Transgender athletes: Majority of elite female athletes support categorisation by biological sex, new research finds

An underwater photo of swimmers doing the front crawl

The majority of elite female athletes questioned for a new study support the categorisation of women’s sport by biological sex, rather than gender identity.

The research, from Manchester Metropolitan and Swansea universities and published on Wednesday, found 58% of respondents favoured categorisation in this way.

That rose to 77% among ‘world class’ athletes – those who had competed in Olympic or World Championship finals – regarding their own sports.

However, the majority of athletes competing in non-Olympic sports believe changing category should be allowed, with a highest rate of 74% among those in ‘precision’ sports such as archery.

The research, published in the Journal of Sports Sciences, is the largest of its kind to date, assessing the opinions of 175 national, elite and world class female athletes – current and retired – from a range of sports and countries.

Respondents include 26 world champions, 22 Olympians and six Paralympians, and shows for the first time that opinion varies according to career stage, competition level and sport type.

In March, a BBC Sport study found that more than 100 elite British sportswomen would be uncomfortable with transgender women competing in female categories in their sport.

In the debate surrounding the inclusion of transgender athletes, many argue that transgender women should not compete in elite women’s sport because of any physical performance advantages they may retain – but others argue that sport should be more inclusive.

The debate centres on the balance of inclusion, sporting fairness and safety in women’s sport – essentially, whether transgender women can compete in female categories without an unfair advantage.

Current International Olympic Committee guidelines effectively allow individual sports to decide on the best approach to balancing inclusion and fairness, opening the door over the last two years for the world governing bodies of sports such as athletics, aquatics and cycling to ban transgender women from female competition.

In 2022, British Triathlon became the first British sporting body to establish an open category in which transgender athletes can compete.

On Tuesday, UK culture secretary Lucy Frazer called on sporting bodies to “take an unambiguous position” and ban transgender athletes competing in elite women’s sport.

What does the new research say?

The majority of athletes surveyed were from the United States, United Kingdom and Canada and competed in sports such as athletics, canoeing, ice/speed skating, swimming, hockey and curling.

In the new research, athletes answered questions based on different contexts of elite sport, for example sports heavily reliant on ‘physical capacity’ such as sprinting, ‘precision sports’ such as archery and ‘contact sports’ such as rugby union.

Among those competing in a current Olympic sport, most felt athletes should not be able to change category, with the percentage highest (93%) among those at world-class level in sports heavily reliant on physical capacity.

Of the 175 respondents, 68 are retired, with 83% of those supporting categories based on biological sex, compared to 64% of current Olympic sport athletes.

The research also shows that 81% of female athletes believe governing bodies should be doing more to make their sports more inclusive, while 94% do not show evidence of negative opinions towards gender transition generally. Of those surveyed, 66% believe transgender athletes are treated unfairly across sport.

Alun Williams, professor of sport and exercise genomics at the Manchester Metropolitan University Institute of Sport, says differences in opinion must be considered by sporting federations “if they are to truly understand the athlete viewpoint” on transgender inclusion in sport.

The report notes that these attitudes show any desire for restrictions on participation is “not likely grounded in negativity towards transgender people, but more likely based on seeking fair competition and capacity to win”.

By publishing the questions used in full, the report authors say they hope this study will become an important resource for sport’s governing bodies when it comes to developing guidelines regarding the eligibility and inclusion of transgender athletes in the future.

However, the study notes “specific considerations are needed for the differences between those with the greatest potential for rewards such as world class athletes and those that will not be directly affected by policy decisions such as retired athletes”.

Dr Shane Heffernan of Swansea University said: “Our research provides evidence that governing bodies can use confidently – in an often polarised debate – knowing that it is based on work conducted with the scientific method and peer review.

“Opinions differ on inclusion of transgender athletes at all levels of sport that we assessed. Nuance must be applied when policy decisions are being made that affect the lives and sometimes livelihoods of athletes.

“High-level athletes’ opinions show that transgender inclusion is valued, but fairness must take priority for athletes at the highest competitive level.”

The research from MMU and Swansea is published a week after the release of research from the University of Brighton, funded by the IOC, which says it found that transgender women performed worse in some metrics compared to female athletes.

Authors of the Brighton research, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, say the results suggest sporting governing bodies should show more “caution” before introducing an automatic ban on transgender women from the female category.

According to 2021 census data, 0.1% of the population of England and Wales identified as transgender women, with the same number identifying as transgender men.

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