Opinion: Transgender guidelines need to be carefully considered

Professor Steve Stannard argues sporting bodies must carefully consider their rules about transgender athletes.

By Professor Steve Stannard

It's better watching some sports played by women – a slightly slower-paced game can emphasise the importance of skill over power.

Field hockey is a great example, sevens rugby too, but if you like the "slap" of colliding flesh, then men's rugby league might float your boat more than the women's version.

Some sports are a little mind-numbing to watch on TV regardless of which gender is competing, golf for example. And in other sports, you'd not know, or perhaps care, which sex was in the drivers' seat or pulling the trigger.

But when it comes to sport, competition and a level playing field, should we be talking about gender or sex?

The word "sex" in noun form is used most often to partition the male or female division of a species in relation to reproductive function and the physiological characteristics that generally accompany that.

The word "gender", on the other hand, describes whether a person feels they are male or female, man or woman. Gender identification is an internal recognition that mostly, but not always, aligns with a person's sex. When sex and gender don't match, a person may be described as "transgender".

In many sports, competitive success comes to the person who is the strongest and most powerful. Weightlifting is one such example. Sure, there is a good deal of technique involved in getting and holding a barbell above one's head, but perfect technique is useless without the requisite physical strength.

To lift a heavy weight requires a strong skeleton and strong joints over which a large volume of muscle can safely do its work. Big muscles and small joints pushed hard will result in injury, like what would happen if you put a Ford Ranger engine into a Corolla and then try to pull a 3.5-tonne trailer.

Conversely, having big joints and small muscles would be akin to having the big strong Ranger's chassis, but an engine barely capable of lugging the 2-tonne vehicle up a hill, let alone pulling a horse float.

The physiological characteristics that accompany the male sex include bigger muscles, thicker bones and wider stronger joints that provide a mechanical advantage. These develop in adolescence and are even more pronounced if worked hard during this important period of development. While muscle mass can come and go to some extent, the size of the skeleton and the structure of joints at maturity then remain the same throughout adult life.

Thus, an adult whose sex is male is generally going to outperform a female in strength and power sports tasks such as weightlifting, and almost certainly so if they are in similar body weight categories. This is regardless of self-identified gender.

The current situation regarding a transgender New Zealand weightlifter competing as a woman in the Commonwealth Games has raised some eyebrows across the ditch, where some have called for her to be banned. The Olympic Committee has a set of rules that govern the ability of transgender athletes to compete so the "playing field" is level. The Kiwi athlete appears to satisfy these.

So, should we just ignore the whining Aussies and let the athlete get on with going for gold?

The transgender rules that pertain to a wide range of sports do not take into account the ongoing physical advantages in pure strength that a person will have if they went through puberty as a male, and they certainly do not take into account the further advantage an athlete would have if they had previously competed as a male. The sport of weightlifting is much about strength.

Levelling the playing field properly would mean that a transgender athlete could not compete as a woman – it will almost never be the other way around – if they have previously competed as a post-pubertal male in the same sport.

The enjoyment of watching or participating in a sport, whether it be men or women competing, is underpinned by the knowledge that there is a set of rules that enable either side, be it through fitness, skill, or even luck, to come out as the winner. This is indeed why the sexes generally don't compete against one another.

But when gender and sex collide transgender guidelines need to be carefully considered to ensure a level playing field or else participation in strength and power sports, particularly by women, will suffer.

Steve Stannard is a professor of exercise physiology from Massey University's School of Sport, Exercise and Nutrition.

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