Is there really a competitive advantage? Debate over trans athletes tests science and inclusion

Opinion: If you don’t get it by now The Communist Broadcasting Company is the definition of Marxist State Media. A propaganda arm of the government. This is out right fake news.

Opinion: If you don't get it by now The Communist Broadcasting Company is the definition of Marxist State Media. A propaganda arm of the government. This is out right fake news.
Opinion: If you don't get it by now The Communist Broadcasting Company is the definition of Marxist State Media. A propaganda arm of the government. This is out right fake news.

Legislation on trans policies in Alberta expected in the fall

A teardrop can be seen in the right eye of a woman wearing a blue shirt.
Aria McGowan becomes tearful as she reflects on a proposed policy in Alberta that would ban trans women and girls from competing against cisgender women and girls. (Samuel Martin/CBC)

Aria McGowan picks up a football and gingerly takes a couple of steps back before throwing it to a teammate down the field.

It’s a Saturday morning and the Edmonton Storm, a women’s tackle football team, is holding a practice at Commonwealth Community Recreation Centre.

McGowan, 46, is their quarterback.

She loves playing football, and it’s clear the football field is a place McGowan feels safe. But she and other trans athletes in the province could potentially see their athletic pursuits curtailed.

In late January, Alberta Premier Danielle Smith proposed a slew of policies that could affect trans youth and adults, ranging from restrictions on gender-affirming health care to classroom pronoun policies. Among the proposed policies is a ban on transgender girls and women competing against cisgender girls and women in athletic competitions.

“There are some sports where the physical differences make a difference,” Smith said at a press conference on Feb. 1.

“In those cases, we do want to have biological women — women who are born biologically female — have the choice of being able to participate in a biological-female-only category while still preserving the gender-neutral categories and co-ed opportunities so that everyone has the ability to participate.”

Details on these proposed policies are slim. Legislation for the suite of policies is expected to be introduced in the fall. If passed, Alberta would be the first province in the country to implement this type of ban.

“Being told I’m not allowed to [play] would really suck,” McGowan said, holding back tears. “It’s just a lot of emotions.”

In the last few years, debate has been raging in North America over who should be allowed to compete in sports. While the discussion revolves around concepts of fairness and inclusion, researchers say the science around whether trans athletes have a competitive advantage is unsettled.

The Edmonton Storm is part of the Western Women’s Canadian Football League and often plays in other Prairie provinces.

Storm president Laura Hayne said the team is fully behind McGowan, but acknowledges the political situation could complicate their season.

“If this legislation moves forward in the way that we think it will, it will very much affect our ability to compete,” Hayne said.

‘Life of hiding’

McGowan said she had questioned her gender identity ever since she was a child.

“My family’s background is religious…. It was a life of hiding and, I guess, trying to be normal, according to society,” she said.

After her gender-affirming surgery in June 2009, she said she felt “whole.”

“It was the greatest feeling ever. It was just like a weight was lifted off my shoulders,” McGowan said. “That I could just move forward and start living life the way I wanted to, not the way everybody else wanted me to.”

A woman wearing black shorts and a blue shirt holds a football in the air.
Aria McGowan is the quarterback of the Edmonton Storm. (Samuel Martin/CBC)

McGowan played football as a teenager and said she enjoys how it is a team sport where trust is pivotal.

She joined the Edmonton Storm the year after her surgery and has been on the team ever since. McGowan said she’s not aware of any teammate or member of an opposing team expressing concern with her presence on the field.

“I’m not the biggest person, not the smallest. I’m not the fastest. I don’t see where an issue would lie with me playing. I’m not taking up anybody’s spot,” she said.

When it comes to the issue of physical advantages, McGowan says she worked in a warehouse before her surgery and used to move tires that weighed between 250 and 300 pounds. Now, she says she struggles to move 50 pounds.

“My strength has decreased significantly,” she said. “When I first started running again after having surgery, I fell on my face a couple of times because, in my head, my legs could move that fast, but my body was telling me it couldn’t. I kind of had to retrain myself.”

McGowan fundamentally disagrees with Alberta’s proposed sports policy.

“Being told you can’t do something makes you think there’s something wrong with you, when there’s not,” she said.

U.S. lawsuit

While an Alberta sports ban would be novel in Canada, such restrictions aren’t new south of the border.

According to the Movement Advancement Project, a U.S. non-profit think-tank, 24 states have passed laws banning transgender students from playing sports, while one, Alaska, has regulations that ban these students from competition. However, several states are facing injunctions that block the enforcement of these bans.

Selina Soule, 21, used to compete in track and field as a high school student in Connecticut, a state that allows transgender athletes to compete in a category that aligns with their gender identity.

Soule started in track and field when she was eight years old and competed in the 55-metre dash, the 4×200-metre relay and long jump, among others.

A woman with long red hair sits in front of a wall with several medals and awards.
Selina Soule, 21, used to compete in track and field as a high school student in Connecticut. (CBC)

But her passion for track and field was dealt a blow when she began to compete against transgender athletes.

“Over the years, I raced against those athletes dozens of times … and I never won a single time. I was never close to beating them,” she said.

Soule said she lost out on medals and qualifying competitions for certain events, saying they were never fair contests.

She is now a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference. First filed in 2020, the case is still working its way through the U.S. court system.

According to court filings, Soule finished in eighth place at the 2019 state open indoor 55-metre preliminary race, while two transgender athletes finished first and second. The complaint alleges Soule would have qualified for the regional championship if the two transgender athletes had not competed in the race.

WATCH | Trans athlete responds to proposed Alberta policy:

Trans athlete responds to proposed Alberta policy

7 days ago

Duration 1:35

Aria McGowan is the quarterback of the Edmonton Storm, a women’s tackle football team. McGowan speaks to national reporter Julia Wong about a proposed policy to ban trans girls and women from competing against cisgender girls and women in athletic competitions.

“I was quite literally forced on the sidelines in my own event, knowing that I should have been there on that track, competing and showing off my talents to college scouts,” she said.

“It was a very frustrating and demoralizing thing to have to go through, because we elite female athletes train so hard to shave fractions of a second off our times to win…. It’s heartbreaking knowing that no matter what you do, how many hours you spend in practice, that you will never be able to get that gold medal.”

Soule pointed to physical differences between men and women to explain why athletes should compete in categories that align with their sex.

“Everybody has the right to participate in sports. It just needs to be done where it’s most fair to everybody involved. And that means that we need to protect the female category and ensure that only women can participate in women’s sports,” Soule said.

Debate over competitive advantages

Doctors say more research is needed to determine whether trans athletes truly have a competitive physical advantage.

Dr. Brad Anawalt, a professor of medicine and an endocrinologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, said there is a negligible difference in power, speed and strength between boys and girls pre-puberty.

But he said that it is clear that post-puberty, men have an advantage over women when it comes to power, strength and speed, and in elite sports, minuscule differences can mean the difference between winning and losing.

Where it gets muddy, he said, is when an individual begins hormone therapy to transition to a woman.

“In that particular setting, we don’t have a lot of data to tell us that that person has a competitive advantage over cis[gender] women. We have some examples and we have this inferential knowledge that strength and power and speed will be different, but we don’t know that for certain,” he said.

A man with black hair and a blue sweater sits in a room.
Dr. Brad Anawalt is a professor of medicine and an endocrinologist at the University of Washington in Seattle.(CBC)

Anawalt said that based on limited data, after one or two years of hormone therapy, a trans woman has muscle mass and strength that is somewhere between that of a cisgender woman and a cisgender man, on average.

“Other important things that really will never change are things like hand size or feet size, and that’s important in sports like swimming,” he said, adding that “height can’t be changed with hormone therapy.”

In Anawalt’s opinion, policies could vary by sport, but he notes there is more to it than that.

This issue “can’t be resolved by science. It has to be resolved by society and recognizing that there’s a tension in values,” he said. “By trying to include everybody, we inevitably have to exclude somebody. It’s just the simple math of highly competitive elite sports.”

Dr. Joshua Safer, executive director at Mount Sinai’s Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery in New York City, agrees the science about competitive advantage is inconclusive.

“One hundred per cent there needs to be more research and it has to be sport-specific…. The question that’s going to get posed then to society is, in the absence of research, what’s your default situation?”

WATCH | How trans content creators are fighting back against hate online:

How trans content creators are fighting back against hate online

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Canadian transgender content creators say simply being active on social media makes them targets for hate and trolling. Still, Fae Johnstone and Lauren Sundstrom are adamant that it won’t stop them from posting.

Until there is clear evidence of advantages, Safer recommends inclusivity over fear.

For example, he said, “we don’t worry that, at international levels, the Dutch basketball team is taller than the Guatemalan basketball team.”

Inconsistency among sports organizations

Around the world, sporting organizations and federations are grappling with the question of who should be allowed to compete in athletic competitions. The policies are piecemeal and there is little consistency.

For example, USPORTS, which oversees Canadian university sports, and Volleyball Canada have released policies stating athletes can compete on a team that corresponds with their gender identity. The NCAA in the United States and the International Olympic Committee state transgender athletes must meet certain testosterone levels. World Rugby recommends trans women do not play women’s contact rugby, citing safety concerns, while World Athletics has banned trans women from competition if they have gone through puberty.

“The council agreed it must be guided by our overarching principle, which is to protect the female category,” said World Athletics president Sebastian Coe during a World Athletics Council press conference on March 23, 2023, adding that the decision was open to review based on developing science.

A woman with brown hair and a blazer stands on a sidewalk in Toronto.
Allison Sandmeyer-Graves is the CEO of Canadian Women and Sport. (CBC)

For Allison Sandmeyer-Graves, the CEO of Canadian Women and Sport, there is no debate — trans girls and women should be allowed to compete against cisgender girls and women.

Sandmeyer-Graves said the number of trans girls and women athletes is “very, very small” and notes that Alberta’s proposed policy will actually have more of a negative impact on all girls and women in sport, as it will place the onus on a woman to prove she is a woman.

She also points to the need to make sports a welcoming and inclusive space for all, pointing to the benefits of sport on an individual’s well-being.

“Until the sports system … moves beyond having these two categories — male and female — in sport, women’s sport is going to be the best place, we believe, for transgender girls and women to play,” she said.

Policing gender

While many believe the sex of an individual is the most important aspect in this debate, J.J. Wright, a sociologist at MacEwan University in Edmonton, said the tension is over the definition of woman.

“When babies are born, they’re labelled either male or female,” Wright said.

“These issues that we’re talking about around this ban of trans girls and women in sports is so much about reinforcing a conservative vision of what gender is and how we understand sexed bodies.”

A person wearing a white shirt and with short blonde hair sits in an office.
J.J. Wright is a sociologist at MacEwan University in Edmonton. (Peter Evans/CBC)

Wright said individuals often base their lives on this bifurcation, from marriage to having children, and that the category of who is a woman is important to define for some people.

“Because when they see people who don’t fit into this category and the way that they envision it, the way they’ve been taught in society to envision it, it makes them deeply uncomfortable,” Wright said.

“It’s really simply that we’re socialized in a particular way to imagine that … there’s parameters to womanhood and some people don’t fit into that. When they don’t, they are policed.”

While the Alberta government is poised to limit who can compete in sports, the Edmonton Storm said it will be business as usual until legislation is introduced in the fall.

Hayne, the team’s president, said it seems as if this moment could be a defining one.

“The world of sport is just reflecting society,” she said, “and society overall, right now, isn’t sure where it wants to go.”


Julia Wong

Senior reporter

Julia Wong is a senior reporter based in Edmonton.

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