Olympic postponement delays reckoning over women's sports

The postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics due to coronavirus prolongs the question of whether male athletes who self-ID as women will compete in women’s sports.

With the postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, the question remains as to whether male athletes who self-identify as women will be eligible to compete in women’s sporting categories, and if so, under what requirements. This raises serious questions about fairness. Critics note that gender identity policies are destroying women’s sports, from grassroots level, to international.

As the mortality rate for coronavirus varies according to sex—with males at higher risk—now seems a good time to re-instate the importance of biological sex in public policy, as a fundamental principle. Will the International Olympic Commission (IOC) begin to prioritise fairness in sport, and public health, as the crisis mounts?

The IOC holds, according to the Stockholm Consensus 2015, that male athletes can self-identify into women’s categories if they have lowered testosterone levels for a period of 12 months or more of 10 nmol/liter in their blood. This was up for change in the fall of 2019. The plan was to half the amount of testosterone allowable. While some saw this as a compromise, opponents argued that no amount of testosterone suppression would negate the benefits of having gone through male puberty.

Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the case of New Zealand weight lifting champion Laurel Hubbard. Few will have missed this instantly iconic image of the 2019 Pacific Games: the then-forty year old New Zealand weightlifter stands on the gold medallists’ podium spot, flanked on either side by the women who took silver and bronze.

The runner-ups’ body language speaks volumes. Nineteen year old silver medallist Feagaiga Stowers cold-shouldered the winner, while bronze medallist Charisma Amoe-Tarrant’s head hung low. One can empathise with the women’s anger, resentment and frustration. An observer might describe the gold medallist as looking somewhat sheepish. As for the woman who came in fourth place, we can only guess how she must have felt missing out on bronze.

None of this is sporting business as usual, but a creeping unfairness which has only become apparent in recent years. Sport is a world founded on the principle of fair competition, which had always meant segregating competitions according to sex. That is, until trans activists began to work away at the rule book, overwriting sex with gender identity and, eventually, just “gender.”

Stowers is a working class Samoan woman from a tough background. A survivor of child abuse, she has lived in a shelter. Weightlifting became her passion, her pride, and a way to overcome the challenges she faced. She went on to win a gold medal for Samoa in the Commonwealth Games in 2018. To Samoans, she embodies hope.

In terms of race, class and wealth, Hubbard’s background could not be more different. Hubbard’s father is a politician and wealthy businessman. Until 2013, Hubbard competed in the male category under the name Gavin. Aged thirty five, Hubbard availed of the New Zealand law which lets people change the sex on their birth certificate, and began to compete in the women’s category.

The contrast between the two athletes serves merely to heighten the failures of fairness inherent in opening women’s sports to competitors who have gone through male puberty. Male weightlifters, on average, outperform women by up to 25 per cent due to larger lungs, greater bone density and muscle mass, different biomechanics, and the impact of the menstrual cycle.

Add to that the psycho-social dimension of women's potential for pregnancy and birth, recovery from those processes, the impact of both undergoing and not undergoing those processes, and the attempt to pass off male athletes as female looks increasingly absurd.

Interestingly, Hubbard’s record of athletic achievement prior to competing in the women’s category barely registers at international level. In the women’s category, Hubbard suddenly transformed into a world champion. Although Hubbard is not in the world's top eight weightlifters in the women's category, Hubbard currently ranks number one in the continent of Oceania, and would qualify for Tokyo on that basis.

Although it does not take a sophisticated observer to note that a male athlete will outperform a female one, hands down, nearly all of the time, the research has been done. Teenage schoolboy athletes are capable of beating adult women professionals at track athletics because of the many changes male puberty causes to their bodies.

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This is not to say that females make inferior athletes, but merely that women and men are different enough that to make them compete against one another at weightlifting is not pitting like against like. It is akin to pitting a cheetah against a lion in a contest of speed: one is simply better physically adapted for racing than the other. That doesn’t make lions any less compelling to watch, as long as they’re racing against their own kind.

The IOC policy is notable for not being evidence-based: no research confirms that suppressing testosterone reduces performance. On the contrary, the available evidence suggests no impact on performance. In the event that testosterone suppression could, in future, be shown to reduce performance, there would need to be a new, independent, third party system in place to monitor the process.

At present, it suffices for a male athlete to temporarily suppress their testosterone level—relatively easy to achieve—then visit their own doctor for a blood test. During competition, there is no monitoring system. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), and the national anti-doping agencies, have no mandate to undertake such tests. As such, the policy is meaningless.

By way of a concrete example, the doping tests of UFC fighter Jon Jones made it into the public domain. This stellar male athlete had a testosterone level which would have brought him within the scope of the IOC's transgender policy. The policy opens the women's category to males on an arbitrary basis: effectively, self-ID.

Weightlifting coaches consider the policy to be grossly unfair, but are afraid to speak out because of the British Weightlifting policy. One coach described it as "incredibly authoritarian and punitive." That the debate is currently around how to make it fair for cheetahs to compete against lions is, in their view, unacceptable. There is a real need to get back to first principles: sports must be sex-segregated.

For the women who compete as weightlifters, the sport is freighted with meaning. For the first time, some find a sport which fits their personality. Sometimes, daughters even follow their mothers into the weightlifting arena. However, the younger aspirants will not find the same level playing field their mothers enjoyed in the 1980-90's, in a sport which only became an Olympic Programme in 2000.

Before that pivot point, women had to compete in swimsuits and gymnastic leotards, as nobody manufactured singlets for the female body. All the professionalisation established in the last twenty years, and the routes mapped from local to international competition, are being swept away by the transgender movement.

Understandably, the implications of this have caused consternation among the sports community and sports fans, who pay to attend events for the thrill of witnessing highly trained bodies going for their edge against the stiffest of competition. Where males are allowed to compete against females, the thrill of honest competition is absent, and the audiences—and aspiring competitors—will melt away.

It is not only at elite level - where athletes' dreams, financial future and health are on the line - that gender inclusive policies threaten to reverse decades of attempts to encourage women into sport, and deter women from competing. Local amateur sporting leagues are the training ground for future Olympians. Ani O'Brien of New Zealand pressure group Speak Up for Women is unequivocal about the impact of allowing males to compete in women's categories.

"Research shows time and again the positive impact participating in sport has on young women. How will we encourage them to sign up for sport when they have no hope of winning? We owe girls better than this, that’s why we’re speaking up against this reinvented misogyny,” O’Brien said.

Similar sentiments were expressed by elite athletes Sharron Davies and Kelly Holmes, after trans-identified male Mary Gregory scooped gold in a local weightlifting competition in Virginia, USA.

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As yet, the fate of women’s weightlifting hangs in the balance—both due to Coronovirus, and the IOC's unwillingness to get to the root of the problem caused by their transgender policy. Whether or not Hubbard and Stowers qualify for the Olympics depends on an upcoming competition, that may itself be postponed. If Hubbard qualifies, the entire spectacle becomes a rigged game. Both individual athletes, and entire nations, will abuse the rules until women's sport is dominated by males.

Critics suggested that Tokyo 2020, now 2021, is set to be the world stage on which the unfairness of enabling male-born transgender athletes to compete in the women's category will become apparent to the masses. The moment of reckoning is now postponed. Nonetheless, that moment must come before a generation of women athletes are lost to history.