are that tall or taller. I’m doing this with a racial classification only because that’s the chart I found; conveniently, downhill mountain biking is a rather white sport, demographically speaking.

    A chart from the same source says white women average 5’5″ tall, and the 95th percentile is about 5’9″.

    If I’m reading that chart right, women in the 6’1″ range are very rare. I’m not clever enough to properly extrapolate the proportion of the female population taller than 6′ (even though Wikipedia says it’s a gaussian distribution), but a conservative guess is 1%.

  10. Heron

    I read an article about a year ago about a MTF transsexual who was a marathon runner as a man, and kept running as a woman after SRS. It was interesting to read about this person, she actually lost a fair amount of muscle mass and stamina after becoming a woman, due to the loss of testosterone, and could no longer keep up with her friends who were all male. I’ve rummaged around the internet a bit but I can’t remember enough details to come up with a link.

  11. Dan

    If science can prove that there is no physiological advantage then I guess this is all irrelevant. But I don’t think its unfair to suggest someone who hormones and genetics pre-therapy allowed them to achieve an advantage in high and ability pertaining to one gender will that can never be lost completely. If you combine all of the men and womens track and field events, I believe only a single record (discuss) is held by a woman.

    The other worry, (oh, almost a slippery slope argument) is what if others took advantage of it. This happened a number of times with eastern block countries in the 50s where the gender was disputed. The counter-argument is would you change your gender for a sport, well we know many countries were athletes don’t truly make their own decisions.

    I know a few transgendered people, and I respect them. But I know who they are on the inside is can not yet be completely reflected by who they are on the outside.

  12. Matt

    But I know who they are on the inside is can not yet be completely reflected by who they are on the outside.

    See? This is what I was talking about in my original comment, where I said that I was surprised.

    Not surprised anymore. Also not taking place in this discussion anymore.

    Sorry, Darren.

    It’s been forever since we chatted, though, Darren, so if you want to know more about hormone therapy and all of that, feel free to email me. devonrm@gmail.com

  13. Ryan Cousineau

    Matt: if you’re not comfortable discussing this here, nobody can or should make you stay. But regarding Dan’s rather sideways comment…my wife has said meaner things to me about my gender and sexuality!

    For future reference: what was the offensive part?

    No, seriously,

  14. michelle

    Thanks for all the comments and discussion. Please don’t believe everything that you read in a newspaper. I am not 6’1″, I’m actuall just over 5’9″ and I DO NOT weigh 210 lbs. So much of this story has been blown outta proportion and twisted. I never raced as a male but I grew up riding the hardest trails in the world in Vancouver. When I finally did start racing it was after 20+ years of riding. I also did quite well racing in Canada but internationally was another story. In Canada #1, internationally I was #26.

    Anyway, keep discussing.

    Michelle

  15. Heather

    I don’t see that it really matters…it’s just sports, after all. Not to demean the efforts of athletes and the training they do…but realistically, cycling or playing football isn’t likely to start a war or cure cancer any time soon. What does it matter if there’s a small advantage given by hormones or pre-op gender? How does that differ from all of the tricks and techniques legally used to enhance performance?

    It’s just something that is a non-issue to a non-athlete like me, I guess.

  16. Joe Clark

    Unfortunately, most commenters here, and Darren, seem to work from a vantage point that absolute equality of treatment means absolute equality. Boys should play sports against boys and girls against girls, for example, because otherwise *inequalities* will emerge.

    I see a range of objections to this approach.

    * There are many fields in which we treat people differently in recognition that absolute equality of treatment does not result in actual equality. The big examples are disability (deaf people may need sign-language interpreters while hearing people don’t; they really need those interpreters just to be on an equal footing with hearing people); religious accommodation (observant Jews must leave work before sundown Friday); pregnancy (a woman cannot be discriminated against because she is, may be, or will become pregnant, and is entitled to leave from work after childbirth).

    * Not all sports are sex-segregated. There are admittedly *very few* that aren’t, and possibly there should be more that aren’t, but there are some, like some classifications of equestrian and archery. In fact, disabled athletes compete equally in archery, and one Olympic (not Paralympic) medallist was in a wheelchair. We would not be having this discussion if Dumaresque were an archer.

    * Elite sport is not concerned with eliminating all advantages. If so, then poor countries would simply be barred from the Olympics, because their athletes pretty much don’t have a hope in hell of medalling. Only some advantages are filed away from the edges of competition; others remain in place, and some of those are the *essence* of competition, because *somebody has to win*. Fantastically fit, scientifically trained Western athletes have a huge advantage in many sports. Athletes with better equipment, like a really good bike, bobsleigh, canoe, or wheelchair, have an advantage. We view those advantages as fair.

    It is just possible that the one or two (or ten, or twenty) transgenderist elite athletes do not have the kind of “advantage” that people who do not understand the full complexity of the equality argument think they do.

    And even if you object to that advantage, fine. Some others object to different advantages for different reasons. Wait till you talk to some Paralympic athletes who have their divisions merged with higher, stronger, more-elite divisions because not enough athletes from their original divisions showed up. *That’s* an unfair advantage, but I don’t see any blog entries about it.

  17. darren

    Joe: Thanks for your thoughtful post. Some quick replies:

    1. “There are many fields in which we treat people differently in recognition that absolute equality of treatment does not result in actual equality.” Sports isn’t one of those fields, and never has been. The goal of fairness in sports is always to establish actual equality.

    2. “Not all sports are sex-segregated.” I wouldn’t have written this post if most sports weren’t sex-segrated. However, at an elite level, I’m going to guess and say 98% of sports are divided by gender. Our world divides sports participation by gender–it’s a distinction that’s ubiquitous.

    3. I don’t view advantages of nation or budget as fair, just difficult to fix. You’re wrong that poor nations’ “athletes pretty much don’t have a hope in hell of medalling”. Check out the medal count from 2004’s Summer Olympics. Plenty of developing nations medalled.

    Besides, it’s not just a question of poor vs. rich, it’s down to sports funding. After all, Russia finished 3rd and Cuba finished 11th in medals. They’re not exactly swimming in available cash for all their citizens, but they sure support their athletes.

    I wrote a blog post about this issue because it made the front page of the Sun and local news broadcasts. That is, it attracted my attention. If that’s an issue that concerns paralympic athletes, that’s what they need to do.

    Of course, ‘transgendered athlete wins championship’ is a lot more controversial. And, as you know, if it bleeds, it leads.

  18. Donna

    “Laura: please look at a photo of either of the Williams sisters, then look at a photo of Michelle Dumaresq. One of these photos will show a very strong, very fit woman. The other shows a woman whose body is a massive, massive statistical outlier among women.”

    …have you ever SEEN a picture of Michelle? She’s got broader shoulders than your average woman, but other than that? Both Williams women look are far larger. Venus Williams is 6’2″, for christs sake. Should she be banned from elite athletics because she’s above average?

    While I can’t verify Michelle’s height, I did see the documentary regarding the issue, and she’s no taller than most of the other women she’s racing with. Seems like they’re all a pretty tall group. Since the average height of an adult woman is 5’3 and 130lbs… well, hey, I’m 5’3″ and 130! Maybe I should be the only person allowed to race! All those freaks at 5’10” should have to sit on the sidelines. :)

    Here’s the thing: Elite atheltics ISN’T equal. I don’t have a hope in hell of winning ANY elite sport. I’m short, of average size, and clumsy as hell. The idea that if you’re not the exact size of the other racers, you can’t compete is … ridiculous, to say the least. NO elite athlete is “average”. Sort of defeats the term “elite”.

  19. Joe Clark

    Developing nations medalled in a minority of sports, typically the ones that emphasize technique over equipment (viz wrestling).

  20. darren

    Joe: You didn’t say ‘developing’, you said ‘poor’. Those, I hope you’ll agree, are different. Would you like to change your original comment to ‘developing’?

  21. Gabe

    To be honest, i think sex-segragation of sports is a little outdated, and should be overhauled. What i’d like to see is are classification systems for each sport based on skill, physical stature, strength, fitness and possibly other factors specific to the sport. You might end up with sex-segragation anyway as a result, but at least it wouldn’t be enforced. And perhaps ppl who don’t fit the athletic profile of most sportsppl would be encouraged to give compeditive sports a go, if they knew they weren’t going to get trounced everytime. Just a thought.

    But then, ppl get all up in arms about gender neutral toilets, so the likelihood of this happening is pretty much zero. Ah society. Why so messed up? *sigh*

  22. Kelly Winters

    As a transgenderd person (male to female), and an avid cyclist, I can attest from personal experience that the difference between training before starting the transition process and after are like night and day. Everything is more difficult now, it takes longer to get up to longer rides (60+ miles), and it’s more difficult to stay there. Also, my muscle memory is non existent at this point.

    Could there be a genetic advantage? Maybe, but I think that could go for both genders.

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