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When Lia Thomas touched the wall in 4:33.24 seconds in the 500-yard freestyle on March 17, she became the first transgender athlete to win a Division I national championship.
Thomas placed in the top eight in her two other events, but she certainly didn’t blow away the competition or break records. Her presence on the podium evoked strong sentiments across America ranging from inclusive progress to deep unfairness.
Treating individuals with dignity while maintaining competitive fairness in athletics for women demands more than knee-jerk reactions.
I know that because my own immediate response to Thomas’s victory wasn’t helpful. In a snarky Tweet, I suggested that progressive Democrats would have us simply do away with gender in sports since liberals proclaim themselves as leaders on women's issues.
Thankfully, a friend called me to account for the post. I saw Thomas’s victory as an opportunity to score political points because I know how deeply unpopular the idea of genderless sports is with most Americans.
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Assessing the effect of puberty on athletes
We sort most of our athletics by the sex assigned on birth certificates. At younger ages, it doesn’t really matter. I coach youth wrestling and football. I have actively recruited young women to play because I knew they were fast, athletic, and fearless.
I’ve watched countless boys underestimate young women only to wind up stuck on the mat and crying to their moms.
Around middle school, puberty hits, and the obvious biological differences manifest. The change is not about gender identity, nor is it about politics. The muscle mass, aggression, and bone structure that come with a 30-fold natural increase in testosterone are literal game changers.
If we remove sex segregation from sports, women will bear almost all the negative impacts. Consider the NCAA records for the 500-yard freestyle that Thomas won. Kieran Smith’s NCAA men’s record stands at 4:06.32. Katie Ledecky holds the women’s record at 4:24.06.
While that might not seem like a huge gap, Ledecky’s record-setting time would have placed her 23rd in the men's final at the 2022 SEC Championships held in February.
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Study examined effect of gender-affirming hormones on athletes
Women’s sports create a meaningful opportunity for competition on a biologically level playing field. Allowing trans women to compete upends that dynamic.
During the last season Thomas competed as a member of the University of Pennsylvania’s men’s team, she ranked 554th in the 200 freestyle, 65th in the 500 freestyle and 32nd in the 1,650 freestyle. At the end of her collegiate career, when she transitioned and competed on the women's team, she moved to fifth, first and eighth in those respective events.
The biological advantages can’t be denied even after hormone therapy.
A 2021 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine evaluated the impact of gender affirming hormones on athletic performance in the United States Air Force from 2004 to 2014.
It concluded, “Transwomen retain an advantage in muscle mass, volume, and strength over female controls after 1 year on oestrogen.” In addition, the study noted, “Exposure to testosterone during puberty results in sex differences in height, pelvic architecture and leg bones in the lower limbs that confer an athletic advantage to males after puberty.”
While hormone treatment can close the biological gap in some respects, other advantages are permanent.
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What are some solutions?
To address this reality we can keep the status quo, require transgender athletes to compete according to biological sex, or end sex segregation entirely. Unless we’re willing to effectively remove countless competitive athletic opportunities for women, eliminating sex segregation is a non-starter.
The other two options raise a clear but uncomfortable question: Does the harm of expecting trans women to compete in the men’s division outweigh the unfairness of them competing against biological women?
In the balance, aligning sports by biological sex is a fair rule. It avoids imposing hormone therapy requirements that impact performance or the long-term health of athletes. It acknowledges the biological realities at play in competition. More importantly, the rule can be evenly applied across all gender identities and expressions.
The human impacts of sorting out gender and competitive fairness are real and profound to the individuals involved. We should address the issue in good faith and with humility. Snarky social media posts don’t help. That much I know.
Columnist Cameron Smith is a Memphis-born, Brentwood-raised recovering political attorney raising three boys in Nolensville, Tennessee, with his particularly patient wife, Justine. Direct outrage or agreement to email@example.com or @DCameronSmith on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Transgender athletes: Lia Thomas' win sparked important conversation