(ChrisMosier FB Page/Tia Thompson/ Bloomberg / Contributor)

Do trans athletes have an unfair advantage in sports?

Tia Thompson has one dream: to represent the USA in volleyball at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. But she’ll need more than impressive spiking skills and an amazing tryout to make the squad.

She’ll need acceptance.

Assigned male at birth, the 32-year-old transgender woman from Hawaii says she started identifying with girls at a young age and began hormone therapy and testosterone suppression as soon as she moved out of her family’s home at 18.

Volleyball, one of Hawaii’s most popular sports, had always been a passion for Thompson, who has willingly played in men’s semipro leagues for most of her adult career. But three years ago, as her transition to a woman became more solidified as more people began to realize the plight of trans athletes, she says she began to feel strongly that she need to play for the gender with which she identified—not just for herself, but for trans athletes all over the world.

“I thought about the next generation coming up and the younger transgender people who want to participate in sports according to their gender,” Thompson told Excelle Sports. “I thought, ‘This is going to be a good thing. I’m going to do this.’”

So since 2014, the 5-foot-11 outside hitter has submitted paperwork every year to USA Volleyball’s (USAV) gender committee, arguing for the right for her to play in women’s tournaments. Finally, in January of this year, the committee gave Thompson permission to enter as a female in her first tournament, the Haili Volleyball Tournament, which took place in Hilo, Hawaii in March.

“I was so overwhelmed and happy,” Thompson said.

But not everyone was as pleased as Thompson and others in the trans athlete community with USAV’s decision. Instead, the ruling was largely met with apprehension from many athletes, spectators and coaches who felt that the hitter, despite hormone suppression, still has unfair advantages over biological women. Hawaii broadcast news station Hawaii News Now talked to players and parents who said USAV’s transgender policy “creates an unrealistic level of competition.”

The question of what’s fair in gender and sport

The controversy Thompson is facing is hardly unique. Though there is no conclusive data on the total number trans athletes who are competing on an elite level, there have been a number of transgender individuals who have qualified for international competitions. In 2016, two trans women qualified to compete in the Rio Olympics for Great Britain but did not, in part because they feared being “exposed and ridiculed.” In the same year, American duathlete Chris Mosier became the first trans man to compete at World Championships for Team USA.

While some Americans are supportive of a transgender person’s right to assume another gender identity, fewer are sympathetic to trans athletes, especially men who transition to women, arguing that they can pose an unfair advantage over congenital female athletes.

[More from Excelle Sports: Grand Slam icon Margaret Court: ‘Tennis is full of lesbians’]

In 2003, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) ruled that it was fair for transgender athletes to compete in the Olympics, providing that they underwent hormone replacement therapy for at least two years prior to competition, had genital reconstruction surgery to reflect the gender with which they identified and changed their gender identity on all legal documents.

In November 2015, less than a year before the Rio Olympics, the IOC changed its requirement in an attempt to make the 2016 Games more inclusive after determining that trans women do not pose an unfair advantage in sports as long as their testosterone levels are consistent with those of athletes who were designated female at birth. The IOC also ruled that sex reassignment surgery was unnecessary, as it made little to no impact on an athlete’s performance.

Testosterone, a man’s primary sex hormone that’s found in women in lower levels, increases muscle mass, strength and bone density. That’s why athletes with more “T” in their bodies tend to have a competitive edge over their opponents.

Under the IOC’s current policy, trans men—women who have transitioned to be men—don’t have to undergo hormone therapy to compete as male athletes; their testosterone levels, which would give them an athletic advantage, are naturally low. For trans women, however, or men who have transitioned to be women, the IOC scaled back on the length of hormone treatments. Trans women must undergo at least one year of testosterone suppression, or hormone deprivation therapy, to enter female divisions. Then, 12 months before even attempting to qualify for an Olympic team, an athlete’s testosterone levels must be below 10 nmol/L.

While the IOC’s policy seems straightforward, some experts say it doesn’t prevent the performance bias for trans women athletes.

[More from Excelle Sports: Trans athlete Chris Mosier speaks out against North Carolina bathroom bill]

Dr. Ramona Krutzik, an endocrinologist with the Imperial Valley Endocrine Medical Corporation in Brawley, CA who has 19 years of experience studying human hormones, believes that one year of hormone therapy is not enough to reverse the “advantageous” effects that trans women athletes have after male puberty.

According to Krutzik, athletes who grow up as men have already enjoyed an increased ability to build muscle and bone mass for years, which accounts for endurance and strength differences between biological men and women. And a few years of hormone suppression does not reverse these effects.

“Typically, you’re looking at about 15 years after [hormone] suppression and [sex reassignment surgery] to really start to see significant changes in bone density,” Krutzik told boxing magazine Bloody Elbow.

Other physicians, however, say that trans women athletes have less of an edge than most people think. Trans woman Joanna Harper, a medical physicist at Providence Portland Medical Center in Oregon who advised the IOC on its latest transgender policies, published a study in 2015 that found that hormone therapy actually makes male-to-female road runners slower.

An avid amateur road racer herself, Harper discovered that she became 12 percent slower in Masters running events after just one year of testosterone suppression.

Masters runner Joanna Harper  (Tom Hauck/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Harper also studied seven other male-to-female distance runners who had the same experience. While these athletes were able keep their height and bone mass during the beginning of their transitions, all seven lost muscle mass and eventually had lower levels of testosterone than biological women. Harper compares trans women to large cars with engines that are too small.

“The small car with the small engine [a biological woman] can, in many ways, outrun the large car with the small engine,” Harper told Vice.

Yet others believe that trans women athletes have an advantage in sport simply because biological men are predisposed to be taller than women—something no amount of testosterone suppression can reverse. But Harper contends height can be a disadvantage in certain sports like weightlifting and gymnastics, where athletes with a lower center of gravity tend to perform better.

However, in sports like basketball and volleyball, being taller is arguably beneficial. But should height alone prevent trans women from playing in women’s divisions that match their current hormones levels?

[More from Excelle Sports: Transgender wrestler wins regional high school title in Texas]

There is, perhaps, no good answer for that, as there’s still not enough research on trans athletes to properly weigh the advantages and disadvantages in each sport.

While Harper’s study was progressive as one of the first of its kind, her sample size of only eight runners (including herself) wasn’t large enough to be considered conclusive, was specific to running and did not include Olympic-level or internationally competitive athletes.

Ashland Johnson, director of public education and research at the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest LGBT advocacy group, says that there needs to be longterm studies on trans athletes conducted through their entire athletic careers. Lacking this kind of research, Johnson says it’s difficult to evaluate the IOC’s policy on trans athletes.

“We [also] don’t know what the normal levels of testosterone should be,” Johnson told Excelle Sports. “We haven’t done any longterm studies on that either. And then what is the correlation between having more testosterone and being better at sports? We know that is not an indicator that you are going to be a better athlete than someone else.”

Higher testosterone levels, for example, don’t explain why softball Olympian Jennie Finch can strike out MLB’s best hitters. Nor do they explain how five-time gold medalist Katie Ledecky beat the men’s qualifying times at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials.

There are many other variables around trans athletes that also need to be studied, including genetics, age and ethnicity, Johnson adds.

“I don’t know if I’m walking around with more testosterone than the average white person,” said Johnson, who identifies as African American.

What’s more, critics say the IOC’s trans athlete policy, which depends almost exclusively on hormone levels, sends the wrong message to athletic organizations that discriminate against biological women who may naturally have higher amounts of testosterone in their bodies.

For example, biological female sprinters India’s Dutee Chand and South Africa’s Caster Semenya were both banned from competition because they had natural testosterone levels that exceeded the IOC’s limit for women athletes. Both have a condition called hyperandrogenism, which causes them to naturally produce more testosterone than the average female athlete.

In 2013, Chand refused the IOC’s request to lower her testosterone levels through medical treatment, while Semenya conceded to take medication in order to compete in the 2016 Olympic Games.

While the IOC’s trans policies do not dictate how the committee should treat athletes with hyperandroginism, Chand and Semenya’s cases challenge the policy’s hormone standards for female athletes.

“We’re putting way too much emphasis on testosterone alone,” Helen Carroll, sports project director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights, a non-profit LGBT public interest law firm, told Excelle Sports.

Carroll, who also helped author the NCAA’s trans athlete inclusion regulations, agrees that the IOC’s trans policy is the most inclusive to date, but work still needs to be done.

“To use that one measure [of testosterone] to determine whether women get to play in the women’s or men’s area is already outdated,” she said. “There’s a fallacy in that we are looking to get a level playing field. There really is no such thing. Every person has positives and negatives compared to the competitor standing next to them.”

Based on this premise, some think the simplest way to deal with the complexities of gender in sport is to eradicate male and female divisions altogether in athletics.

[More from Excelle Sports: Laurel Hubbard becomes first transgender woman to win international weightlifting title]

Aidan Key, a trans man and director of Gender Diversity, an education and support group for transgender issues, says that coed sports leagues in soccer, softball, flag football and volleyball have already set the precedent for non-binary competition, or that which isn’t based on gender.

“It could happen that we compete based on skill level,” he told the Seattle Times. “There’s [already] a lot of intramural, coed teams with different levels of athletic competition.

“So we already have it in place—we just don’t recognize that we’re creating these environments. We’re still using gender as a shortcut to accomplishing the kind of environments that we want, which makes an assumption that women aren’t competitive or have a high enough skill level. It’s just not true.”

The Tia Thompson debate

From Tia Thompson’s Facebook page on April 2.

So is it unfair for Thompson to play volleyball with biological women?

Thompson says she has no competitive advantages over other female athletes, pointing to her March performance in the Haili Volleyball Tournament as evidence: Her team finished in fourth place out of eight teams in the women’s division.

“It’s educational in a way to let USA Volleyball know that I’m transgender, I play with a bunch of biological women and I didn’t even win the tournament,” Thompson said. “So what does that tell you? It’s OK.”

Regardless of whether Thompson has an unfair advantage, she’ll still have to prove her talent more than she already has in order to beat hundreds of other volleyball players and earn a coveted spot on the 2020 U.S. women’s national team

“I’m excited because I’m definitely going to try out,” said Thompson. “I would say I have a pretty good shot.”

Jump To Comments
  • Dumpster

    There goes women’s sports.

  • occupylove

    wow. the question here is should men be allowed to play against biological females if said men feel like women and take drugs and have surgeries… and no the answer is not complicated if you are not a sexist misogynist selfish self centered ideologically driven extremist. The answer is NO! Hell NO! Get the hell out of female only spaces and sports – and anything segregated on physical biological reality and facts. Science and physical biological fact has nothing to do with your identity or feelings. Start a trans team. Play with other trans athletes. Live a good life. Really. But STOP destroying female sports, boundaries and violating OUR EQUALLY VALID HUMAN RIGHTS. JUST STOP!

  • Ennis Demeter

    These men have no integrity and they are making a mockery of women’s sports. Elite women athletes should never be forced or pressured into competing against mediocre, self hobbled male athletes who totally promise that their hormones put them on a level playing field. It’s disrespectful and unbelievably unfair. Women’s sports don’t exist to validate dysphoric men. Find another way.