Lia Thomas stood on the podium, literally head and shoulders above her competitors.
Minutes earlier, Thomas had won the women’s 500-yard freestyle at the US varsity swimming championships, beating Olympic medalists Emma Weyant and Erica Sullivan.
Thomas’ performance would have been universally celebrated. Except that she was a male, at least biologically.
Women have been fighting for equality in sport for decades.
Women first took part in the Olympic Games in 1900. The 22 female athletes competed in golf, tennis, sailing, croquet and equestrian.
Other sports were added over the years, but it was another century before weightlifting and the pentathlon were added. In both cases, men competed in these disciplines for years. Women’s boxing was not added until 2012 while men’s boxing was introduced in 1904.
Meanwhile, the gender pay gap in sport is still huge – in football and golf, two of the most popular sports, the highest-paid men earn many times what the highest-paid women earn. Only a few women appear in lists of the 100 highest paid sports stars.
Nevertheless, some things have improved. Wimbledon finally awarded equal prize money for men and women in 2007 after a long battle between the players. In sports, equal prize money is increasingly being awarded for men and women. At the same time, public enthusiasm for women’s sport is growing. The number of viewers is steadily increasing.
But as the sport moves towards equality, women’s continued participation appears to be in jeopardy as the controversy surrounding transgender women shows no sign of abating and questions are raised as to whether the playing field is level for women.
The participation of transgender women in competitive sports should be supported and celebrated. On the other hand, the hard-fought battle for equal participation of women in sport at the highest level must not be jeopardized. How to achieve these seemingly contradictory goals requires an informed debate. Participation by transgender women must not be at the expense of other women.
Many sports federations have attempted to resolve the conflict simply by requiring minimum levels of testosterone. But testosterone alone is not the answer. As Lia Thomas has shown, taking estrogen and progesterone for 12 months does not reverse the skeletal and cardiovascular advantage that results from male puberty.
Women “try harder” is not an answer. Additionally, minimal testosterone levels unfairly disadvantage women with naturally high testosterone levels.
The solution to the problem is not clear. But the fear is that sports governing bodies are so concerned about being labeled as transphobic that they are willing to discount the potential consequences for all women’s participation in sport. Will women continue to put in the countless hours they invest in elite training when they expect to compete against people born biological males?
In 2003, even before the International Olympic Committee allowed women’s rugby (2006) and boxing (2012) to compete for medals, it found a place for trans people – those who had undergone genital surgery – to compete.
Lia Thomas has not undergone gender reassignment surgery. She swam as a man at the National University competition between 2017 and 2019 and placed 554th. Now she takes first place in the women’s category. If she meets her goal of competing at the Paris 2024 Olympics and succeeds, what message does that send to girls who are thinking about competitive sports?
There’s an irony here. Allowing trans identified biological men to compete in women’s sports, particularly in individual events, risks deterring women from competing at the highest level and thus jeopardizes the very sports they wish to compete in.
If these issues cannot be discussed and consensus reached in an informed manner, the risk to women’s sport is real.