To Compete, or not to Compete, that is the Question: Which is Nobler for Transwomen Athletes?

Miroslav Imbrišević
Formerly of Heythrop College, University of London

There is agreement that transwomen, like everyone else, have a right to participate in sports. But there is controversy about the following question: Do they have a right to compete in the female category?[1]

In a forthcoming paper, the philosopher and transwoman athlete, Veronica Ivy (previously: Rachel McKinnon), claims that she has no choice but to compete in the female category in cycling: ‘the rules of elite sport require athletes to compete in the sex category on their race license. If your license says “F,” then you must compete in the female category.’ Here, Ivy aims to counter the charge that she is ‘identifying into the sex category of her choice’.[2]

This justification brings up interesting questions about the purpose of sport and competition. My view is that sport aims to give us a ‘fair measure of performance’ (on the day). If transwomen, on average, have a considerable advantage over women, due to their male physiology,[3] then, I could just ignore this and say: ‘My racing license…says “F”, so I have no choice but to compete in the female category.’

There are two counters to this: Firstly, if you ignore this advantage and compete anyway, you undermine the purpose of sport. It is not a fair measure of performance any more. Secondly, what good is a win or a high ranking (in the female category) based on having gone through male puberty? Who among the competitors would enjoy standing on the podium, knowing all this? Keep in mind that, unlike doping cheats, Ivy is not doing it for prize money or endorsements (this really would be an incentive to do it). She is not cheating, because her sports governing body permits her to race. But she is wilfully blind to ignore the damage this does to the institution of sport. And, as I said, such wins/rankings are hollow.

The solution to her dilemma is to recognise that there is actually a third option: not to race competitively. There are plenty of other forms of physical recreation. Competitive sport is not like life-saving medicine.[4]

In her paper, Ivy takes an ambiguous line when it comes to male physiological advantages. As far as I see, she switches between three positions on the issue, and all three are mutually exclusive. 1. She implies that there are no advantages and nothing to worry about: ‘trans women are not winning “at all levels of girls’ and women’s sports these days.” There hasn’t been a single transgender person to attend the Olympics, let alone win a medal. No openly trans woman holds an elite world record (mine was an age-restricted masters’ record).[…] No openly trans woman has won an elite world championship in any sport, ever.’[5] 2. Later she writes: ‘I can’t find anyone seriously claiming that hyperandrogenic intersex women or trans women have no advantage at all.’ Here she admits that there is an advantage. Immediately following this, we get the third position: ‘The truth is we do not know.’

What we do know is that the IOC is behind the curve when it comes to mitigating for physiological advantages. They only focus on testosterone levels, and this is not an effective measure.

The inclusion of transwomen in competitive sport reproduces a familiar pattern for women: being displaced and side-lined (by men) from podium places and rankings.

But there is something else that needs to be considered in this context, which is usually ignored, and that is the social and cultural history between men and women. The state (in many countries) permits those who suffer from gender dysphoria (really: ‘sex’ dysphoria) to change their legal status. So a biological male becomes legally ‘female’. If you want to join the class of women, and you have a certain level of education and awareness (which a professor of philosophy like Ivy should have), you will, I hope, have some concern about the effects of your actions on women. There is a long history of oppression and violence which men have inflicted on women. A transwoman who has real concern for women, should think twice before deciding to compete in boxing and other martial arts events (like Fallon Fox).[6] Here, one could easily get the idea that the history of violence by men against women continues in the ring. The same goes for contact sports like rugby. The language recently used to describe a transwoman on the field was revealing: she ‘folded an opponent like a deckchair’.

What about non-contact sports? Consider the psychological effects on female athletes who are ‘beaten’ (yes, this is a metaphor, but with violent origins like many others: trounce, defeat, dominate, be victorious, etc.) in a race by someone who only a year ago was a man? Perhaps I am overstating the importance of language. Perhaps these expressions have become dormant metaphors, and people have become desensitised to their violent origins.

I am not saying that female athletes don’t have the mental resilience to take defeat – they do. But there is something else that concerns me: the reproduction of (current and historical) patterns of societal wrongs. The inclusion of transwomen in competitive sport reproduces a familiar pattern for women: being displaced and side-lined (by men) from podium places and rankings. This may not be intended by transwomen, but it is how many women in athletics and in other areas (in politics: women-only short-lists) perceive it. Women who object are being told to shut up (‘there is no debate’) and make room for transwomen in a space that, in their eyes, used to be free from such patterns. Furthermore, a bad side-effect of blanket inclusion policies is this: girls/women would be discouraged from taking up sports. They might well take the attitude: ‘What’s the point?’

Ivy has a ‘master’-argument to defeat claims about the advantages of having gone through male puberty, and any other concerns people may have: transwomen are – by definition – female. This makes all problems and objections go away. Such a move, defining problems out of existence, has a name in philosophy: ‘definitional stop’.[7] But once you recognise the move, the problems persist.

Ivy should really spend some time pondering this: If you want to become a ‘woman’, then you would need to show some sensitivity and concern for women (whom you claim as your sisters) and the socio-cultural background which is part of being a woman. How will your actions, as a male-born person, be perceived by women? What impact (literally and metaphorically) will it have? These are questions I would expect trans athletes to consider before they decide to enter competitive sports, particularly if they are a philosopher (Ivy only took up cycling after transitioning). It is noteworthy that it is routinely taken for granted (particularly by governing bodies) that women will just ‘move over’ and make room. But women will associate such an attitude with the ‘male entitlement’ they have experienced all their lives.

In contact sports transwomen are inflicting legally permitted violence on women; in non-contact sports they are metaphorically ‘beating’ them. I must say, I’d be very uncomfortable about this (particularly in contact sports) if I were a transwoman athlete.

When a transwoman joins her local club and the respective sports organisation, she, at the same time, joins a bigger ‘club’: the community of female athletes, as well as the wider community of girls and women. As a result she gains certain privileges, but she also incurs responsibilities towards the other club members. This is something that transwomen athletes (who do competitive sports), and governing bodies rarely acknowledge. Sport, like life, is not just about self-realisation, we all live within communities.

Copyright © Miroslav Imbrišević 2021


[1] See my previous discussion on
[2] I discuss Ivy’s paper more comprehensively here.
[3] See Hilton & Lundberg, 2020; also Jon Pike, 2020.
[4] Gleaves & Lehrbach (2016) suggest that sport provides trans athletes with the opportunity to express their own gendered narrative as an athlete, and that is a good reason for inclusion. But the ‘meaning-making’ potential of sport cannot override its central purpose: a fair measure of performance.
[5] The transgender weightlifter, Laurel Hubbard, aged 41, does dominate in her sport.
[6] There is also the safety issue, recently raised by World Rugby.
[7] The expression was coined in 1959 by the great British legal scholar H.L.A. Hart.
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  1. Whilst there are some cases when transwomen taking part will ‘do no harm,’ in the majority of cases trans women should for the ethics and integrity of women’s sport choose to remove themselves.
    Take the example of Laurel Hubbard in New Zealand – as a man he was a reasonable junior lifter. More than twenty years later we’re supposed to applaud a ‘world class’ woman. Laurel and other’s like her should have the integrity to not take part in women’s sport.


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