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France’s Trans Rugby decision raises troubling questions

The Culture wars are currently raging across a number of different battlegrounds in the Western World, against the backdrop and sometimes intertwined narrative of the Covid-19 Pandemic and the variable responses to it. In recent weeks, Sport in all its forms has become embroiled in the Transgender debate including but not limited to the  comments from Caitlyn Jenner (arguably the World’s most well-known Trans advocate) regarding the protection of girls sports. She was then somewhat predictably and ironically chastised by the mob, accusing her of all things, Transphobia! Caitlyn (formerly Bruce Jenner) was an Olympic gold medal winner in the Decathlon at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.

This week it was the turn of Rugby, specifically the French Rugby Federation to wade into the choppy waters of this important, emotive and complex debate.

On Monday, the French Rugby Federation (FFR) announced that it would allow Transgender females, that is, male-to-female (MTF) transitioned or transitioning people participate in Elite level Rugby in France. World Rugby for its part had decided in October of 2020 that given the available evidence with respect to the athletic attributes required to participate in elite rugby and it’s  stated priority of player welfare in the game, it would recommend that MTF transgender athletes not play elite rugby, but would ultimately devolve the decision to National Federations . The decision by the FFR stated that transgender women “must certify that they have been on hormonal treatment for at least 12 months” and “must not exceed the testosterone threshold of 5 nanomole/litre”, meaning transgender women still transitioning can also be allowed to play women’s rugby. “Rugby is an inclusive, sharing sport, without distinction of sex, gender, origin or religion,” FFR vice president Serge Simon said.“ The FFR is against all forms of discrimination and works daily to ensure that everyone can exercise their free will in rugby without constraint.” Case closed? Not exactly.

The FFR are the first national federation in France to arrive at this decision. The decision to insist on a Testosterone level of less than 5nmol/L is in line with that of World Athletics (WA), formerly the IAAF.

The conversation around Transgender Athletes competing in Sports, as well as the parallel discussion regarding the participation of DSM (Differences of Sex Development) athletes such as South African middle distance runner Caster Semenya could fill hundreds of pages. DSM is an equally interesting debate that we won’t cover here, but I would urge the reader to learn more about that equally complex issue.

However here I will try and lay out some of the arguments around the Transgender debate and try to arrive at some balanced and fair conclusions. The arguments are broadly described as the following:

  1. Any person should be able to identify as they wish regardless of their biological sex, and by extension have the full access to the rights afforded to biological Women including full participation in Women’s sport.

There are some in society that would advocate for this position in Sport. This idea was best exposed by British Rapper and commentator, Zuby, when he broke the Women’s National Deadlift record in the UK, simply by declaring he was female. This thankfully is not the situation across most Sports, and if it was would lead very rapidly to the death of ‘Female Sports’ as a protected category. Most reasonable people would agree that if the recognition of female sport as a protected category reflecting biological differences between men and women is to be preserved, then this position could never de adopted and an inevitable end to the female sports category would ultimately follow.

  1. Any person should be able to identify as they wish and if they are MTF then as per the FFR and WA rulings above, once they have proven Testosterone levels of less than 5nmol/L and are on treatment for 12 months then participation in ‘Women’s Sport’ should be allowed. The conclusion is that all performance advantages are removed once Testosterone levels are artificially lowered.

So let us focus on the second argument. This rule adopted by the IOC and many Sports, by definition, recognises that Testosterone plays the crucial part in determining the differences between Men and Women that ultimately confer what are the primary determinants of Sporting success. These main differentiators that include many of the secondary sex characteristics between Women and Men are due to exposure to Testosterone particularly during times of significant development such as puberty. We see the impact of this quite clearly when the differences between Women and Men across most sports become apparent, starting to diverge at around 11 years old and becoming significant at about 14 years old on average. This is a direct result of the many changes that occur to the human body once exposed to Testosterone and include characteristics such as increased muscle mass, increased heart and lung size, improved metabolic efficiencies, increased bone density, different biomechanics, longer limb lengths and others. Therefore the argument that the artificial reduction in Testosterone levels in a biological male removes the performance advantage is far too simple. (It may be a leveller in some Sports such as long distance running but this is still being investigated). These significant advantages even with a ‘new normal’ Testosterone level are such that the major advantages have been conferred and are is many instances irreversible. This is of paramount importance when the sport that we are talking about in this particular piece is a collision sport where strength, power and speed matter, and have the significant possibility of impacting on player welfare through serious physical injury. If one is to protect the integrity of female sport in this instance then surely a consideration of all of these factors should be debated, researched fully and a global consensus agreed upon and adhered to, as per the World Rugby policy recommendation. National Governing bodies going on solo runs, only leads where it always has in Sport, and Politics: to an arms race. The Women’s French National Rugby Team and league are in a class of their own currently in European rugby and this decision has the potential to increase this gap, others are left with little option other than to follow!

There are admittedly many complex arguments going on here: emotional, moral, legal, philosophical, biological. Are we to say, We recognise Female Sport as a distinct category to Male Sport due to biological differences between the sexes, and reward and recognise achievements equally in both? Or do we trade fairness and potentially safety for a more culturally acceptable position around an issue we thought until yesterday was at best poorly understood? If protecting the former is the decision we arrive at, then it is likely to be challenged in the not too distant future along cultural and philosophical grounds as much as scientific and evidential ones. Watch this space. If fairness is our goal, then having protected categories that respect differences between biological sexes has potentially already answered this question? Categories exist even within Sports where we have weight categories in for example boxing. Floyd Mayweather may be the greatest pound for pound boxer ever, but how long would he last against Ali or Tyson in their prime?

Rugby as a sport has done an excellent job in recent years at implementing rule changes and protocols around difficult issues such as concussion, and as such is delivering on its promise to promote player welfare and place this at the centre of its ambition and development. Are we now suggesting a change that has the potential to significantly derail that progress?

Given that a focus on Testosterone as the only reasonable parameter around which to regulate the participation of MTF athletes while preserving the protected sanctity of Women’s sport, and the fact that prolonged Testosterone exposure and elite training during this exposure confers significant long term performance advantages, mean that the conversation is far from settled and is going to continue for some time to come with some likely legal challenges complicated by national policies. The decision in light of this to allow MTF athletes train and perform in a high impact sport such as elite rugby seems like an all too familiar and unfair genuflection at the altar of political correctness at the expense of fairness and safety.

Ultimately some nuanced thinking is required here that respects the right of Transgender athletes to participate in Sport but most importantly preserves the fairness and integrity on Women’s Sport at all levels.


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