Sex-Segregated Sports & the New IOC Guidelines

It has recently been announced that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has issued new guidelines that transgender athletes should be allowed to compete in the Olympics and other international sporting events in their reassigned “gender” without undergoing sex reassignment surgery.

The main physical restriction the new guidelines place on males who transgender will be that their testosterone level must be below a certain level for one year prior to the event they are competing in.

This means that transwomen who retain their male sex organs (testes and penis) but who have some hormone treatment to reduce their testosterone level for a year will be able to compete with women (by which I mean biological females who were raised as girls).

Unsurprisingly many women are extremely disturbed by this development, not least because the physical differences between the sexes go far beyond testosterone levels. After puberty few of these differences are eradicated simply through treatment to reduce a transwoman’s testosterone levels. I provide a summary of key differences below.

The main reason for sex-segregated sports is to create a level playing field. Sport is widely recognised to have many benefits throughout life, but particularly during childhood and adolescence. It is good for physical and mental health; it generates confidence and physical strength; it teaches girls and young women to defend their boundaries; it encourages team spirit and cooperation; and it provides an opportunity for bonding. Taking part in sports can make a significant impact on a girl or young woman’s life chances.

Sex-segregated sports provide an opportunity for female bonding. Typically males have many more opportunities for male-only bonding than females. For more on the need for women-only spaces, see What is a Woman?

Girls and young women are under huge pressure about their body image and live in a hyper-sexualised misogynistic culture that is saturated with the male gaze. Sports have traditionally provided girls and young women with an important respite from this. There is very real risk that the presence of transwomen who have been raised male and may have full male genitalia will have an impact on this respite and the freedom that a female-only sporting environment gives girls and young women.

Here is a photo of a 50-year old post-op transwoman called Gabrielle Ludwig who was able to join a girls’ college basketball team.

Gabrielle Ludwig and team mates
Gabrielle Ludwig and team mates

Ludwig’s height, while tall, is not that unusual for a man. But it is extremely rare for a woman to be that tall. Obviously basketball is a sport where height is a key advantage. How is Ludwig’s inclusion in a girls’ team fair – given that one of the key purposes of sex-segregated sports is to enable people to compete on a level playing field with their peers?

With the new IOC guidelines that no longer require transwomen to undergo SRS surgery to participate in female sports, we are likely to see a lot more similar cases.

Imagine being a young female track athlete being forced to compete against transwomen who are biologically male, with all the advantages that brings to speed and strength – while everyone pretends that it is a level playing field. How would that feel? And how would it feel if, because of their biological advantages, the women athletes got replaced by transwomen?

Tell me how is that fair? What about girls and women’s rights to participate in sports on a level playing field?

How is taking away the rights of women and girls and giving new rights to transgendered people fair?

The IOC guidelines have a much greater potential negative impact on women and girls than men and boys. I therefore believe that they contradict the rights of women and girls to equality as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights* and violate Article 30 which states:

“Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.”

I believe that there are other, fairer, ways to solve the rights of transgendered people to participate and compete in sports and I call upon the IOC to reconsider its guidelines.

* The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was proclaimed in 1948, when the definitions of man and woman were based on firmly sex and not the more fluid and ill-defined concept of gender.

Physical differences between the sexes

I provide below a simple summary of key biological differences between the sexes. These are in addition to the obvious differences in chromosomes, hormone levels, primary and secondary sex characteristics and reproductive capacity.

This summary is based on an assignment by Sarah Lund for a sports therapy course. Her reference was Hands on Sports Therapy by Keith Ward.

Anatomical differences

                         Adult Females                           Adult Males
Shorter Taller by approximately 10% on average
Lighter Heavier by approximately 15%
Bones are lighter and thinner Bones are heavier and thicker
Surface of joints smaller Surface of joints larger
Muscle attachment sites less distinct Muscle attachment sites more distinct
Shoulders narrow Shoulders broad
Smaller thorax Larger thorax
Breasts No breasts
Broader hips Narrower hips
Pelvis shallower with larger, oval-shaped pelvic brim Pelvis deeper with smaller, heart-shaped pelvic brim
Proportionately shorter legs with neck of femur at a greater angle to its shaft Proportionately longer legs with neck of femur at a lesser angle to its shaft
Greater slant of the thigh to the knee Lesser slant of the thigh to the knee
More likely to demonstrate Genu Valgus (Knock-Knee) posture, therefore anatomically disadvantaged in running activities and prone to a variety of overuse injuries Less likely to demonstrate Genu Valgus (Knock-Knee) posture
Arms proportionately shorter with more of a carrying angle (the angle of forearm in relation to upper arm) – an anatomical disadvantage in lifting and throwing activities. Arms proportionately longer with less of a carrying– an anatomical advantage in lifting and throwing activities.
Wider hips also an anatomical disadvantage in lifting and throwing activities. Narrower hips also an anatomical advantage in lifting and throwing activities.

Body composition

                         Adult Females                              Adult Males
Endomorphic tendency Mesomorphic tendency
Greater percentage of body fat – around 25% on average Lesser percentage of body fat – around 13% on average
Lower lean body mass (fat-free mass) indicating reduced muscle mass Higher lean body mass (fat-free mass) indicating increased muscle mass
Tend to deposit more fat on hips and thighs Tend to deposit more fat around waist and upper body
Lesser percentage of blood in body fluid and less water Greater percentage of blood in body fluid and more water

Cardio-vascular differences

Adult Females                        Adult Males
Smaller heart Larger heart
Lesser stroke volume (the amount of blood pumped out of the heart during each contraction.) Greater stroke volume
Higher resting heart rate Lower resting heart rate
Blood pressure lower Blood pressure higher
Carry less erythrocytes and lower levels of haemoglobin in blood cells Carry more erythrocytes and higher levels of haemoglobin in blood cells

Respiratory differences

Male lungs, being larger, have an increased respiratory rate and a greater vital capacity.

Performance differences

All of these differences add up to significant performance advantages for men in most sports. After puberty, few of these things will change significantly even with hormone treatment.

15 thoughts on “Sex-Segregated Sports & the New IOC Guidelines

  1. I saw this news and felt a kind of sick horror . What I remembered was a passage in ‘The Transsexual Empire’ where a male-to-female transsexual boasted that they were better women than born women whose only ability – to get pregnant – was now a liability with overpopulation . And I thought ‘they want to wipe us out’ . Please tell me I’m being paranoid !

    Liked by 2 people

  2. “And I thought ‘they want to wipe us out’. ”

    I can’t tell you you’re being paranoid. With the new IOC guidelines, it looks to me like soon, there will be only men, men and men participating in the Olympic Games. Born men, men-ID’ing-as-female, and womyn-ID-ing-as-male (though I suspect few FTM will choose to compete against born men, as the advantages in that case are not theirs in the least).

    This is already happening elsewhere; Jenner won his Olympic medals as a male, though now he tells us he was ‘always female’. Instead of revoking his medals for being a female participating in male sporting events, he gets to have his name changed to his new female names in Olympic annals. He’s also won a “woman of the year” award. There’s a Canadian FTM–living and IDing as male, having rejected her female self–who won a national poetry seat as a *female.

    They really are trying to wipe us out.

    Thanks for this thoughtful and informative piece, Anna. And by the way, you know me on facebook as Jai Kalidasi :)

    Liked by 5 people

  3. I was searching for that basketball team photo -it really says it all. Did Sarah Attar not have enough obstacles to overcome?


  4. Hi y’all,

    Being a transwoman myself, I feel compelled to react. I stumbled upon this blog, perusing the WordPress tag “transgender”. First of all, let me state that, on a personal level, I do not want to wipe anybody out ;). Nor do I have the wish to “invade” your spaces, especially not if you really need “womyn only” space. For me, gender is very important, but so is basic human interaction. If you as a group decide that for you, your space should be cis-only, so be it. There are other feminist spaces that do allow transwomen to enter, I’d rather avoid the whole discussion and join those girls there. We all have our needs, and everybody deserves to find his or her peers and safe spaces to fulfill them.

    OK. Back to the topic at hand. We as trans women do have masculine bone structures, in case we don’t start HRT early enough (age 14 or so). That’s a given. However, that also seems to be the only significant difference, HRT takes away basically every other advantage after a year or so (perhaps 2 on the outside). Don’t take my word for it, take theirs!

    I know, every study has its drawbacks, even that one. But there’s more evidence indicating HRT changes a whole lot. So, on a factual level, there might be a level playing field after all.

    On an emotional level, can’t we just accept we all have our needs? Maybe I feel the need to “belong” to a group of girls, a need that’s based on my unique experience of life. You cannot say I didn’t have those feelings, as they’re uniquely mine. On the same note, I can’t argue your need to create some ciswomen-only spaces. Why can’t we have both, coexisting? Must we truly make the others’ lives harder then need be? There is one thing that’s more important than gender and that’s basic human love and understanding. Fear tends to get in the way of this, both on my and your side of the divide.

    I was not assigned female at birth and thus have had a different set of experiences, yes. But it would also be a generalization, a judgement to quickly say I’ve “enjoyed” male privilege for all of those years (30 yrs old now). Patriarchy has made me suffer, too. I’ll have to accept that my experience was a different one than most cis-girls had. But on the other hand, the inherent difference of your experiences can’t be generalized as a group and, more importantly, makes it impossible for you to judge the validity of my stand point. There’s only one solution, and that’s to accept that both our points of view are equally valid, and do not yield a different value.

    That’s just my two cents, I hope not to have crossed anybody. I don’t often react to blogs, but sometimes I feel compelled. Hoping to hear from you,



    1. Dear Eline

      The study that you quote has a number of problems, not least that it does not define what “transition” is. And anyway, the new IOC guidelines do not require any form of transition or for the athlete to take oestrogen. The guidelines only require the testosterone level to be below 10 nmol/L, which is at the low end of the normal male range and several times higher than the highest level in the naturally occurring female range.

      Therefore the guidelines allow a biological male with a naturally low testosterone level to compete in women’s sports. And regardless, as I explain in the article there are many physical differences that give males an advantage in sports – longer legs are advantageous for jumping and running, longer arms and thicker bones are advantageous in combat sports, etc. So no, male people competing in women’s sports is NOT a level playing field.

      I wish you well, but no one has the right to usurp women’s rights. And it is offensive to trivialise those rights by snidely suggesting they are ridiculous. And we are not cis-women. We are women: adult female human beings. Transwomen are not women.

      I write more on this in this post:

      Best wishes


      Liked by 1 person

  5. Dear Eline ,
    Anna has already covered most of the points on which many of us radfems would take issue in your letter so here are only a few more .
    1 Possibly you do not understand the use of ‘privilege’ . Men in general have power over women which I would call male supremacy but is of course often called patriarchy . However it is obvious that many men don’t get to exercise it much because of a relative lack of privilege eg the usual stuff ; poverty , colour , class , educational level , disability , sexuality ….. any omissions I apologise for . Certainly men suffer under patriarchy – it’s not great for anyone ! But suffering doesn’t preclude privilege . After all women can have privilege too and it may even shield them from some sexism , sometimes (but never all) .
    2 ‘the inherent difference in your experiences can’t be generalized as a group’ . Do you not see that this sounds like an attempt to deny the possibility of feminism at all ? I hope it is not what you mean .
    3 Perhaps you do not realize quite how far things have gone with the demands of some trans activists ? As Anna points out the IOC do not require transition and they are only being up to date . Nowadays a transwoman is a woman by self-declaration alone . Although us adult human females cannot get away with that – we have to call ourselves ciswomen .
    4 Since I was the one to use the term ‘wipe out ‘ perhaps I should clarify . There was and is considerable struggle by feminists for women simply to exist on all human levels (including linguistic cf above) . I remember the old slogan ‘women are people too’ and Barbara Deming’s ominous ‘we cannot live without our lives’ . In the light of that here is the quote which prompted my fear :

    Genetic women cannot possess the very special courage , brilliance , sensitivity and compassion—and overview—that derives from the transsexual experience . Free from the chains of menstruation and child-bearing transsexual women are obviously far superior to Gennys in many ways .
    Genetic women are becoming quite obsolete , which is obvious , and the future belongs to transsexual women . We know this , and perhaps some of you suspect it . All you have left is your “ability” to bear children , and in a world which will groan to feed 6 billion by the year 2000 , that’s a negative asset .

    OK Raymond’s book is from 1979 and this quote is from 10 years earlier but does that excuse the hostility ?

    Finally I’d like to say how much I appreciate the reasonable and friendly tone of your comment . I fear that transwomen I have encountered in conferences and workshops have been neither even though they ‘won’ . Have you seen the Gender Apostates blog ? A very interesting blog put out by transwomen and women working together on these issues . I haven’t the link to hand , sorry .
    And best wishes , Rukshana


  6. I will never ever ever call myself a “cis” woman. It not only insulting but bad grammar. Woman is the norm, trans-woman is the exception. Therefore I am a woman and they are trans-women,or men and they can fuck off….. this whole thing has steam coming our my ears…..

    Liked by 1 person

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