Fairness may be coming back to sport
Governing bodies are beginning to recognize that allowing transwomen to compete in women's categories is inherently unjust
The struggle to arrive at a sport policy solution that protects women’s sex-based fairness rights, while accommodating transgender inclusion-based rights, continues apace.
Inclusion rights have dominated the policy podium for a generation of athletes. Female athletes watch in dismay as those who were born men breeze past them in track and field, rowing and other sports where post-puberty disparity in muscle power and lung capacity — even with testosterone reduced — guarantee them a significant boost in the women’s category (even for those who are quite mediocre by male standards).
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Resistance was futile. Sport associations were so committed to the inclusion principle that complaints were interpreted as transphobic, and female athletes risked being cancelled by stepping out of line: team expulsion, loss of athletic scholarships and the annulment of dreams nurtured since childhood. Their coaches went along to get along. Anger, anxiety and dismay simmered behind the brave face that many female athletes were forced to display when rational expectations were sidelined by irrational gender policies.
A pivotal moment arrived last year, when trans-identifying Lia Thomas, a second-tier male swimmer before socially transitioning and reducing testosterone levels, brutally outperformed female competitors in the 200- and 500-yard freestyle races at the Ivy League women’s swimming and diving championships with such apparent effortlessness that the existential “unfairness” problem outstripped the capacity of ideologues to spin the narrative.
One of the women forced to compete against Thomas was the daughter of Kim Jones, a former Stanford University tennis player, who was so shaken by the “emotional blackmail and abuse” she witnessed that she founded the Independent Council on Women’s Sport (ICONS), an advocacy group comprised of current and former collegiate and professional female athletes and allies devoted to empowering women in sport by protecting their sex-based rights.
On Jan. 12, ICONS took part in a rally during the annual National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) convention in San Antonio, Texas, to demand that the organization, the governing body for collegiate sports, commit to respecting women’s sex-based rights in sport.
ICONS participated as a member of a newly formed association called the International Consortium on Female Sport (ICFS), a lobby group that advocates for the preservation of the female sports category worldwide. For example, in a Jan. 18 letter to the Ontario Powerlifting Association, the ICFS urged the governing body to have an “honest conversation” about the edge that those who were born male have in the sport, citing admissions about such advantages posted on social media by a transgender Alberta athlete who has been competing in the women’s category.
ICFS’s original member groups hail from seven countries, including Canada, the United States, Spain, France and the United Kingdom. The ICFS’s leading founder is Athletics Alberta president, high-performance coach and author Linda Blade (@coachblade to her 16,000-plus Twitter followers).
Blade reported to me that a roundtable discussion at the NCAA convention on “inclusion in sports” and transgender athlete policy was not inclusive of dissenting views. “The panellists were all trans activists,” Blade told me, with “not a single panellist representing the female voice.”
According to Blade, every single panellist justified the primacy of the inclusion principle with a variant of the claim that women need to make their sport “safe” for trans-identified athletes who were born men because of the risk that not doing so would affect their mental health. Other sport associations promote the same motif. Essentially, according to the inclusionists, women’s sport exists in part as a therapeutic haven for psychologically distressed natal males. Men’s sport, obviously, has no similar obligation.
The progressive Biden administration’s addition of “gender identity” to Title IX’s original mission of creating equal opportunities for women in sport (later extended to other domains) was a blow to female athletes’ legal support system. At the Jan. 12 rally, alongside courageous female athletes who were willing to share their experiences of competing against athletes who were born men, the plainspoken Blade made a passionate appeal for adherence to the sex-based mission of Title IX, gratefully acknowledging its crucial role in her own career.
While ordinary sports fans may be largely unaware of all these developments, most can see the inherent unfairness of what is happening in sports. A 2021 Macdonald-Laurier Institute (MLI) survey on public attitudes toward gender in sport, undertaken in consultation with pollster and Compas Research founder Conrad Winn, found that “by a four-to-one margin, Canadians believe transgender athletes’ participation in women’s sport is ‘unfair.’ ” Its conclusions dovetail with similar polls in the U.S. and the U.K. As to solutions, the most popular option was to allow transgender athletes to compete in “an open or mixed category.”
Sport researchers agree. A follow-up MLI report examining the principles of “fairness, safety and inclusion” found there was no scenario in which fairness and safety could harmonize with inclusion. The authors conclude that, “Fairness in sport can be achieved with the reconceptualization of the male category as ‘Open’ and the women’s category as ‘Female,’ where female refers to the sex recorded at birth.”
Since the Lia Thomas affair, a number of individual sport associations have grasped the unfairness nettle and changed internal policies to privilege fairness and safety over inclusion. Some sports governing bodies, including the Welsh Rugby Union and Volleyball England, now prohibit “XY” athletes (born men) from competing against “XX” athletes. Other sports have constrained XY eligibility to pre-puberty. Athletics Canada is expected to announce its criteria at the end of the month.
There are grounds for optimism in this battle. One or two dissenting female athletes can be cancelled. A thousand cannot. After years on the defensive, principled sports stakeholders are now playing offence. Those who are supporting athletes’ sex-based rights have a right to be included on decision-making bodies. They will no longer be denied their place at the table.