10th May 2021
There has been a surprising amount of discourse about the fairness of letting trans-woman compete in sports with phenotypically female women. The discourse is surprising because there are very few instances where this is happening. It is a very interesting conundrum though. XX woman have a natural amount of testosterone in their system and there are distinct parallels between runners with higher levels of testosterone in their system and runners who win.
Traditionally injections of testosterone are frowned upon in sport. Performance enhancement is fundamentally against the spirit of human competition. Enter an athlete who, by the very nature of their phenotype, has a surplus of testosterone. A trans-lady will be taking injections to reduce their testosterone. This changes the body chemistry and reduces muscle mass. In theory they are going to be on the same playing field as the other competitors.
At the same time, there is a strong justification to manage the amount of testosterone you limit. To reduce your testosterone too far would be to shoot yourself in the foot. A delicate balance must be made. And if it's to be made, why not make it so that you've still got just a tiny bit more testosterone than your closest competitor? After all, there's a very good chance that they are only that much better than their current rival because their testosterone is just that little bit higher.
Testosterone has such an impact on muscle that it could be said that to truly and fairly test your runners they should each have the exact same amount in their system. So where do you start? Do you inhibit every woman's testosterone to match the lowest racer? Say 'goodbye' world records. Or do you boost it up to match the fastest racer?
I think this exposes some real problems with the nature of competitive athletics. Why do we celebrate the fastest people in the world? Traditionally it was inspiring. To test the limits of human bodies and to show what we could do if we put our minds to it but the more research that goes into athleticism the more we find that the factors aren't some hopeful and esoteric human spirit macguffin but the measurable levels of particular hormones.
Of course testosterone isn't the only factor at play. There's also money. Someone who needs to stop training to do their nine to five is at a disadvantage from their richer neighbours. The "shark suit" is a high tech swimming costume for swimming faster that any other humans but not fast enough to out-swim a shark. Any competitor not wearing one is at a disadvantage to the extent that various sport bodies around the world have banned and reinstated them many times.
Should everyone have the same suit? How do we use science to whittle back all the unfairness in the system and just test for human indomitability? Tiger Woods was very good at golf because his body was the exact right size on a physics level for hitting a little white ball. Should all golfers have body re-adjustment surgery just to make it fair? What about people who are mentally predisposed to push themselves that little bit farther. If they were born like this then are they at some inherent advantage that needs to be compensated for?
Opponents to trans-athletes complain that this ruins sport. I suggest that what it does is shine a spotlight on the fragile nature of what we call competitive fairness. What is the point of celebrating the faster moving human? Something about the nature of the human spirit? It shows what we're capable of? But it doesn't. By its very nature it shows only what that one person is capable of.
Everyone else is just running to catch up.