Transgender Sports: Men and Women Have Physical Differences That No Surgery or Hormone Treatment Can Change

By Heather Zeiger Published on June 16, 2017

Kate Hall won the 100m sprint at regionals her sophomore year. But a year later, Hall was beat by Andraya Yearwood, a high school freshman. Yearwood was born male but “identifies” as female. At the time of the race, he had not undergone hormone treatment or surgery to “transition from male to female.”

More Than Testosterone

Much of the debate about “transgender” athletes has focused on testosterone. Consider the NCAA policy for such transgender athletes focuses only on testosterone. According to the NCAA’s policy for men transitioning to women:

A trans female [male transitioning to a female] student-athlete being treated with testosterone suppression medication for Gender Identity Disorder or gender dysphoria and/or Transsexualism, for the purposes of NCAA competition may continue to compete on a men’s team but may not compete on a women’s team without changing it to a mixed team status until completing one calendar year of testosterone suppression treatment. (NCAA Inclusion of Transgender Student-Athletes, 2011)

Notably, a trans male (female identifying as male) does not have to wait a year before competing on a men’s team.

Testosterone plays a big role in athletic performance. But when we start talking about high-performance competition, especially in track and field, small variations make all the difference. These go well beyond testosterone.

Hip Structure and Center of Mass

Some differences can’t be changed, even with surgery and hormone treatments.

One of the major differences between male and female runners is the hip structure along with everything attached to hip movement. It’s not just a matter of having wide or narrow hips. A key difference is the ratio between hip width and femur length. Women tend to have a greater hip width-to-femur length ratio, which leads to greater hip adduction — that is, movement toward the center of the body. This difference has a domino effect that results in small differences in joint rotation and muscle recruitment.

In other words, men and women differ in how the lower parts of their bodies move as a coordinated wholes.

Other Differences

Men also tend to have more fast-twitch muscles than women. According to experts this isn’t something that can change with training. Fast-twitch muscles are what you want for sprinting because they help you explode off the starting line. They also help produce the kind of “anaerobic” energy you need for sprinting . Slow-twitch muscles are good for conserving energy. They’re the kind of muscles you want in a distance race.

Doctors can change some things about the body. But they can’t “reformat” the body to become something else completely.

Men also tend to have larger internal organs. This sounds like a disadvantage for sprinters, but larger lungs and heart result in more oxygen uptake. The more oxygen you can take in, the more that can be transported to your muscles. VO2max measures an athlete’s maximum oxygen uptake. It’s higher in men than it is in women, even for men and women that have the same body mass and equivalent lean muscle mass. Biologically, men have a higher VO2max, all other things being equal.

As a result, men also tend to have a higher concentration of hemoglobin in their blood than women do. For athletes, that’s an advantage. This is why doping with EPO, a protein that increases your oxygen-carrying hemoglobin, is illegal in sports. A runner who is born male, therefore, has an advantage over most female athletes wanting to run a clean race.

The Body Can’t Be Completely “Reformatted”

Even with surgery, doping, and hormone treatment, you can’t change every piece of your body. The body functions as a cohesive whole. The skeletal system, the size of major internal organs, and one’s center of mass are all fundamental components of the body. We see this in athletes who use steroids. They often sustain injuries because steroids change muscle mass without changing the ligaments and tendons connected to the muscle.

Doctors can change some things about the body. But they can’t “reformat” the body to become something else completely. A biological male is going to have the fundamental structures of a male body. That’s an inherent advantage in many sports.

Subordinating Athletes Who are “Born Female”

Separating men and women in sports has opened the door for many opportunities for women.

Separating men and women in sports has opened the door for many opportunities for women. Title IX has allowed women athletes to attend college on a scholarship and compete at a high level. Women athletes have also served as role models to other women.

Consider some of the great female runners. Joan Benoit Samuelson took gold the first year the women’s marathon was part of the Olympics. Paula Radcliff holds the women’s marathon world record. Jackie Joyner Kersee holds the best heptathlon score and the second farthest women’s long-jump. Florence Griffith Joyner, considered the fastest woman of all time, ran the women’s 100m in 10.49 and the 200m in 21.34.

All these female athletes have made huge contributions to running. Yet even Florence Joyner’s times would not have qualified her for the men’s semi-finals. In fact, the top twenty-five fastest men in 100m have times under 10 seconds, beating Joyner’s time of 10.49.

Of course elite athletes are by definition outside the norm. But there’s something wrong when half of the population has an inherent disadvantage. If biological males can compete against biological females, it won’t be long, especially in elite sports, before males win all the races and hold all the records. 

Women will, in effect, but pushed out of competition because they were born with female bodies. Does that make any sense? As Jeff Jacobs asks in his thoughtful article in the Hartford Courant, “What do we tell these girls? A transgender’s journey is more important than your journey?”

Kate Hall showed grace and maturity in the face of disappointment. But how many more young women will have to say what Hall said in response to her defeat, “It’s frustrating … but that’s just the way it is now”?

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