Is it time to change how we compete?

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. If a man changes their sex to a woman, should they compete as a man or a woman? Do they have an unfair advantage competing as a woman because they were formerly a man? Or do they have an unfair disadvantage competing as a man because their bodies now produce less male hormone (testosterone)?


Simultaneously, our culture is evolving. Today, there is much higher acceptance related to how people self-identify gender. Increasingly, people are accepting that the sexual gender someone was born with 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. (1) 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. (2)


In the world of athletics, many sports are impacted by the male hormone. Testosterone can make 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. (3)


Perhaps it is time to change how we think about classifying athletes. My proposal is to replace the visible gender (Male / Female) competitive classifications with multiple classes based on hormone concentrations.


An on-point example: Wrestling

Before we examine the proposed classification approach, let's consider wresting 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, (please note, there are always exceptions) 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. (4)


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 that define 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 new physical nature classification will be 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 concentrations 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 should be decreased. A person's self-identified gender will have decrease relevance as replaced by athletic performance within their HPN class.

  • Athletic availability would be increased for those that may not have a hormone-induced advantage as in the current gender classification regime. That is, is it fair that a visible gender woman or man that happens to produce more testosterone or other hormones naturally has an advantage in today's visible gender-based classifications? HPN-based classes would create a level playing field regardless of hormone birth luck.

Practical Challenges or Considerations:

  • Setting HPN classes will take more research. The number of classes and the hormone concentration cutoffs need to be determined. The cutoffs will have to be tested to 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 wrestlers that periodically change weight classes.

  • 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.

  • Social acceptance will be a challenge. There will likely 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, people will naturally 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 HPN approach is more in line with how people naturally produce hormones. It is meant to classify athletes based on their natural hormone producing ability. 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

I will admit, for the purpose of athletic competition, changing gender-based classifications away from visible gender classes maybe controversial. But, I also believe the current approach of using visible gender-based classifications lacks accuracy. People naturally produced hormones at different concentrations and this reality creates an unfair advantage for those that naturally produce more testosterone. Similar to the way a heavier wrestler would have an unfair advantage over a lighter wrestler. My proposed new approach will both create a more level competitive playing field and reduce the stigmas associated with individual visible gender biology and self-identified gender alignment.


Notes

(1) Roselli, C. E., Neurobiology of gender identity and sexual orientation


(2) Smith, Gregory A., Views of transgender issues divide along religious lines


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


(4) Britannica, Freestyle Wrestling



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