Is it time to change how we compete?

Updated: Mar 21

A proposal to change gender-based competition classes


Background

In recent years, much discussion has occurred about how to manage athletes that change their sex or identify as a different sex. [i] If a man changes their sex to a woman or identifies as a woman, should they compete as a man or a woman? Do they have an unfair advantage competing as a woman because of their male legacy? Or do they have an unfair disadvantage competing as a man because their bodies may produce less male hormone (testosterone) than other men? Is it possible we are asking the wrong questions?


Simultaneously, our culture is evolving. Today, there is higher cultural acceptance related to gender self-identity. Increasingly, people are accepting that a person's biologically apparent gender may not always align with their self-identified gender. Taken a step further, it is the complex and unseen hormone levels (along with genes and environment) that likely drive self-identified gender. [ii] It is NOT safe to assume that someone's appearance is indicative of their self-identified gender. While, for some, this may have traditionalist religious overtones, the acceptance rate is still increasing. [iii]


In the world of athletics, many sports are impacted by the male hormone. Testosterone often makes an athlete faster and stronger. There is a tight relationship between athletic performance and the male hormone. So much so, that testing is regularly performed on higher-level athletes to ensure they are not cheating by taking testosterone-related supplements. [iv]


Perhaps it is time to change how we think about classifying athletes. Perhaps it is time to ask a better question. This proposal is to replace the visible gender (Male / Female) competitive classifications with multiple classes based on the athlete’s hormone concentrations. This proposal answers the question: How can we redesign our athletic competition classes in a fairer way, in a more accurate way, and in a way that takes advantage of the latest advances in science and technology?

 

An on-point example: Wrestling

Before we examine the proposed classification approach, let's consider wrestling as an analogy. Traditionally, wrestling is divided into weight classes. This is done to provide classifications allowing athletes to compete on a level playing field. The level playing field is a function of an athlete's physical nature. As a generalized example, lighter wrestlers have higher relative strength (Absolute strength/weight). Alternatively, heavier wrestlers have higher absolute strength. It would not make sense for a 120 lb athlete to wrestle a 260 lb athlete. As such, to create a more level physical nature playing field, wrestlers compete in weight classes. There are a number of weight classes, depending on the age and competition, generally between 120 and 260 lbs. [v]

 

New hormone-based competition classifications

First, we have a couple of existing and time tested models to utilize:

  1. We are already successfully utilizing athlete physical nature classifications in wrestling.

  2. We already perform banned substance, hormone-focused athlete testing across the world. The testing is inexpensive and widely available.

The idea:

Naturally occurring hormones, specifically testosterone and estrogen, are key elements defining visible gender. However, hormone concentrations are not the same between members of the same visible gender or across visible genders. It is the concentrations of these hormones that construct the athlete's physical nature. The idea is to disconnect visible gender from hormone-based physical nature. The proposal is to stop classifying athletes based on gender appearance.


The proposed physical nature classification is based on the athlete's concentration of testosterone and estrogen. The classification will be known as Hormone-based physical nature (or HPN). The idea is to have 5 or more HPN classes. The concentration classes will be set by Olympic leadership in consultation with specialty endocrinologists and related medical researchers. Athletes in similar HPN classes, regardless of visible gender, will be more likely to compete on a level playing field.


Testing:

The current banned substance testing regime would be recast to support HPN testing. Athletes would need to be certified for their HPN class. This would occur by periodic HPN tests. Also, banned substance testing would still occur.

 

Benefits:

  • There would be significantly less incentive to take hormone-based performance-enhancing drugs. Increasing one's testosterone level with performance-enhancing drugs would only change an HPN class to other higher testosterone athletes.

  • Gender identity-based stigmatization or objectification will decrease. A person's self-identified gender or birth gender will have decreased relevance as replaced by athletic performance within their HPN class.

  • Athletic opportunity will increase for those that may not have a natural hormone-enabled advantage as in the current gender classification regime. The operative question is: "Is it fair for an athlete that happens to naturally produce more testosterone to have an advantage?" HPN-based classes would create a level playing field regardless of hormone birth luck. Much the same way weight classes create level competition in wrestling.

 

Practical Challenges or Considerations:

  • Setting HPN classes will take more research. The number of classes and the hormone concentration cutoffs need to be determined. HPN cutoff analysis and testing will confirm competitive parity. Below is an approach for setting cutoffs using testosterone and estrogen hormone-based indexing based on athlete testing.

  • As people age, hormone concentrations naturally change. That would mean classes may periodically change for the same athlete. This is consistent with a) wrestlers that periodically change weight classes, or b) senior classes for older athletes.

  • Bathrooms and other gender considerations may need to occur. For example, athletes that compete in the same HPN class and have different visible genders may not want to dress or use the bathroom together. This is especially challenging for team sports. Athletes are accustomed to a single-sex locker room. We may need accommodations for separating shower areas from community team areas. But ultimately, some cultural adjustment in terms of how we traditionally consider opposite-sex bodies will need to occur. This will take time and experience.

  • Social acceptance will be a challenge. There will be a vocal group of gender traditionalists that object to this idea.

  • Some athletes may consider a hormone-based classification as offensive. If someone identifies as male and is in a lower testosterone class, is that a stigma? Perhaps a solution is to allow lower testosterone HPN classes to compete in higher testosterone classes if they desire. Also, results of HPN testing would be kept confidential. Only revealed as decided by the athlete.

  • When changing any system, one must be concerned with the “law of unintended consequences.” That is inadvertent but negative results that occur because of a system change. In particular, I think of our “Rule Beating” natural tendency. That is, some people will attempt to optimize their competitive advantage under any athletic rule regime. This reality will put pressure on the rule and enforcement sports organizations. I take comfort in the knowledge that this proposed HPN approach is more aligned with 1) the natural power of hormones to impact athletic performance and 2) how people naturally produce hormones. As existing today, the visible gender classes are only a rough approximation and lead to hormone cheating.

Please note: This data found in this graph is for illustrative purposes only.

 

Conclusion

Admittedly, for the purpose of athletic competition, changing classifications away from visible gender is controversial. But, it is apparent the current approach of using visible gender-based classifications lacks accuracy and fairness. The traditional athletic competition classification approach causes:

  • incentives to cheat with banned substances,

  • unfairness for athletes that happen to naturally produce lower levels of testosterone, and

  • perpetuates cultural-based systemic biases related to visible gender.

This proposed new approach will 1) create a more level competitive playing field and 2) reduce the stigmas associated with individual visible gender biology and self-identified gender alignment.

Today, our questions with sports and gender seem to focus on “How can people fairly compete in their visible gender class?” It is time to ask a better question. It is time to recognize the reality we all seem to avoid. Gender is on a continuum and is intensely personal. The traditional visible male / female designation is only a crude competitive approximation and leads to unfairness.

The better question is, How do we use the amazing advances in science and anti-doping technology to update our athletic competition classes?” This article offers a point of view on answering a better question.

 

Notes

[i] Sports should have two categories: “open” and “female", The Economist, 2022


[ii] Roselli, C. E., Neurobiology of gender identity and sexual orientation


[iii] Smith, Gregory A., Views of transgender issues divide along religious lines


[iv] For a summary of current efforts to curb drug-related cheating in sports, including the state of the current testing technology, please see this interview with Travis Tygart, CEO of the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA)


[v] Britannica, Freestyle Wrestling



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