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Canadian researcher to study female transgender athletes

A UK-based study to be led by Joanna Harper will study testosterone levels and other metrics in up to 20 transgender athletes

As the debate over transgender athletes competing on the world staged continues, a Canadian scientist is about to lead a study investigating exactly what happens when athletes transition from male to female. The implications for performance and for maintaining fairness in competition are many, and reliable data on the subject is lacking.

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Chase pack at U Sports XC 2018. Photo: Maxine Gravina

Some organizations, e.g. U Sports and the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES), have come down on the side of inclusion, determining that transgender athletes may compete as their identified gender regardless of their medical transition status. Others, such as Western States Endurance Run, state that trans female competitors must have undergone hormone treatment for at least one year before racing. Scientific study of the issue will undoubtedly help clarify the issues.

Gallagher (1st) and Peterson (2nd) at the finish line, Western States 2019. Photo: Dave Stevens

According to a report by CBC News, Joanna Harper, the medical physicist, IOC adviser and competitive runner who is also a transgender woman, will help lead the study at Loughborough University in northern England, which plans to gather data on up to 20 transgender athletes. Her own experience, as an athlete who competed as a man before her transition in 2004, was that within nine months of starting hormone therapy, her performances had declined about 12 per cent–exactly the amount that experts widely agree separate men’s performances from women’s at the highest level of elite distance running.

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Harper has been at the forefront of this debate for some time. In 2015 she looked at eight trans women’s race times both before and after they transitioned, and found a significant decline in their performance post-transition, however no actual testing was carried out.

The issue is similar, in some ways, to that of athletes such as South African 800m runner Caster Semenya, who is the reigning world and Olympic champion in the event. Semenya is female, but her DSD (differences of sexual development) confers significantly higher testosterone than most female competitors. She has been at the centre of a legal challenge to the IAAF’s rule requiring female DSD athletes competing at distances between 400m and the mile to suppress their natural testosterone using oral contraceptives to not more than 5 nanomoles per litre. The Swiss Federal Tribunal is still considering her appeal of the Court of Arbitration for Sport’s decision earlier this year to uphold the IAAF rule.

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Caster Semenya. Photo by Karim JAAFAR / AFP)KARIM JAAFAR/AFP/Getty Images

But although studies have failed to demonstrate a clear and reliable advantage for female athletes with high testosterone, many people nonetheless believe that athletes who were born male retain residual advantages over females in terms of musculature, bone strength and cardiovascular output, which Harper claims is far from clear from the existing research. Moreover, the advantages conferred by testosterone and other metrics may vary from sport to sport.

No openly transgender athlete has ever competed in an Olympics, in any sport. That could change in 2020, though there are currently no obvious contenders in track and field or the marathon. Still, it is to be hoped that the search for reliable data will help to clarify an appropriate path between inclusion and maintaining a level playing field.