Trans athletes in sports: what's the debate?

Monday, 17 July 2023 14:52 GMT

So Sato, 25, a deaf and transgender pole vaulter, works out during a camp training with other deaf athletes in Utsunomiya, north of Tokyo, Japan July 10, 2021. REUTERS/Issei Kato

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In a fierce global debate about trans inclusion in sport, LGBTQ+ rights campaigners say excluding trans athletes is discriminatory
  • Female trans swimmers barred from competing as women
  • Trans participation in sport under heavy scrutiny
  • Sports bodies try to balance fairness and inclusion

By Lucy Middleton

LONDON, July 17 (Openly) - Cycling's worldwide governing body has banned transgender female athletes from competing in women's events if they transitioned after puberty, joining a growing list of sports organisations that have placed similar restrictions on trans competitors.

The Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) said the new rules, which went into effect today, stemmed from a lack of clarity about whether having gone through male puberty might offer trans women athletes a "lasting advantage".

"It was necessary to take this measure to protect the female class and ensure equal opportunities" it said in a statement. LGBTQ+ organisations say such bans can lead to trans people being excluded from sport at all levels.

The new rules come amid intense global debate about trans women in female sports. Numerous regulatory bodies have introduced regulations which supporters say are needed to ensure fairness and which critics say are discriminatory.

Here's what you need to know.


The participation of trans athletes in women's sport has faced criticism, including from well-known stars such as tennis champion Martina Navratilova and marathon runner Paula Radcliffe.

They typically argue that trans women have unfair physical advantages over those who are born female due to the impacts of testosterone on their bodies, even when they are on gender treatment or other medication to suppress testosterone levels.

Navratilova in 2019 said "it’s insane and it's cheating" for transgender women to be allowed to compete in women's sport.

Several high-level trans athletes including U.S. swimmer Lia Thomas and weightlifter Laurel Hubbard have faced scrutiny and criticism over their sporting records.


LGBTQ+ activists have long described bans on trans athletes as discriminatory and fearmongering, and said they are likely to lead to less participation from trans athletes at all levels.
Trans people already engage in less exercise than their non-trans peers, Loughborough University research has shown.

They are also under-represented in elite-level sport, found a report into trans female athletes commissioned by the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport and published in 2021.

"These bans are discriminatory and unfounded and dangerously contribute to an existing climate of hostility already directed towards the trans community," a spokesperson for Mermaids, a British charity that supports trans youth, told Openly.

"No young person should have to choose between being who they are and playing the sport they love," they added.


The UCI's policy change follows a similar rulings by Swim England, World Athletics, Scottish Rugby, FINA, England's Rugby Football Union and the International Rugby League, all of which have banned trans women who transitioned after puberty from competing in female categories.

In June last year, Soccer's FIFA, World Netball and the International Hockey Federation said they would also review their policies.

The restrictions follow a change to International Olympic Committee (IOC) rules in November 2021, which now allow individual sports to determine whether trans athletes can compete.

Previously, the IOC advised sporting bodies to let trans athletes compete if their testosterone levels remained below a certain threshold for at least a year.

The IOC's new guidance says athletes should not automatically be deemed to have an unfair advantage "due to their transgender status" until evidence states otherwise.

At least 22 U.S. states, including Alabama, Florida, Idaho, Mississippi and Texas have passed laws banning trans women and girls from women's sports leagues in schools and colleges, according to a tracker by U.S. non-profit the Movement Advancement Project.

Despite the flurry of announcements in the last few years, it is unclear how many trans athletes currently participate at an elite-level. When it announced its policy shift, World Athletics said there were currently no trans athletes competing at international level.

In 2021, weightlifter Hubbard became the first openly trans woman to compete in the Olympics, though she left without a medal.


Research into trans athletes across different sports is still relatively new and under examined.

Trans women's muscular advantage falls by about 5% after a year of testosterone-suppressing treatment, according to a review of existing research by the University of Manchester and Sweden's Karolinska Institute.

Tommy Lundberg, who co-authored the study, said male athletes gain their 30% muscular advantages during puberty, but there are no studies of trans adolescents who could take puberty blockers or cross-sex hormones before puberty finishes.

Britain's Loughborough University found that hormone therapy reduced trans women's haemoglobin levels, which affects endurance, to equal that of non-trans women within four months.
But strength, lean body mass and muscle area remained higher after three years of medication to block testosterone, it said.

Joanna Harper, a researcher at Loughborough University, told Openly in June 2022 that trans women may encounter difficulties with their larger frames being powered by reduced aerobic capacity, which would impact speed and recovery.

This article was updated on Monday July 17, 2023 at 14:52 GMT to include the UCI's new policy on trans women athletes.

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Trans sports exclusions trickle down to youth and amateur groups

Excluding transgender athletes is 'abject', says former gold medallist

Trans sports bans are 'fearmongering', says Marvel actor Zach Barack

(Reporting by Lucy Middleton; Editing by Helen Popper and Hugo Greenhalgh. The Thomson Reuters Foundation is the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit

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