Michael Phelps in line for accusations of transphobia after touting a “clean field” in women’s sports

January 19, 2022 • 10:45 am

Do I really need to apologize because this piece, which was sent me as a link to yahoo! news, ultimately turned out to be taken from the conservative National Review? That was my first impulse, but if I had to give caveats like that for everything, I’d have to give them for the New York Times and, in fact, for every media outlet with an ideological slant. I think I’ll stop giving these caveats and concentrate on the content. And, in this case, the content is documented by a video interview by Christine Amanpour and by the very facts of biology.

As you surely know, Phelps is by far the most decorated Olympic competitor of all time, having accrued a total of 29 medals for swimming—23 of them gold!  He holds several world records, and many see him as the greatest swimmer of all time, if not one of the greatest athletes of all time.

As far as I was able to find without digging about for too long, the National Review article wasn’t the same as—or as long as—the yahoo! news piece (I couldn’t locate the right one, I guess), so I’ll comment on the latter. Click on the screenshot to read (the “National Review: is the source, but the article is at yahoo!):

Here are Phelps’s comments followed by the interview tweet:

Swimming champion Michael Phelps recently called the controversy around Lia Thomas, the record-setting transgender University of Pennsylvania swimmer, “very complicated” and stressed the need for a “level playing field” in swimming.

Playing on the women’s team this season after three years competing as a male, Thomas has set pool, program, and meet records, 38 seconds ahead of the next-closest female Penn swimmer in one event. [JAC: I think that was the 500-meter freestyle.]

Phelps’s comments came during an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour last week when Amanpour asked the swimmer to react to the ongoing debate and Phelps likened it to his experience with doping in the sport, saying he does not think he has competed in a “clean field” in his “entire career.”

“I think this leads back to the organizing committees again,” said Phelps, who won 13 individual gold medals as an Olympic swimmer. “Because it has to be a level playing field. That’s something that we all need. Because that’s what sports are. For me, I don’t know where this is going to go. I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Here are the tweets; the second is the important one.  Phelps won’t answer the question directly, but it’s pretty clear what he thinks: he thinks everyone should be “comfortable in their own skin” (i.e., he’s not transphobic), but he also favors competition on “an even playing field.” As if that weren’t clear enough, he mentions doping of swimmers, saying that he doesn’t think he himself has competed on an even playing field, and that doping clearly tilts the field.

Of course, by analogizing transgender female performance with the advantage given by doping, Phelps is going to get himself into more trouble, even though the analogy is better than he knows. For the advantage accruing to biological men who transition after puberty (as did Thomas) comes from the effects of testosterone during puberty. These effects, as several studies have shown, last for years, and I suspect many of them, affecting physiology and bone and muscle mass, will be permanent.  Even the International Olympic Committee has retracted its own regulations about how much circulating testosterone forms the upper limit for a transgender athlete to compete with women. (They now are in limbo without any guidelines.)

The NCAA guidelines, for college sports, are even more lax, as no hormone levels are even specified:

NCAA rules currently permit Thomas to compete on the women’s team. The guidelines are focused primarily on hormone treatments and read: “A trans female (MTF) student-athlete being treated with testosterone suppression medication for Gender Identity Disorder or gender dysphoria and/or Transsexualism, for the purposes of NCAA competition may continue to compete on a men’s team but may not compete on a women’s team without changing it to a mixed team status until completing one calendar year of testosterone suppression treatment.”

They do not take bone density, accumulated muscle mass, or other considerations into account.

Well, they should! One year of testosterone suppression is just that—a year of treatment, and there’s no guarantee that the treatment will even give you Olympic-qualifying hormone levels. But, as we know now, the Olympic qualifying levels have no science to back them. The NCAA rules have equally little science—that is, zero. It is an attempt to look scientific without actually having the relevant data.

But wait—there’s more:

NCAA guidelines claim, “many people may have a stereotype that all transgender women are unusually tall and have large bones and muscles. But that is not true. . . . The assumption that all male-bodied people are taller, stronger, and more highly skilled in a sport than all female-bodied people is not accurate.”

But nobody is making that ridiculous claim! Of course there are “male bodied people” (do they mean biological men?; it’s not clear) who are worse than some women (“female-bodied people”) at sports. And even transgender women can beat many men. The claim is about the highest performance levels, and about averages and variances. It’s like saying that smoking doesn’t cause lung cancer because some people who get lung cancer never smoked, and some people who smoke like chimneys never get lung cancer. What we have is a gross misunderstanding of both the statistics and the claims at issue.

The article goes on to denigrate Thomas by quoting her, but I’m not interested in that. What I am interested in is what Phelps emphasizes: having a level playing field. It is becoming ever clearer that for transgender women who go through puberty before hormone treatment, they derive a clear performance and physiological advantage over biological women that gives them a clear advantage in sports. If you say, “Well, so what? There are only a few transgender women trying to compete,” I have two responses. First, tell that to the women creamed by the performance of Lia Thomas. More important, the problem may be small now, but given the magnitude of women to men transitioning—far more frequent than the other way round—it’s going to be a much bigger problem in the future.

This is one case where the inconvenient biological and experimental facts are ignored in favor of “social justice”, for “trans” people are seen as heroes and as oppressed minorities. The biological women who are left in the dust by people like Thomas are being treated unfairly—just as unfairly as if they competed against someone engaged in doping. Everyone decries doping, and mandates punishment for those like Lance Armstrong who engage in it, but when the “dope” is testosterone and its lingering effects, well, no problem!

This is one example of what I call “MacPherson’s Law”, a generalization I’ve stolen from reader Diana. She once said that in cases like this—cases in which two tenets of progressive liberalism conflict—the resolution will always be to the detriment of (biological) women. The same is true for the oppression of women by Islam, and by other cases as well.

The scientific answer, though, is now clear enough now to mandate change. First, transgender women who transition after puberty should not be permitted to compete in women’s sports. (There can be another class, or they can compete in men’s sports.) I see fairness to women athletes as superseding any “right” of transgender women to compete in women’s sports, and I don’t see this view as “transphobia”.

As Richard Feynman said after the Challenger disaster, “”For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.” In this case, “Nature” comprises the facts about puberty and hormones, while “public relations” is the declarations by the ACLU and other woke organizations that, even in sports, “transwomen are women”, and should be allowed to compete as such.

h/t: Divy

37 thoughts on “Michael Phelps in line for accusations of transphobia after touting a “clean field” in women’s sports

    1. I advocate for an Open and Women’s (sex) categories. Because it’s not just a trans issue – some cis women have historically wanted to compete against males, and been denied that opportunity, and (outside of some rough contact sports) I see no justification for that.

      1. Being a “woman” in the social sense (that is, a cis woman or a trans woman) is part of the “sex” of that person, along with sexual orientation, gonads, etc. Therefore, the sports category that excludes trans women should be called “athletes born without male gonads.”

    2. You mean a freakshow category?
      The trouble is, trans athletes don’t want to complete in a freakshow. No one will pay to sponsor it or buy tickets, other than those who think professional wrestling is real. They want to compete in their adopted gender without even having to admit that they are trans, because that’s how they will win events. Besides, if Lia Thomas had to compete in a trans category, who would he swim against?

    3. We have many categories. They make up the Paralympics. Of course there aren’t enough swimmers who lost their left leg to a landmine to have have a whole event, so some committee has the unenviable job of deciding which category to rank each guy in, compared to the guys missing one arm… and so on. This is precisely the right ranking mechanism, and it seems to basically work, many people compete hard and are proud of what they win. There’s no reason that people with unusual medical histories shouldn’t be slotted into this.

      Of course these races don’t have quite the TV viewership of the 49%-of-humanity categories, but they do have significant support. Everyone is scrupulous about being positive about this, not describing it as a “freakshow” (and I think this is great). So in a way, if someone like Phelps proposed this, it would be hard to call him names. If you did, you’d be insulting what’s almost another sacred category, the veterans and so on who compete in these events.

    4. Yes, many categories.
      I propose a pretty simple solution: if a Y chromosome (or even better an SRY gene) is present, you cannot complete in female events. They can have their own categories.
      These trans-‘women’ (especially if not ‘transitioned’, but in any case) are just cheats in my un-nuanced opinion.
      Note, I do not think male pseudohermaphrodites such as Dutee Chand, Caster Semenya, Margaret Wambui or Francine Niyonsaba are cheats: they grew up thinking they were women,but they still should not compete in women’s events.

  1. “Everyone decries doping, and mandates punishment for those like Lance Armstrong or Pete Rose who engage in it, but when the “dope” is testosterone and its lingering effects, well, no problem!”

    Pete Rose was banned for gambling. Is it true that he doped as well?

    1. To my knowledge, Pete Rose was never accused of doping. He got banned from baseball for gambling on ballgames. Now Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens …

  2. Michael Phelp’s stance here must be particularly galling to the Trans Rights Activists because he is their favorite analogy. It goes something like:

    “ You say it’s unfair to let transwomen compete in the Woman’s division but sports IS unfair! Look at Michael Phelps and his unusually long arms and feet. He was obviously born with an advantage — so do we take away his medals? We do NOT. Therefore, transwomen’s natural advantage is fair.”

    The Argument From Phelps implicitly rests on the assumption that transwomen are a kind of woman, not a kind of man. And that’s why drawing what seems to be a reasonable line (sports is about bodies, not identities) just isn’t going to work. Concept Creep has gone from “want to live as women” to “want to be women” to “are women.” And still it advances. The entire edifice is now riding on transwomen not just being women, but being essentially female.

    1. I’m comfortable with “are women” in the societal sense. It just makes no sense to assert it biologically. There are numerous sex-related health risk factors, diseases, etc. which don’t change based on your gender. It’s like that “SHINGLES DOESN’T CARE!!” commercial (on US TV); colon and breast cancer don’t care about your chosen gender. Along with that, there are numerous sex-related hormonal and developmental factors which don’t change based on your gender either. Muscle growth, etc.? Nature doesn’t care.

      1. Are you comfortable with “are woman” in the legal sense? Because most laws involving women’s spaces and rights are sex-based and are against sex discrimination. An adequate re-definition of woman would have to be both precise, and not rife with sexism.

        I’m comfortable with “can be treated as women in many social situations as a matter of courtesy.”

  3. We’re now at a point where people are required to lie out loud about their own views — and the views of probably 95% of the population — lest they be branded and harassed as bigots (and not just on this issue). It’s one thing to say, “treat transgender people with respect, as you would any other person,” but quite another to compel people to speech they don’t believe in. It’s the same with something like being forced to say you’re against any semblance of security at our border or deportation of people who illegally cross it — a view held by a significant majority of the populace (including an even more significant majority of Latinos!).

    It’s the same with being forced to feign support for BLM. I refuse to support that movement not because I don’t believe black lives matter, but for exactly the opposite reason: I believe there are many issues that need to be addressed for the black community, and that the movement and its activists are actively hurting them. When your group says things like “abolish/defund the police” and 80% of black people say they would be safer with more police in their communities; when your movement has months-long riots across the country that largely damage small businesses and public services in the areas where the people for whom they claim to speak actually live, then you can’t claim to be speaking for that community. You can’t claim to be speaking for the benefit of a community when that community is saying, “please, please stop doing this. You’re hurting us.” But would I say that in the environment in which I currently work? Nope. I’m liable to be fired, and/or worse.

    Diversity statements to get jobs (shades of McCarthyite and post-9/11 loyalty oaths); being denounced by your department and having your life destroyed by angry activists and students if you step out of line at school; being forced to act like you agree with policy positions you don’t whenever you’re in public; being forced to espouse the most up-to-date narrative on transgender participation in sports, despite 95% of people disagreeing with that narrative. Speech is now being compelled through the use of “soft” power, and it’s scary as hell.

    This is what happens when entire cultural institutions are captured by one side, rather than representing and having in their ranks people with diverse political views, and now those institutions are wielding that power like a bludgeon and using it to try and mold workplaces, schools, and the coming generations in their image. And they’re using it to further drive a wedge into our nation’s populace, ensuring that there really are only two extreme and highly damaging sides, that there is no middle ground, and that we accelerate toward a dystopic fight for control. I know a lot of people who voted for Trump solely because they thought he would be the best way to push back against this garbage (they freely admit to being very wrong about that), and it has only become 1,000 times worse since 2016. They’re intelligent people who were tired of this garbage. Now they and people like me who have voted for Democrats their entire lived don’t know what to do, because both sides are so abhorrent to them, and there’s nobody to speak for the middle, which is where most of the country actually stands! We’re being given a choice between two different flavors of hate and lies. Where do we go from here?!?

    Sorry for the rant. This whole idea of compelled political speech is just so frightening to me.

    1. Do what I’m going to do: hold your nose and vote Democrat. Yes, the Democrats are bad, but the Republicans are beneath contempt — and much more dangerous to the future of the country.

      1. Oh, I didn’t mean to suggest I won’t. But if we don’t have a viable third party to speak for the center soon, I fear we’re doomed.

        Also, I wouldn’t vote for a Democrat if I lived in, say, Rashida Tlaib or Ilhan Omar’s districts. And if “The Squad” and their minions manage to take over the Party and make it explicitly anti-Israel and a thinly veiled antisemitic party, then I won’t be able to vote for them in good conscience anymore.

        Uncle Joe was supposed to be the guy who brought the Party back to the center, but he’s proving to be a pushover. At this point, I don’t even know if he makes any decisions, or if the people around him do. I don’t even know how, erm, “present” he is, mentally. Kamala Harris couldn’t have been a worse pick for VP. The Party was clearly looking at the immediate benefit of being able to claim the first “woman of color” VP. As usual, they weren’t even thinking four years ahead, because she sure as hell can’t win a run for President. She’s has the charisma of a wet sack of gravel, and the policy positions and principles of the wind.

        1. Keep in mind that only one of the two major US political parties even so much as worries about its extremists. The other party has completely capitulated to its extremists (or to those who feel themselves compelled to toe the extremist line for fear of drawing an even more extreme primary opponent). Non-extremists have been driven from the Republican Party, or at least completely marginalized. The GOP no longer has a fringe; it is the fringe.

  4. Pete Rose didn’t ‘dope’ … He bet on his own games. Barry Bonds, Danny Sosa, Roger Clemons et.al werebdopers.

  5. As for the “NCAA guidelines claim, “many people may have a stereotype that all….”, I am seeing a similar tactic used frequently these days.

    One of the first examples I remember was the debunking of the claim that “Three Syrian Refugees Rape Little Girl at Knifepoint”. WaPo wrote that the story was “all false”. In reality, the three were not Syrian, they were Eritrean and Iraqi. There was no knife. One of the three did not touch the girl. He just filmed it and instructed the others.
    The original report on the incident, from a witness who intervened, did not mention the knife or speculate on the national origin of the boys. But as the story spread on social media, people apparently embellished the story. The distorted facebook version was the one debunked, although the actual events were at least as horrifying as the facebook version, and the only parts debunked were the added details, like the Syrian claim. It is pretty clear that the idea was to imply that the whole thing was false, without specifically making that claim.

    They want to give you a particular and incorrect impression of the events, while using words and phrases that might be parsed as technically correct, should they end up in a libel court or otherwise need to defend the story.

    In the current case, they might defend it by claiming that although it has since been proven that biological men have a strength advantage, the article was written to dispel the myth that “all transgender women are unusually tall and… more highly skilled..”.

    If there are numerous claims that trans athletes are taller or more highly skilled than female athletes, I certainly have not heard it.

    1. Yes, that is a tactic frequently used by the non-neutral quality media. The main thrust of a claim they criticize is actually right. but they refute some details or some overblown specific form or wording of the claim and then pretend they have refuted the main argument. Maybe it could be classified as a variant of the motte and bailey tactic.

  6. “The NCAA rules have equally little science—that is, zero. It is an attempt to look scientific without actually having the relevant data.” Or, in other words, the NCAA is Scientific American. In regard to MacPherson’s Law, could that generalization be distantly related to MacPherson’s Lament? In the latter, after all, the condemned highwayman claims that it was a woman who got him captured.

  7. I have never understood the insistence that transwomen may not be differentiated from cis women in any context or for any purpose, even though the word transwoman exists and corresponds to a definable concept. If sex is a spectrum and not binary, as so many activists insist, why can’t transwoman be a cis-woman-adjacent category that gets differential treatment in the rare contexts where this is necessary/defensible? Individual and group rights always need to be weighted against other peoples’ rights, and if women’s rights are endangered by transwomen’s rights in some contexts, there is no natural law that says transwomen win and women’s rights need to be waived.

    1. The natural law simply states that adult XYs, whether cis or trans, have strong upper-body muscles and hard fists, and aren’t afraid to use them to get what they want. It is useful for them to insist that they are women. And so they do. They couldn’t care less about women’s rights, except those they can coattail on — like efforts to advance women in business and academe and other zero-sum games.

      They know that most people regard the idea as absurd, so they double down on intimidation to cow us into silence, as in The Emperor’s New Clothes.

      Remember that the trans activists protesting outside June Rowling’s home aren’t a bunch of spunky little Hermiones (or even the grown-up Emma Watson, who turns out to be a nasty piece of work. Ingrate.). They are an angry male mob.

  8. In related news of the athletic world, the following report is circulating on the web: “Australians are great tennis players. They really know how to return a Serb.”

  9. I appreciate Jerry keeping this issue front and center on WEIT, because we’re at the beginning of this cultural development and sorely need the science to inform our policy making. And it’s here at the mention of science that I’d like to go off on a tangent that is nonetheless germane to this issue, that is, the medical science of aging transgendered people. As Jerry pointed out, though trans people are currently a small minority of the populace, they are growing in numbers. I reflect that there have been enough transgendered, known to me both from the news and from my personal acquaintance, in my almost seventy years on this planet that there is now enough data to build a good knowledge base to study the effects of aging on trans people. I’m thinking of those older trans celebrities, such as Renee Richards, Wendy Carlos, or Rachel Levine, but I’m also thinking of my acquaintance, a transwoman, who I’ve known for twenty years. I first met this acquaintance shortly after she had transitioned, and I must say that she struck me as an attractive woman at the time. We used to see each other regularly in the first few years of us working together, and since parting ways, we’ve encountered each other from time to time in the ensuing decades, during which I’ve watched her age into her senior years. Considering her case and the cases of other senior transwomen, it seems to me obvious that transwomen age differently than ciswomen. (I’m using this term as shorthand.) In fact, I’d say they age more like men. If this is true, then it gives more weight to Jerry’s statement that the effects of testosterone during puberty may be permanent. And so I have begun to monitor the geriatrics of trans people.

      1. Not sure, Mark. I think in this instance continued suppression of testosterone would be a saving grace–saving hair, that is. 😉

    1. And in another tangent which may also be germane to the issue, I’ve read that there’s interesting reports regarding what happens when trans people get dementia: they identify again with their birth sex and sometimes show great distress at the now unexpected modifications done to their bodies.

      If this is true, it gives less weight to the claim that the supposed mismatch between their gender identity and body is innate, and something they’ve always known from birth. And that addresses the question of which team they belong on.

  10. Good example of McPherson’s Law: blackface is despicable heresy — disgusting and obscene — but drag queens are fabulous! Aren’t drag queens exactly the equivalent on women as Stepin Fetchit was on Black men — a comic and contemptuous denigration of the stereotypes?

    1. I don’t know how that would be viewed in the future, but I’ve understood that drag queens want to dress up as women. They don’t fall in the traditional cis binary, and so they are afforded considerable leeway.

    2. Blackface can be done, well.. perhaps not tastefully, but with some sensitivity. I liked Tropic Thunder, in which R. Downey jr’s character did not in the least make fun of anyone except actors who take themselves too seriously. In Finian’s Rainbow, Kennan Wynn used it to mock racism.
      Some things are automatically railed against by people who do not care to look at nuance, or even exactly who, if anyone, is being mocked.
      Also, trans people generally intensely dislike drag folks. Drag performers tend to not take themselves very seriously, while trans people almost always do. Probably for the same reason that some people hate all blackface. They feel that sex (or race), particularly their own, is nothing to be joked about. I am sure there is a self deprecating trans comedian somewhere, but most trans people do not see it as a laughing matter.

  11. Yes, different categories, I’m fine with that.
    I propose a very simple solution to this problem: if a Y chromosome, or even better, the SRY gene, no competition in female games. Gets rid of this hormone controversy too.
    I think, in my un-nuanced opinion that trans ‘women’ competing in female sports are cheats, I repeat: cheats.. The comparison to taking performance enhancing drugs is apt, as our host pointed out.
    They say they are females ’emprisoned’ in a male body, and a male body on average and extremes has an advantage over female bodies in sports. If they had a shred of honesty they should ‘recuse’ themselves.
    Note, I think the male pseudo-hermaphodites such as Caster Semenya, Margaret Wambui, Dutee Chand or Francine Niyonsaba are not cheats: they grew up thinking they were women. Still, they should not compete in women’s events.
    Male pseudohermaphrodites are pretty rare, but we find a lot of them in women’s sports. Why is that? The answer is obvious, I’d say.

  12. I believe you have a typo in the following paragraph. Shouldn’t it be “men to women transitioning”?

    More important, the problem may be small now, but given the magnitude of women to men transitioning—far more frequent than the other way round—it’s going to be a much bigger problem in the future.

  13. Could someone explain to me why the woke are so forgiving of Islam, where they don’t seem to care much at all about Christians, Jews, etc.? Followers of Islam seem to be the opposite of woke.

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