Sports Illustrated highlights Lia Thomas and the swimming controversy

March 6, 2022 • 12:00 pm

We all know now about Lia Thomas, the transgender swimmer born a biological male but who transitioned after puberty. After swimming for the University of Pennsylvania’s men’s team for a time, she decided to take hormone blockers, and now swims on the women’s team.

While her performance on the men’s team was so-so, Thomas has become famous by cleaning up after joining the women’s team, breaking record after record and beating her opponents by substantial times. She may well break the records of famous women swimmers like Katie Ledecky and Missy Franklin.

It is clear why Thomas was so-so on the men’s team but a champion on the women’s. Biological males differ from biological females in many ways that make them faster swimmers and better athletes in nearly every sport. As I quoted here from another source:

The secondary sex characteristics acquired during puberty in preparation for reproduction lead to measurably different body morphs between males and females (“sexual dimorphism”) across many physical parameters. Broadly, when compared with females, males are taller and have longer bones with narrower hips and wider shoulders; have lower body fat and higher muscle mass differentially distributed across sites, with more resistant connective tissue; have larger hearts and lungs, and higher levels of haemoglobin, the protein that carries oxygen within the blood.

These translate into performance advantages in nearly every sport, including swimming.

It’s also clear from recent research (see here, for instance), that many of these advantages are acquired at puberty, and even hormone-blocking after puberty (testosterone suppression) won’t eliminate either physical or performance advantages of males, even after three years of treatment. (The International Olympic Committee used to require only one year of hormone suppression.) While Thomas has had several years of hormone suppression, she still shows the physical advantages acquired as a male who experienced puberty, and there’s little doubt that these advantages are making her a champion.

To deny the above is to deny reality. Thomas’s new record of victory largely reflects the physical and phsiological advantages over women she gained at puberty. While she identifies as a woman (and should be treated as such in nearly every area save sport), she is winning with the advantages gained as a male. This should be uncontroversial to anybody who knows the facts.

Yet it is controversial, but for one reason only: transsexuals are regarded as oppressed people and oppression means valorization. “If Thomas identifies as a woman,” the argument goes, “then she should be treated as a woman in every way, including sport.” Those who argue against transwomen competing in women’s sports use ideological rather than scientific arguments, and the result is that people get upset over the palpable unfairness to cis-women athletes. Recognizing transwomen as equivalent to biological women in every respect will, in the end, destroy women’s sports.

This of course is a sore spot for Thomas herself, who identifies as a woman and wants to swim, and on the woman’s team. Her repeated victories have upset a lot of people, some for good reason. Yet Thomas is also a sympathetic figure in many ways, as outlined in her new profile in Sports Illustrated. (Click on screenshot to read.)

Overall this is generally a good article, and properly sympathetic to the opprobrium that Thomas has received as a person. It’s odious to direct hatred at someone who feels she is a woman in every way and wants to swim as one. The proper thing to do is hash out the biological facts (now fairly well known) and then cooly and rationally discuss what to do about them vis-à-vis men’s versus women’s sport. That is not what is happening because of mantra “trans women are women” pretty much shuts down all discussion.

But reading this article, one cannot help but feel for Thomas after seeing things like this:

Thomas has been threatened and called so many names online that she turned off some direct messaging on her Instagram. She avoids mentions of her name online, especially comment sections. She told her parents not to engage in the fight. She asked her friends to stand down. She won’t criticize teammates she knows are rooting against her. “I don’t look into the negativity and the hate,” she says. “I am here to swim.”

Every day this season felt like a challenge to her humanity. Part of her wanted people to know her journey to this moment, to know what it felt like to be in a body but not be of that body. She wanted people to know what it was like to finally live an authentic life and what it meant for her to finish a race, to look up at a timing board and see the name lia thomas next to the names of other women. What it meant to her to stand on a podium with other women and be counted as an equal.

There’s no doubting her sincerity and frustration at the arguments swirling around her. She says she’s a woman and wants to swim as one, which sounds simple. But of course it’s not. It is those physical advantages of being born a male and gone through puberty that have largely made her a champion—advantages that will accrue not just to her, but to nearly all transwomen who want to play on women’s teams. And it’s hard to discuss this issue in the abstract without mentioning her name. But she is an exemplar of a new phenomenon, not a freak.

Many people feel like this person:

“We support Lia as a trans woman and hope she leads a happy and productive life, because that’s what she deserves,” one parent of a Penn swimmer says. “What we can’t do is stand by while she rewrites records and eliminates biological women from this sport. If we don’t speak up here, it’s going to happen in college after college. And then women’s sports, as we know it, will no longer exist in this country.”

I share these sentiments, not not quite as apocalyptically. But Thomasrejected these sentiments, in her one statement to which I object (emphasis is mine):

“It’s mean,” one Penn parent who identifies as a progressive but opposes Thomas’s eligibility says of the online and media bigotry directed at her. “Lia is a human being who deserves to be treated with respect and dignity. But it’s not transphobic to say I disagree with where she’s swimming.”

That argument is disingenuous to Thomas. There is no such thing as half-support: Either you back her fully as a woman or you don’t. “The very simple answer is that I’m not a man,” she says. “I’m a woman, so I belong on the women’s team. Trans people deserve that same respect every other athlete gets.”

No, the argument is not disingenuous, and yes, there is such a thing as “partial support”. You can fully support Thomas’s desire to transition, to be regarded as a woman, to be treated with respect and accorded moral and legal equality, and yet not support the “right” for her to swim on women’s team.” The question is not one of “respect,” but of fairness to others. Thomas, of course, won’t address her physical advantages, as that would be playing into the hands of her opponents.

Those who oppose her swimming for Penn include a substantial number of her teammates, who of course will not go public on the issue:

The Quakers’ women’s roster has 37 swimmers. Those close to the team estimate that Thomas has six to eight adamant supporters, maybe half the team opposes her competing against other women and the rest have steered clear of the debate. An unsigned letter, which the university said represented “several” Penn swimmers and was released through the school in early February, said Thomas was “value[d] as a person, teammate and friend” and took aim at the stories circulating about her. “The sentiments put forward by an anonymous member of our team are not representative of the feelings, values and opinions of the entire Penn team.”

Two days later, 16 Penn teammates sent an unsigned letter to Ivy League officials, requesting that Thomas be held out of the conference championship meet. The letter was organized by Nancy Hogshead-Makar, an Olympic gold medalist who heads Champion Women, a women’s sports advocacy group that focuses on Title IX issues. “If [Thomas] were to be eligible to compete,” the letter read, “she could now break Penn, Ivy and NCAA women’s swimming records; feats she could never have done as a male athlete.” The Ivy League later issued an unequivocal statement that Thomas would be allowed to swim.

What is to be done in this case? The NCAA, which regulates college sports, has proposed a solution that, in view of the difficulties of implementing it, seems unworkable:

Four days before the video call, the NCAA essentially punted on the issue of transgender athlete eligibility. Previously, the organization had a uniform access policy based on a minimum one-year hormone therapy requirement. But in January the NCAA pushed eligibility guidelines to each sport’s national governing body. That meant USA Swimming would decide on Thomas’s ability to swim in the NCAA championships.

USA Swimming released new guidelines Feb. 1, laying out a series of requirements and establishing a three-person medical panel to determine whether transgender women have “a competitive advantage over the athlete’s cisgender female competitors.” The new guidelines set a ceiling testosterone level of five nanomoles per liter—half the threshold used by previous Olympic rules—that transgender athletes would need to register, continuously, for 36 months before applying to swim as a woman.

It seems as if there are two parts here: the hormone requirement and “whether the athlete has a competitive advantage over cisgender female competitors”. The hormone requirement will not answer the question of competitive advantage, and it’s hard to see how, at this point, any research will. Even the Olympics has, for the moment, rescinded its rule on transgender athletes and has no rule in place at all. How on earth can you assess a transsexual athlete like Thomas and decide whether she has a “competitive advantage over cisgender females”?

Well, the question can be answered partly by one’s performance swimming as a man against men and swimming as a transgender woman against women. And the answer is, “Yes, she has a competitive advantage.” So whatever her hormone levels, the two-part rule applied in toto suggests she should not be swimming on a women’s team.  But many trans athletes lack such a cisgender performance record to serve as a “control”, and there the “performance advantage” criterion is useless.

In view of our inability to judge whether a transgender woman without this control has a competitive athletic advantage over cisgender women, I and others have proposed solutions: having two leagues, “cis-women” and “other”; or three leagues “biological men,” “biological women”, and “other”. Alternatively just use the same two categories of “men” and “women,” but stipulate that all transgender people must compete on men’s teams. There are problems of stigmatization here, of course, and no solution is perfect, but the least perfect solution is to ignore what we know about science and impose dubious tests on “hormone titer” (known, in fact, not to work) or “competitive advantage” (impossible to judge in a transgender athlete.) Short of having the kind of “control” that Thomas’s performance as a man competing against men versus as a transwoman competing against women, I see no way forward.

The Sports Illustrated article, as I said, is good. I was expecting a “woke”piece denigrating those who object to Thomas’s swimming on the women’s team, but that is not the piece that Sanchez wrote. His is much better than I expected. Yet there remain two statements by the author that make me think that his piece is indeed taking the view that athletes like Thomas should compete on women’s teams.

The first is this (my bolding).

This had been a season unlike any in her 22 years, and unlike any in the history of her sport. The shy senior economics major from Austin became one of the most dominant college athletes in the country and, as a result, the center of a national debate—a living, breathing, real-time Rorschach test for how society views those who challenge conventions.

No, that is not what the debate, at least for people like me, is about, for it implies that denying Thomas’s right to swim goes along with being “transphobic.” It is a “Rorschach test” on only one issue: what criteria should we use to determine who plays on men’s versus women’s teams? Science or gender identity? It is not a Rorschach test about whether or not one accepts the identity and value of transsexual people—who do challenge conventions and should be accepted just as gay people have been accepted.

This statement, though, angers me more:

On Dec. 5, two days after the Ohio meet, some Penn swim parents sent a letter to the NCAA asking that Thomas be ruled ineligible for women’s competitions. The arguments would soon become familiar to Thomas. Her puberty gave her an advantage over other female competitors. Science allegedly showed trans women had larger hands and feet, bigger hearts and greater bone density and lung capacity.

Allegedly“?  There is no “allegedly” here. The science is of course far from complete, but it does show without a doubt that trans women who transition after puberty retain  some of the physical and physiological features that give men an athletic edge. Does author Robert Sanchez know those data? If so, why does he cast doubt on them? That is disingenuous. If he doesn’t know them, shame on him for ignorance.  “Allegedly” is a word Sanchez uses to denigrate the science used to support the case that Thomas has an unfair athletic advantage.

It is a sign of the times that debating the participation of trans athletes in sports has become a largely taboo topic, for if you bring up the fairness issue or the science itself you are deemed a “transphobe”: a term designed to shut down honest debate about the serious issue of men’s versus women’s sports (serious enough, at least, to help engender the Title IX Act).

Thomas is simply wrong in asserting that “there is no such thing as half-support: Either you back [me] fully as a woman or you don’t.” She accepts no half measures. And if that’s her view, then I reject it, because “fully” means “as a woman athlete as well”. There are many people who offer nearly full support to Thomas (not half but 95% support, I’d say), and those folks include both me and the Penn parents quoted above. Can’t people see that being empathic towards transwomen and supporting their gender identity need not include also regarding them as biological women on every single issue?

Suzy Weiss on swimmer Lia Thomas, and the chilling of dissent

February 21, 2022 • 10:30 am

Suzi Weiss now and then takes a turn on her sister Bari’s Substack column “Common Sense”, and this week recounts her trip to watch transgender swimmer Lia Thomas compete in the Ivy League swimming championships at Harvard. You can read the column for free (I think) by clicking on the screenshot, but be sure to subscribe if you read regularly:

I’ve been critical of the authorities allowing Thomas, a transgender woman, compete against other women swimmers, for she clearly has a big physical and physiological advantage over biological women swimmers, having nabbed several important victories. Although Thomas has been taking testosterone-blocking hormones, she began transitioning after puberty, and apparently retains her male bits (see article). In fact, her hormone levels violate the NCAA guidelines for this year. But because the regulations were passed after Thomas began competing on the Penn’s women’s team, she’s been grandfathered in (is that the right phrase?).

But although I think that Thomas, with her inherent biological advantages—advantages that appear to be maintained for at least three years after hormone suppression—should not be able to compete on the women’s team, that doesn’t mean I lack sympathy for her. It’s a hard road she’s chosen, and for sure she’s not doing it just to win championships. She swam for the Penn’s men team before transitioning, and clearly loves to swim. Granted, she didn’t stand out as a male swimmer, but surely nobody does these things to their bodies just to win medals—medals that will surely always be questioned.  The best I can do is, while maintaining the moral and political equality of all transgender people, and also ask that their preferences (gender, pronouns and the like) be respected, also argue that it’s still unfair for trans women to compete against biological women in sport. It’s unfair and, if this continues, is likely, it will turn women’s sports into a mess, or destroy them completely. Apparently most parents of Penn women swimmers, as well as most of those swimmers themselves, feel the situation is unfair, but the swimmers have been somewhat silenced (see below).

The solution that most readers and I have hit on is to either have three categories (“men”, “women”, and “other”), which seems cruel, or keep the same two categories, with only biological women able to compete in women’s sports but anybody allowed to compete in men’s sports (a “men+ league?”). But that isn’t perfect, either, as both transgender women and men will have athletic disadvantages against biological men.

But I adamantly reject the label “transphobe” for people who think about this situation and decide that Thomas’s competing against biological women is unfair. But, as you’ll see, it’s that label, used in the same way the label “racist” is in discussions of equity, that strikes fear into people’s hearts and makes them shut up. Is it also “transphobic” to criticize the participation of medically untreated biological men in women’s sports, if those men identify as women?  That’s allowed in several places and appears to be the Biden Administration’s position, as well as that of the ACLU. But surely it’s not “fear of transsexual people” that motivates most of the people pushing back against the participation of people like Thomas.

A few quotes from Weiss (indented), which I’ve summarized into four categories:

The background:

Thomas, 22-years-old and a fifth-year senior, is the star swimmer on the Penn women’s team—and a transgender athlete who swam for her first three years on the men’s. The tallest swimmer on her team by at least a head, she has to crouch a little to get in the Quakers’ huddle.

Thomas started making headlines in early December, when, at the Zippy Invitational in Akron, she set two national records in the 500- and 200-yard freestyle events. She beat her closest competitor, another Penn swimmer, in the 1,650-yard freestyle by 38 seconds. Since then, she has continued to smash records.

Lia Thomas isn’t just a swimmer. She’s become a totem in the culture wars, making abstract debates—about the tradeoffs between inclusion and fairness, about the tension between identity versus biology, and about the complications of treating sex as a mental fact and not a chromosomal one—real and radioactive. Her presence—and dominance—in the water has been confounding observers and many of the parents gathered at the Harvard pool to watch the Ivies. They wonder whether they are witnessing the beginning of the end of women’s sports.

. . . Thomas, an economics major with a minor in classics, is from Austin and started swimming at the age of five. When she swam on the men’s team, Thomas never made it to the NCAA Championship. Now, Thomas is seeded number one in the league and is poised to give Katie Ledecky a run for her money next month at the NCAA championships.

Believe me, if Thomas beats Katie Ledecky in any event at the NCAA championships, this is going to blow up big time, for Ledecky, just 24, is regarded by many as the best woman swimmer in American history/ From her Wikipedia entry:

Kathleen Genevieve Ledecky (born March 17, 1997) is an American competitive swimmer. Having won 7 Olympic gold medals and 15 world championship gold medals, the most in history for a female swimmer, she is considered one of the greatest swimmers of all time. Ledecky is the world record holder in the women’s 400-, 800-, and 1500-meter freestyle (long course). She also holds the fastest-ever times in the women’s 500-, 1000-, 1500-, and 1650-yard freestyle events.

The NCAA’s ruling:

Most parents in the stands lay [the controversy] at the feet of the NCAA. They had expected that the NCAA would impose some clarity. Instead, in January, the NCAA announced that when it came to transgender athletes, it would defer to the governing bodies of each and every sport. Three weeks ago, U.S.A. Swimming announced its new guidelines, which are pretty extensive. For example, a transwoman now has to have her testosterone tested, and clear the 5-nanomoles-per-liter threshold for 36 months. This apparently caught the NCAA by surprise, prompting the organization to double back and announce that it would be unfair to transgender swimmers to implement the new U.S.A. Swimming guidelines this late in the game.

All this means that Thomas will get to compete at the NCAA championships next month. And that the parents of the female swimmers she’s trouncing are very annoyed.

Pushback and debate about biological differences between men and women.

Carole Hooven, the co-director at Harvard’s Department of Human Evolutionary Biology and the author of the book “T: The Story of Testosterone, the Hormone that Dominates and Divides Us,” is an expert on the biological differences between men and women. Hooven notes a few of the differences, on average, between those who have gone through male puberty and those who have not: taller heights and longer wingspans, larger bones, and hearts, greater lung capacity, the structure of male-adapted muscles that are easier to build and harder to lose, and lean body mass. Some of these traits can be tamped down with drugs. Others can’t.

“Men don’t have an advantage over women because of one of these factors, but all of them put together,” Hooven says.

“It is not fair for women to race against transgender Lia Thomas,” tweeted female tennis champion Martina Navratilova recently. Diana Nyad, the legendary female swimmer who is the only person to swim between Florida and Cuba unaided, wrote in The Washington Post that “no amount of analysis can erase male puberty’s advantages. Perhaps a fairer plan is to give competitions a new ‘open’ classification: Cisgender, transgender, intersex—all are welcome.”

. . . and from the women swimmers:

I’m told that the Princeton girls are “freaking out.” Sixteen Penn swimmers sent a letter to Penn and the Ivy League urging them to uphold USA Swimming’s decision, which set forth much stricter guidelines for trans athletes than the NCAA’s. Three hundred other swimmers sent another letter to the NCAA in support of Thomas. There have been a ton of statements, too, from Penn (“Penn Athletics is committed to being a welcoming and inclusive environment for all our student athletes”); Michael Phelps (“sports should be played on an even playing field”); and Caitlyn Jenner (“We cannot have biological boys competing against women. It’s bad for the trans community”).

The Penn parents tell me there’s yet another letter coming down the pike, this one organized by them with the help of former Olympian Nancy Hogshead-Makar, which argues that Thomas’s participation is unfair. That one has 3,000 signatures, including from more than 100 olympians and Hall of Fame swimming coaches.

Silencing of dissenters. This to me is the most disturbing part of the issue. Certainly the participation of transgender athletes in various leagues is an issue not only worth debating, but one that must be debated, for it speaks to important principles of fairness, much less to Title IX regulations meant to give men and women parity in education, including sports. At that time the issue of transgender athletes wasn’t envisioned.  Now I can understand why the other Penn women swimmers wouldn’t want to publicly

But the Penn couple thinks that Thomas’s comfort has come at the expense of their own daughters’ who they say have received “veiled threats” from the university when it comes to speaking out. At the meet, the announcer opens with a warning against “racist, homophobic, or transphobic discrimination.”

So it is no surprise that not one of the swimmers would speak to me; nor have they spoken on the record to any other reporter. It’s not that they haven’t considered it. “One of the swimmers on their team called my daughter and asked if they were to put out a statement, if the Harvard swimmers would too,” a Harvard dad told me on Friday night.

. . . One of the Penn moms says her own daughter warned her against speaking out. “She’s worried about getting into grad school, and she doesnt want my name or hers to come up on Google attached to this.” (Her daughter is hoping to get a graduate degree in biology.)

The parents say their daughters know it’s wrong that Thomas is swimming against them but that they will not risk getting smeared with the label transphobe.

What about Mike Schnur, the Penn’s coach, who is wearing a mask with a trans flag on Saturday night, where Thomas swims in the 100 yard freestyle? “Politically, he’s as conservative as they come,” says a Penn dad. “He just loves winning and loves his job.”

It’s this kind of censorship that stifles discussion around an important issue, and it’s fear of the label “transphobe” that keeps people from giving their opinions.  What Woke people have discovered is that they can silence their opponents with simply a single word denoting bigotry. Or, in the case of Coach Schnur, a single design on a mask.

The rest of us have no such power—only reasoned arguments, which opponents are determined to ignore.

BBC segment on transwomen in female sports

February 13, 2022 • 11:15 am

This 9-minute BBC show on testosterone, sport, and transwomen athletes (below), won’t tell you much more than the posts I’ve put up on this topic, but the show does have the cachet of an expert weighing in. And he says what I’ve also extracted from the published research: once a biological male has gone through puberty, and then transitions to the female gender, even the use of testosterone antagonists for up to three years can’t produce a “level playing field”. That’s because puberty, with its surge of testosterone, helps give biological males the skeletal, muscular, and physiological differences from women that confer a performance advantage in sports.

Moreover, research shows that these morphological and physiological differences remain even after three years (the former Olympic regulations mandates low testosterone for only a year), and translate into performance advantages, though there isn’t yet much research on the performance part. What research there is shows the athletic advantages mirror the remaining biological differences.

The narrator concludes, properly, that it will take years to sort out the biology and performance issues that can possibly create a “level playing field.” In my view, we either wait for those data, which may never be forthcoming given how hard it is to collect them, or create a two-category sports system: “biological women” and “everybody else”. (The latter sounds a bit crass and insensitive, but I don’t know what to call it.)

The program ends with the narrator adding, correctly, that some say that trans athletes of any sort “should be able to compete in whatever category they choose.” Those groups who so far seem to favor medically untreated trans women being able to compete against cis women (or “biological women”) include the ACLU, the Biden administration, and several states that specify gender as “what one identifies as”, with no medical intervention needed. (In Connecticut, for example, if you say you identify as a woman, you can compete in women’s sports, period.)These groups, while motivated by an admirable desire to support the marginalized, are creating a greater unfairness to athletes of an entire biological sex

I will do the usual throat-clearing: in all other ways that I can imagine, trans women (or trans men) should have the legal and moral rights of everybody else. But I reject the notion that my view (the one advanced here and by the BBC expert) is “transphobic.”

Click below, and then on the right-pointing arrow to hear the segment. But do it quickly, as I think the Beeb takes down its shows quickly.

h/t: Jean

USA Swimming announces new policy for transgender swimmers

February 3, 2022 • 10:15 am

The success of transgender female swimmer Lia Thomas, who competes for the University of Pennsylvania, has caused a lot of polarization. On one hand there are those, like the state of Connecticut and the ACLU, who think that it’s okay if a biological male competes against biological females if that person simply declares themselves to have a female gender. No surgery or hormone treatement are required.

On the other hand are those who argue that no transgender woman should ever compete in woman’s sports, as they have an inherent biological advantage that makes the playing field “unlevel”.

On the third hand we have people like me who say that it’s possible that you could level the playing field, but that would be nearly impossible to do, for how do you ensure that all the advantages of bone density, physiology, and musculature that males acquire at puberty are effaced by the rules? This requires a kind of research that has been done only a little, and what research there is suggests that the solution will be complicated and probably not congenial to transgender women athletes.

We are, of course, not talking about transgender men competing against biological men, which is not much of an issue except in rugby, where World Rugby, which has completely banned transgender women from playing in women’s rugby, still allows transgender men to play men’s (and sometimes women’s) rugby under these conditions:

Transgender men may play men’s rugby having provided confirmation of physical ability. Transgender men may not play women’s rugby after the process of sex reassignment has begun, if this reassignment includes supplementation with testosterone

The International Olympic Committee used to have a rule that transgender women could compete in women’s events so long as they maintained a testosterone titer of no more than 10 nanomoles/liter of blood for 12 months before competition. (The normal ranges for cis biological men are 8.8–30.9 nanomoles/liter while female testosterone ranges from 0.4–2.0 nmol/liter. These distributions are nonoverlapping from puberty into adulthood.)

Recent research, which I’ve covered here and here, however, shows that the IOC regulations aren’t sufficient, even with three years of testosterone treatment, for biological males acquire a competitive (and performance) advantage at puberty that isn’t effaced by testosterone treatment. This led the IOC to ditch its regulation, and it hasn’t yet replaced it with a new one.

Imagine the research it would take to show what kind of treatment transgender women would need to “level the playing field”, and how would we even know when the playing field is level? The experimentation it would take to show that (testing performance of many transgender female athletes medically treated in different ways) is not only impractical, but seems unethical. Because of this, some people (including me) have suggested that, without this kind of knowledge, all transgender athletes might compete in an “open” third league, or allow all transgender athletes, of whatever gender, to compete in men’s sports (the rugby issue of injury, however, may bar this for some sports). A third solution was suggested below by a Canadian study.

The disadvantage of the first solution is that athletes in the “third” gender league would probably feel stigmatized. But I, for one, would rate the fairness issue as higher than the possibility of stigmatization.  The issue of transgender women entering women’s sports will only grow over time, and you can’t dismiss it as a “trivial issue.” It’s not trivial for biological women who feel cheated by the performance advantage of transgender women. A long report by the MacDonald-Laurier Institute in Canada, with both athletes and experts of both sexes on the advisory board, concludes this:

For this reason, it seems to us that fairness in sport can be achieved with the removal, as far as is possible, of gender identifiers in sport, and the reconceptualization of the male category as “Open” and the women’s category as “Female” where female refers to the sex recorded at birth. In this, we broadly support the policy proposals included in the Sports Councils’ Equality Group report (SCEG 2021). We urge national and international sports organizations, in Canada and beyond, to develop a similar policy.

That is one possible solution, and readers here have also suggested it. It would, of course force Lea Thomas to compete in the “open” category against biological men. But at least no hormone treatment is required if a biological woman who transitions to the male gender wants to compete with others.

None of this, of course, is to imply that transgender individuals should be treated differently from cisgender individuals in a legal or moral sense, or discriminated against or treated uncivilly in society. Sports is one of those rare areas, however, where you have to consider differential treatment of cisgender and transgender individuals. To do so is not to be “transphobic”, and I totally reject that adjective applied to discussions like this one.

In light of Lia Thomas’s success, and her lack of success when she competed as a man, USA Swimming, which has over 400,000 members, has just released a new policy about transgender swimmers, described in the NBC News and BBC articles below (click on screenshots):




The new policy, which you can find here, has this rationale:

The development of the elite policy therefore acknowledges a competitive difference in the male and female categories and the disadvantages this presents in elite head-to-head competition. This is supported by statistical data that shows that the top-ranked female in 2021, on average, would be ranked 536th across all short course yards (25 yards) male events in the country and 326th across all long course meters (50 meters) male events in the country, among USA Swimming members. The policy therefore supports the need for competitive equity at the most elite levels of competition.

While recognizing the need for the aforementioned guidelines in elite competition, sport is an important vehicle for positive physical and mental health, and, for this reason, USA Swimming remains steadfast in its continued commitment to greater inclusivity at the non-elite levels.

In order to balance these two priorities, specific guidelines have been developed for both non-elite and elite athletes and elite events. At the non-elite level, an inclusive process has been established by which an athlete can elect to change their competition category in order for them to experience the sport of swimming in a manner that is consistent with their gender identity and expression. At the elite level, a policy has been created for transgender athlete participation in the U.S. that relies on science and medical evidence-based methods to provide a level-playing field for elite cisgender women, and to mitigate the advantages associated with male puberty and physiology. Elite athletes shall include any athlete who has achieved a time standard and desires to participate in elite events as defined in the policy.

I take “competitive equity” to mean “a level playing field” i.e., no average performance advantage of transgender women over biological women in elite sports. And here are the official rules (my emphasis):

The elite athlete policy will be implemented by a decision-making panel comprised of three independent medical experts and eligibility criteria will consist of:

  • Evidence that the prior physical development of the athlete as a male, as mitigated by any medical intervention, does not give the athlete a competitive advantage over the athlete’s cisgender female competitors.
  • Evidence that the concentration of testosterone in the athlete’s serum has been less than 5 nmol/L (as measured by liquid chromatography coupled with mass spectrometry) continuously for a period of at least thirty-six (36) months before the date of application.

The two news articles above basically reiterate these rules and add other material, like a letter of support for Thomas that came some women on her team. Let’s just look at the rules, though.

The first criterion—evaluation by three experts that the athlete “does not [have] a competitive advantage over cisgender female competitors”— seems to me unworkable.  How do they determine that? No criteria are given. Perhaps you can say that the transgender woman hasn’t excelled in past competition against cisgender women so she shows no “competitive advantage”. But I doubt they’ll use that as a criterion, for I suspect the women who undergo this evaluation will be those like Lia Thomas, who have already shown a competitive advantage.

This first point surely needs more explicit explanation. Or they could use measurements like muscle mass and bone density, and physiology, showing that they’re no different between elite transgender and cisgender women athletes. But this would disqualify nearly all transgender women who are examined, for those traits remain different even after several years of hormone therapy (see below).

What about the 36 months of maintaining low testosterone? That seems unworkable too, at least in terms of leveling the playing field. If you read this recent paper in British Journal of Sports Medicine by Harper et al., you’ll see their conclusion (my emphases):

Results Twenty-four studies were identified and reviewed. Transwomen experienced significant decreases in all parameters measured, with different time courses noted. After 4 months of hormone therapy, transwomen have Hgb/HCT levels equivalent to those of cisgender women. After 12 months of hormone therapy, significant decreases in measures of strength, LBM and muscle area are observed. The effects of longer duration therapy (36 months) in eliciting further decrements in these measures are unclear due to paucity of data. Notwithstanding, values for strength, LBM and muscle area in transwomen remain above those of cisgender women, even after 36 months of hormone therapy.

Conclusion In transwomen, hormone therapy rapidly reduces Hgb to levels seen in cisgender women. In contrast, hormone therapy decreases strength, LBM and muscle area, yet values remain above that observed in cisgender women, even after 36 months. These findings suggest that strength may be well preserved in transwomen during the first 3 years of hormone therapy.

In other words, the data we have so far suggest that three years of hormone treatment isn’t long enough to efface the morphological and physiological advantages of transwomen over biological women. In other words, the second criterion of American swimming somewhat contradicts the first.

So this isn’t a solution, as it’s more or less subjective and not solidly based on data.

The more I think about it, the more I’m agreeing with the Canadian solution that we need two categories: “open” and “women”, the latter containing only biological wome). That way nobody is stigmatized by being in a third category. It’s not perfect, of course, because transwomen still have to compete against biological men, and if they have had hormone treatment, they’ll be at a disadvantage.  The fact is that no solution is fair to everyone, but this seems to be the fairest one I see—until we have more data on performance of transgender athletes.

As for Lia Thomas, I don’t know how she’ll fare under the new rules, or whether she’ll even be forced to abide by them.  In the end, I think this issue is as much a philosophical as an empirical one. What is the “fairest” way to treat everyone? I haven’t seen philosophers write on this—I might have missed some—but since the area is a minefield, I doubt that they’d want to touch it. But athletic organizations must, as the issue will only become more pressing.

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

Does suppression of testosterone reduce the athletic advantage of transwomen over biological women?

January 3, 2022 • 11:30 am

I want to begin by saying that the article we’ll discuss appeared in Quillette, and some have started dismissing everything published on that site as right-wing nonsense.  That’s a bad attitude. While I disagree with some of the things I read there, I agree with others, and that’s what should be the case for a site devoted to presenting “controversial” opinions. Lots of good people have published there, and it’s your loss if you ignore it. Plus, by spurning everything on the site, you’re committing the “genetic fallacy”, defined in Wikipedia and explained by Steve Pinker in his new book Rationality.  From Wikipedia:

The genetic fallacy (also known as the fallacy of origins or fallacy of virtue) is a fallacy of irrelevance that is based solely on someone’s or something’s history, origin, or source rather than its current meaning or context. This overlooks any difference to be found in the present situation, typically transferring the positive or negative esteem from the earlier context. In other words, a claim is ignored in favor of attacking or championing its source.

Don’t commit this fallacy!

Now, on to the article and the topic: does suppressing testosterone after puberty in men who transition to the gender of “woman” (i.e., transwomen) make them qualified to compete with biological females in women’s sports? I’ve discussed this several times, but this new article discusses two review articles that look at more data. In particular, the data involve not only the differences in traits and performances between “cis” men and women, but also whether testosterone suppression according to Olympic rules (a titer of 10 nanomoles/liter of blood for 12 months before competition) sufficiently reduces the physical advantage of transwomen so that they are able to compete fairly in sports against biological women.

The answer to the last question seems to be, no, it doesn’t. Male sports advantage, involving traits acquired beginning at puberty, is not appreciably diminished after even three years of testosterone suppression.  This raises problems for those who argue that transwomen should certainly be allowed to compete against biological women. Many people and organizations, most notably the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), take the position that there need be no medical or surgical intervention in men who identify as women to allow them to compete against biological women.And that is a risible position, and one palpably unfair to biological women. Now we see that the position of the IOC, which involves maintaining a 10nm testosterone level or below for a year to compete, does not “level the playing field.” (The IOC has rescinded this standard.)

[UPDATE: I had forgotten that the Biden administration seems to be taking the same position as the ACLU, as a commenter notes below, and that would be disastrous for women’s sports.]

Click on the screenshot to read. and note at the bottom a source: “This article has been adapted from the recently published Macdonald-Laurier Institute report, Fair Game: Biology, Fairness, and Transgender Athletes in Women’s Sport.” The full 44-page report is here.

The authors are identified this way:

Jon Pike formerly chaired the British Philosophy of Sport Association. Emma Hilton is a biologist at the University of Manchester. Leslie A. Howe is a University of Saskatchewan philosophy professor.

First, a biology lesson:

In line with the biology of sexual reproduction and evolutionary pressure on reproductive fitness, males and females are physically different. Physical divergence begins with primary sex development at around seven weeks in utero when, triggered by genetic information inherited at fertilization, bipotential gonads differentiate as either testes in males or ovaries in females. The differentiation and development of gonad type generates a sex-specific hormonal profile that drives ongoing development associated with sex class. Testes contain cells that produce the hormone testosterone, and it is testosterone and its derivatives that mediate the development of male internal and external genitalia, the establishment of growth parameters during high-testosterone “minipuberty” in the neonatal period, and the development of secondary sex characteristics at puberty.

In females, the absence of testosterone production from the developing ovaries permits female internal and external genital development, and the activation of estrogen pathways promotes the development of secondary sex characteristics at puberty.

The secondary sex characteristics acquired during puberty in preparation for reproduction lead to measurably different body morphs between males and females (“sexual dimorphism”) across many physical parameters. Broadly, when compared with females, males are taller and have longer bones with narrower hips and wider shoulders; have lower body fat and higher muscle mass differentially distributed across sites, with more resistant connective tissue; have larger hearts and lungs, and higher levels of haemoglobin, the protein that carries oxygen within the blood.

Here’s a figure from the article showing the physical, functional, and performance differences between un-transitioned (“cis”) men and women. The percentages reflect male “advantage”, i.e.(male- female)/female] X 100.  As you see, for most traits except body fat and pelvic width, men have “more” of the trait than do women.  For the nine performance-related traits, men have more of all of them. The same holds for 12 performance differences. References are given at the bottom of the table.

This isn’t really new—it’s the very reason why sports participation is almost invariably segregated by sex. It wouldn’t be fair to have biological women running track, weightlifting, or playing tennis against biological men.

The question at hand is this: if biological men who identify as women suppress their testosterone levels, can they compete fairly against biological women? By “fairly”, I mean “lose all the physical advantages they have acquired as biological men who have passed through puberty”? The answer, as I said, is “no.”  Here’s the author’s summary, buttressed by another graph below:

There are athletic differences, probably underpinned by genetic differences and exposure to testosterone during minipuberty that are evident between male and female children at school age. However, school sports tend to promote team play, skill acquisition, and social development, and are therefore usually mixed sex (although promising children may be streamed to dedicated extracurricular sports that are divided by sex).

Notwithstanding these childhood differences, the majority of male athletic advantage appears to be acquired at puberty, when males experience a surge of testes-derived testosterone that results, in adulthood, in circulating testosterone ranging from 8.8–30.9 nanomoles per litre (nmol/l), while female testosterone remains low, ranging from 0.4–2.0 nmol/l. Thus, from puberty into adulthood, testosterone levels between males and females form a non-overlapping, bimodal distribution.

And here’s the discussion of the review papers, one in the British Journal of Sports Medicine and the other in the Springer journal Sports Medicine. You can access both for free.

There have been two high-qualityhigh-impact academic reviews, both in leading sports journals, of muscle and skeletal physiology in transwomen who have, post-puberty, suppressed testosterone as part of their transition. The reviews cover longitudinal studies; that is, they contain pre-transition metrics such as thigh muscle area and grip strength, and matched data from at least 12 months, occasionally longer, into transition. All transwomen studied had been successfully suppressing testosterone to less than 10 nmol/l for at least one year, and would therefore qualify for inclusion in female sports categories under the regulations specified by the IOC and most sports federations. Collectively, the studies captured by these reviews cover over 800 transwomen in 10 original studies, with data acquired as a routine aspect of ongoing general health assessments within clinical care teams.

To summarize: In transwomen successfully suppressing testosterone for 12 months, skeletal metrics—height, limb/digit length, and shoulder/pelvic width—do not change, and the extent of muscle/strength loss is approximately -5 percent after 12 months, a modest change that is insufficient to bridge the baseline muscular differences between males and females.

Regarding musculoskeletal parameters, Hilton and Lundberg concluded: “The biological advantage, most notably in terms of muscle mass and strength, conferred by male puberty and thus enjoyed by most transgender women is only minimally reduced when testosterone is suppressed as per current sporting guidelines for transgender athletes.”

This conclusion was subsequently confirmed by Joanna Harper and her fellow researchers, who added: “Hormone therapy decreases strength, lean body mass and muscle area, yet values remain above [those] observed in cisgender women, even after 36 months.”

The figure below, with references, shows measurements of biological women (F) compared to transwomen (TW) of similar height and weight before and after they transitioned, suppressing testosterone according to IOC standards for at least 12 months. The left side of the figure shows the percentage loss of various traits in transwomen due to hormone suppression, and on the right the retained percentage advantage of the hormone-suppressed transwomen over biological women/ Advantages include phusical traits and performance.

As you see, the percentage losses in transwomen, except for the 12% in thigh muscle area, is negligible using the Olympic standards (note that a few traits, like thigh muscle areaLean body mass, and limb lean mass, they monitored after 2-3 years), and in every case measured, the transwomen retain a large percentage advantage over biological women, ranging from 13% to 41%.  These numbers should be zero if the Olympic standard really did level the playing field.(I presume that the absence of a bar means “no data”.)

The authors’ conclusions:

Thus, the most recent analyses generate a consensus that testosterone suppression in transwomen who meet the central IOC criteria adopted by most sporting federations induces only small amounts of muscle/strength loss, and does not remove the male athletic advantage acquired under high-testosterone conditions at puberty. Male musculoskeletal advantage is retained, and this raises obvious concerns about fairness and safety within female categories when transwomen are included.

In the face of this evidence, the IOC has publicly made it clear that the guidance it offered in 2015 is “not fit for purpose.” Rather than tightening the policy, though, the IOC has passed the task on to international federations and governing bodies.

Now these cases involve people born unambiguously male or female. The authors also discuss people who are sexually ambiguous (0.02% of the population) and those with differences of sexual development (DSD). The short take is that it’s complicated, and raises yet other questions.

In the main, though, given that there are many studies involved here, the conclusion for the time being must be that IOC-standard hormone suppression does not completely eliminate in transwomen the biological traits of males that give them an advantage in sports—even after three years of treatment. In light of this, the International Olympic Committee has rescinded its standards and, as far as I know, hasn’t issued new ones. But the IOC’s standards clearly aren’t sufficient to “nullify the physical advantages of transwomen who were all born male and have experienced male puberty.”

What to do, then, to ensure fairness? The only solutions I see for now are two I’ve mentioned before: either creating an “other” category, or allowing transwomen to compete only against biological men. To maintain that “transwomen are women” for purposes of athletic competition, as the ACLU and some trans activists do, is simply unwarranted. It’s unfair to biological women, who have largely been self-censoring their complaints because they’d be called “transphobic.”

Alex Honnold does a dangerous climb

December 14, 2021 • 1:15 pm

I truly can’t fathom the mindset of someone like Alex Honnold, the world’s best “free climber” of big walls. That means he uses no equipment save his arms, legs, and a bag of chalk to climb up vertical cliffs. (He does scout his routes using ropes and the like.) But once he sets out to free climb a difficult route like El Capitan in Yosemite, as he did four years ago, there’s nothing between him and death save his fingers and toes.  One slip and he’s dead.

But he likes it! I can appreciate that mastering something dangerous can give you a real rush, but what he does seems to me to be about the most dangerous thing anybody can do, and takes as well an enormous amount of skill. He lives to climb. Moreover, he’s godless, as this Wikipedia snippet note says, describing his life after he lived in a van for ten years.

In 2017, Honnold bought a home in the Las Vegas area. “I didn’t have any furniture at first, so I lived in the van in the driveway for the first couple weeks. It felt more like home than an empty house did.” Around the same time, he replaced the Ford Econoline van he had lived in since 2007 and put 200,000 miles on with a new 2016 Ram ProMaster, which he still lives and travels in for most of the year.

Honnold is a vegetarian, and he does not drink alcohol or use other drugs. He is an avid reader with interests in classic literature, environmentalism, and economics, and he describes himself as a militant, anti-religion atheist and a feminist.

His free ascent of El Cap was the subject of a great documentary movie, “Free Solo,” which you’ll probably like even if you’re not into climbing, for it’s not just about climbing but about Honnold himself a fascinating character. He did the Yosemite ascent in a bit less than four hours, and lived to tell the tale. Further, the movie won the 2018 Academy Award for Best Documentary, and deserved it.

But I came across another site by accident (well, I like to watch climbing videos), and it lists ten well known free climbers, along with videos. Click on the screenshot to read:

Honnold, of course, is listed as #1, but it shows a climb that’s truly terrifying (the six-minute video is below). The article precedes his climb of El Capital, so I’m not sure whether the climb below, of a cliff in Mexico, is still “the most difficult rope-less climb in history”, as asserted in the YouTube notes.  Still, it’s fascinating (and horrifying) to watch, and if you want the technical details given for non-free climbers, have a look here. El Cap is 2900 feet, while this wall is 1500 feet.

The YouTube note:

Check out the video [below] from The North Face showing Honnold taking on El Sendero Luminoso in Mexico, arguably the most difficult rope-less climb in history.

Coleman and Navratilova on transwomen in sports: The International Olympic Committee has failed its mission

December 3, 2021 • 11:30 am

We all know Martina Navratilova, one of the greatest woman tennis players of history. Although she isn’t a “transphobe”, she’s opposed to transwomen competing in women’s sports, and hasn’t been afraid to say so. For that, of course, she’s been demonized and called a transphobe. She’s tried to decide about this issue based on science and not ideology; Wikipedia quotes her views from a BBC broadcast in 2019.

“The way I started this journey, I just wanted to see if there are any big surprises, any misconceptions that I had.

And what I think I have come to realise, the biggest thing for me, is just that the level of difficulty that trans people go through cannot be underestimated. The fight for equality and recognition is just huge. That being said, still, for me, the most important thing in sports… and you have to remember, trans rights and elite sports are two different things, although of course they are connected. What’s the right way to set rules so that everybody feels like they have a fighting chance? It feels to me that it is impossible to come to any real conclusions or write any meaningful rules until more research is done.

“But for now, I think we need to include as many transgender athletes as possible within elite sports, while keeping it as level a playing field as possible. Look, society has changed so much. Things evolve, things change and maybe I need to evolve, I need to change. The rules certainly need to evolve. If you don’t adapt, you’ve got problems. And so we’ll just keep adapting and try to find a happy way forward.”

These are not the words of a transphobe.

And science—or rather the lack thereof—is the topic of a piece she’s just published in Quillette with Doriane Coleman, identified as “a Professor of Law at Duke Law School, and a former professional track athlete.” Both women therefore have sports cred, and one has legal cred as well.

Before you say you’re not going to read anything in Quillette, realize that the site publishes worthwhile things, and to refuse to read an article because you disagree with other articles on the site seems to me a form of willful ignorance.

This article comes to no decision about the issue, but rather bemoans two things: the lack of science that might enable us to decide the circumstances under which transwomen (biological men who identify as women, and usually have had hormonal and surgical intervention to “transition”) should be allowed to compete in women’s sports.

Second, the authors decry the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC’s) failure to take a lead in helping with these difficult issues. The IOC used to say that a transwoman could compete in women’s Olympics if they maintained a level of circulating testosterone below 10 nanomoles per liter for 12 months.

Recent research, however, has shown that this by no means levels the playing field (and “leveling” is itself a  contentious issue). First, 10 nmoles/liter is several times higher than the average titer of the hormone in biological women. Second, a year isn’t long enough. I’ve discussed research showing that even with a level below that, maintained via hormone therapy, a transwoman can retain athletic advantages over two years or longer. Most important, if you transition after puberty, the muscular and skeletal changes that accompany male puberty will stay with you for years and years, giving you a near-permanent advantage over biological women in sports.

While some say that this is a non-issue because transwomen are very rare, you have to realize that the exponential increase in the number of women in this genre will make the problem increasingly common in coming years.  It’s already subject to a lawsuit in Connecticut (where high school athletes just have to identify as women, without medical intervention, to compete as women), and we have the recent case of Lia Thomas , who competed as a male swimmer for three years at Penn, and then, after transitioning to female, suddenly broke all kinds of records.

Click the screenshot to read:

What happened is that the IOC has abandoned its previous hormone-based rule in favor of “guidelines” that give no guidance at all.  Coleman and Navratilova see both good and bad in this, but mostly bad, as it leaves us in limbo:

Last week, the Swiss-based International Olympic Committee (IOC) issued updated, non-binding guidance in regard to the inclusion of transgender women and intersex athletes in the female category in elite competitive sports. This IOC Framework on Fairness, Inclusion, and Non-Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity and Sex Variations is presented as a means to balance, on the one side, the right of every person to “practice sport without discrimination and in a way that respects their health, safety, and dignity” with, on the other, the need to protect “the credibility of competitive sport” by ensuring “no athlete has an unfair and disproportionate advantage over the rest.” Although the included principles were drafted “with the specific needs of high-level organized sports competitions in mind,” the IOC also urges that they be “promoted and defended at all levels of sport.”

The new framework contains some welcome elements. Most significantly: It affirms that fairness to the female field remains central to the category’s eligibility standards, and that establishing fairness is a matter of “evidence-based,” “robust,” and “peer-reviewed” scientific research. The principles also serve to encourage as much inclusion as possible within evidence-based bounds, a goal we wholeheartedly support. And the framework “replaces and updates” the 2015 IOC Consensus on Sex Reassignment and Hyperandrogenism, disliked by almost all stakeholders, which requires transgender women to suppress testosterone levels in their blood to below 10 nanomoles per liter for 12 months before they are eligible to compete in the female category.

The bad news (I’ve put the new guideline in bold):

Nevertheless, the new framework is flawed in at least three respects—flaws that the IOC must address if the organization is to demonstrate real leadership in this area. Until then, as others have emphasized, it will be playing catchup with international sports federations; absent proper IOC guidance, the latter will continue to set eligibility rules on their own initiative.

Firstly, while the IOC was correct to acknowledge that its under-10 rule was not fit for purpose, its vaguely worded replacement—the stipulation that an athlete shall not have an “advantage that disproportionately exceeds other advantages that exist at elite-level competition”—is effectively standardless, making it a litigator’s dream and an administrator’s nightmare. By its terms, every eligibility decision is subject to challenge by an excluded athlete, on the grounds that their governing sports federation can’t or hasn’t established that the performance boost they get from their male sex-linked traits “disproportionately exceeds” the boost that an exceptional female athlete gets from non-sex-linked traits such as flipper-feet or fast-twitch muscle fibers.

I won’t go into the other problems, which you can read for yourself, but they include the observation that athletes like Katie Ledecky or Simone Biles, who are biological females but perform “disproportionately over other competitors” could violate the rules. Well, we might ignore that, but Coleman and Navratiolva point out that mention of sex is nearly completely missing from the new IOC standards, which means, of course, that biological women might be excluded.

Further, how long do we have to wait for “proof of the obvious when it comes to genetic males ‘consistently’ outperforming genetic females in a ‘specific sport, discipline, or event'”? This means that just a simple declaration that your gender is female, given that you were born as a biological male, isn’t good enough. No, we need data to set standards.

And this is the issue I have, for what data can we collect that will enable us to set thresholds for transwomen to compete against biological women?  If you think about it, ideally you would like the transwoman asking to compete to have the same athletic capacities she would have had she been born a biological women. But we can never know that. All we can know is how the transwoman does now, and how can we judge that she has been sufficiently “handicapped” by the regulations that her competition is fair? Remember how difficult it is to even do the science to see what advantage puberty confers to a male who transitions later: there are so few of these individuals who have been subject to study!

I haven’t pondered this issue forever, but I’ve thought about it quite a bit, and I’ve concluded that the science for which Coleman and Navratilova are waiting will never come. This is a philosophical and not a scientific problem, and it needs to be addressed now.

Readers, in the past, have offered two solutions:

a.) Have two categories for competition: “male and female”, as before, but transwomen cannot compete in  the “female” class Transmales, I presume, could be allowed to compete with biological males, as they are disadvantaged to begin with.

b.) Have three categories for competititon: “male, female, and other”. Again, one might allow transmen to compete against biological men.

The first has the disadvantage of preventing some prospective athletes from competing against anyone. The second has the disadvantage of stigmatizing those who fall into the “other” class.

I have nothing to offer about which alternative is better, but until the “other” class is constructed, or some unknown variety of science + philosophy can properly define a class of transwomen who could compete “fairly”, I favor not allowing transwomen to compete against biological women.  Although those in favor of transwomen competing with biological women (like the ACLU), even without treatment, sell their stand as promoting “fairness”, what about fairness to the biological women who lack the advantage of being born male? How do we weigh the fairnesses? Is disadvantaging 100 women justified by advantaging one transwoman?

I have no idea. This is one for philosophers to ponder, and instead of sticking in their ivory tower, some philosophers should be tackling real-world problems like this one. Believe me, it’s only going to get more pressing.

Duck runs NYT marathon (not the whole thing)

November 10, 2021 • 2:30 pm

You’re not going to get anything substantive here today as I’ve had a serious bout of insomnia (early awakening) and it’s making me exhausted all day (worse: I’m not supposed to nap). I will lick it, but for the nonce it’s very hard to write.

So today you get persiflage. But this is a good one (if you like ducks–and who doesn’t).

Below, courtesy of the Daily Paws website, you see Wrinkle the Duck running the New York Marathon. (She’s a Pekin duck, a domesticated variety of the wild mallard, and I thought Wrinkle was a drake because the duck doesn’t quack but grunts (only female mallards quack). So be it.  They don’t tell us how much of the Marathon Wrinkle ran, but since we don’t see her crossing the finish line, it can’t be the whole thine!

From the site:

It’s time to bask in the athletic prowess of Wrinkle, the especially spiffy emotional support duck who ran at least part of the New York City Marathon on Sunday.

The videos of her quick waddling in her homemade red shoes have enthralled millions on TikTok. I honestly don’t know whether to call it a stride, strut, or trot, but it seems that Wrinkle, who is a Pekin duck, is enjoying her jog and the adulation of the marathon crowd. She’s so confident!

It can’t help but make you grin, and one person in the comments of the TikTok video said the footage had made her smile during a bout of depression. “As an official emotional support duck, hearing this makes me feel like I’m doing my job well,” Wrinkle’s account replied. “Wrinkle loves you.”

. . . Wrinkle also loves running, whether it’s at her house (providing some oddly soothing ASMR as she waddles) or out in a field where she’s “fast as duck.”

Do note her special jogging shoes.


h/t: Diana

Discussion thread

August 1, 2021 • 9:15 am

Once again there’s nothing I see that stimulates me to write; am I running dry, is there no news of note, or is everything happening just a reprisal of what I’ve commented on before? At any rate, there’s no need for me to write when I am not compelled to say something, so perhaps we can have a discussion instead. (I’ll put up a photo-and-video post of Botany Pond’s ducks and turtles later.) But there are things we can discuss.

Here are a few subjects, but you needn’t limit yourself to these.

A lot of people, and not just right-wingers, are complaining about the rapid changes in recommendations by the CDC about how to behave during the pandemic. While the vaccination recommendation remains strong and in place, lockdown and especially mask recommendations seem to change daily. Is this just what happens when what we know about the new variants and about science changes over time, or is the CDC itself conflicted about what to do and say, perhaps because there’s a conflict between their medical opinions and how Americans would react against more restrictions? On the NBC Evening News yesterday, CDC director Rochelle Walensky was asked if she thought there should be the “government should mandate the vaccine on a federal level”.  They were asking her opinion, but she punted, saying that the administration was looking into it, and later issued the following “clarification”:

Even so, I don’t know what she’s talking about. My own view is to act like I did last year and earlier this year: wear masks indoors, stay 6 feet away from people who I don’t know are vaccinated, and wash my hands a lot. And I’ll get a booster. I am less fearful than I was last year, as we know the vaccine strongly protects you against death or hospitalization. But all over America, people are resistant to new lockdowns. Given the data on the delta variant, and the claim that it can accumulate in the nasal passages of those who have been fully vaccinated, and that those people can infect other people—even other vaccinated people—is the federal government acting properly? (I assume people will agree that some state governments have their heads in the sand.)

After missing a vault and falling on her back in practice, gymnast Simone Biles has apparently pulled out of all team and individual events. This is surely wise, as she seems to have lost either her confidence or sense of where she was in the air. She said she had the “twisties”. Apparently this is not uncommon among gymnasts. As Time Magazine reports:

And every gymnast can relate. Biles has since said that the combination of mental stress and pressure leading up to the Olympics have affected her confidence. But, more importantly, she felt a disconnect between her mind and body; her body was no longer doing what she wanted it to. Whatever the trigger, gymnasts call this the “twisties.”

“If you say ‘twisties’ every gymnast knows what you’re talking about,” says Jordyn Wieber, member of the 2012 Olympics gold medal team and now head women’s gymnastics coach at the University of Arkansas. “It’s something all gymnasts experience at one time or another.”

. . .What causes the twisties varies from gymnast to gymnast—sometimes, they can be triggered if the gymnast is training different twisting skills at the same time, for instance going back and forth between double twisting elements, one-and-a-half twists, and triples. Stress could contribute to them. Or they can just descend out of the blue for no reason.

For Biles, they occurred on the world’s biggest stage, and the look of concern everyone saw on her face makes sense. “She is doing some of the most difficult skills in the entire world, and if you’re not mentally in a great place, or have the twisties, then that can be a matter or life or death,” says Wieber. “One wrong landing, or landing on your neck, could be really, really dangerous.” Biles has four skills named after her on the vault, floor and beam, including the daring triple-twisting double back flip on floor exercise.

Biles has been answering questions on Instagram about the twisties, and it’s clear she is experiencing the classic signs. “Literally cannot tell up from down. It’s the craziest feeling ever, not having an inch of control over your body,” she wrote. “what’s even scarier is since I have no idea where I am in the air, I also have NO idea how I’m going to land. or what I’m going to land on. Head/hands/feet/back…”

It’s clearly laudable that Biles pulled out of competition, as gymnasts with the “twisties” who haven’t done so have wound up as quadraplegics. And her personal behavior has been exemplary, supporting her teammates down the line. Likewise with her coaches and teammates, who fully support her decision and have shown her a lot of affection.

What worries me is not Biles’s or her teammates’ behavior, but the reporting that has analogized the “twisties” with serious mental illness: the kind of depression, for example, that still affects swimmer Michael Phelps and perhaps Naomi Ozaka. Biles in fact seems to be receiving support for going public with being mentally ill, something that she hasn’t done!

What’s good about the Phelps/Ozaka cases is that they’ve led to the de-stigmatization of mental illness and the recognition that it’s more frequent than people think. But is there a downside with conflating nerves, “twisties”, or a loss or proficiency with mental illness? I think so, but want to hear from readers.

Finally, speaking of the Olympics, is there too much jingoism evinced in the coverage? Every night on the reports, nearly all the coverage is about Americans, with the inevitable chart showing how the countries rank in terms of medals, like this one:

I know you can’t get rid of patriotism completely, but it seems that this concentration on countries is inimical to the spirit of the Olympics, where politics isn’t supposed to matter. And I suspect there are a lot of fantastic athletes from other countries with stories as compelling as, or more so, than those of athletes like Katie Ledecky and Sunisa Lee. Where are their stories?

Well, those are three suggestions, but any topic is open. As always, I regard such discussions as failures if we get fewer than fifty comments (it’s a peccadillo of mine), so weigh in.