Division of elite athletes by gender 'outdated': researchers

 Laurel Hubbard of New Zealand competes in the Women's +90kg Final during the Weightlifting of Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games. Photo: Getty Images
New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard, a transwoman competing in the 2018 Commonwealth Games, has polarised opinions about the inclusion of transwomen in women's sport. Photo: Getty Images

University of Otago researchers are suggesting the need for radical change in the "outdated structure of the gender division'' used in elite sport.

Existing gender categories in sport should perhaps be abandoned in favour of a more "nuanced'' approach in the new transgender era, the researchers say.

Bioethicist, Associate Professor Lynley Anderson, said that in discussing this topic we need to consider the principles of inclusion and fairness.

"We conclude that the gender binary in sports has perhaps had its day,'' she said.

Prof Anderson said it was important to both extend and celebrate diversity while maintaining fairness for cis-women in sport.

"To be simultaneously inclusive and fair at the elite level some innovative thinking is required, rather than attempting to shoehorn people into either 'male' or 'female'.

"Perhaps the male/female binary should be reconsidered in favour of something more nuanced and useful?'' she asks.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) guidelines that allow male-to-female transgender athletes to compete in the women's category at the elite level has raised significant debate since being introduced in 2015.

A recent case of New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard, a transwoman competing in the 2018 Commonwealth Games, has polarised opinions about the inclusion of transwomen in women's sport.

Prof Anderson and Dr Taryn Knox, of the Dunedin Bioethics Centre, together with Otago physiologist Prof Alison Heather investigate the ethics and science around the IOC's decision, in research published in the latest issue of the Journal of Medical Ethics.

They explain the recent IOC guidelines allow transwomen to compete in the women's division if (amongst other things) their testosterone is held below 10nmol/L.

Prof Heather said this was significantly higher than that of cis-women [whose sex and gender align as female].

"Science demonstrates that high adult levels of testosterone, as well as permanent testosterone effects on male physiology during in utero and early development, provides a performance advantage in sport and that much of this male physiology is not mitigated by the transition to a transwoman,'' she says.

However, far from arguing that transwomen be excluded, the authors are in favour of a radical change to what they describe as "the outdated structure of the gender division currently used in elite sport''.

Otago researchers call for gender binary in elite sports to be abandoned to cater for trans athletes.

They consider possible solutions in their research, but some options valued inclusion more than fairness and vice versa

The potential solutions include excluding transwomen from competing in the women's division, creating a third division for transwomen and intersex women and calculating a handicap for transwomen based on their testosterone levels _ similar to that used in golf.

Their preferred option is an extension of this with a proposed algorithm that could account for a range of parameters, both physical and social, including physiological parameters, gender identity and could include socioeconomic status.

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