Not all genders seem to be welcome on the pitch.
Historically, sports have been very gendered. A woman, of course, had to be weak and could only be allowed to have physical activities that would not be tagged as ‘sports’ such as dancing. Men, however, have always been welcome to compete in sports, sometimes completely naked like in the Olympic games. The gendered upbringing and performance has repercussions in all parts of life, including sports too.
Now let’s dial back, in the time when you were a kid running around in the schoolyard. There would be from quite early on, two types of games played: the section with the boys running after the football and there would be the girls. The two groups would rarely mix, and only some anti-conformists would be brave enough to go play in a gender non-conforming way. At their own risks and peril, we all know how children can be horrible.
The situation in professional sports
In professional sports, there is still the same going on: we do not mix sexes. There might be some nearly professional athletes who belong to a mixed team, but that is rare. And the distinction goes further. Not only do the players not mix, but also the funding is dramatically different.
In fact, the sports segregation implies a binary distinction. It has not to do with gender, but with anatomy (historically), or currently with physiology: it is about sex: being female/male rather than women/men. The distinguishing criteria often invoked is either the chromosomal makeup or more recently, the testosterone level.
Such a distinction seems commonly accepted in sports but would be unacceptable in other areas of life such as career opportunities, politics. In those areas where sex segregation is self-consciously practised, the argument usually given is that it is to protect and to promote the historically disadvantaged group (as in quotas). Not so in sports
It wouldn’t be odd to do sex segregation if sports would be a domain where morals and segregation don’t matter. Sports, as they are a cultural phenomenon, are open to moral judgment and critique. This has been the case in recent history too, as shown for example by the banning of many Russian teams following the start of the war in Ukraine. The debate concerning the length of female volleyball players’ shorts is just another example that in sports, there is a whole bigger societal issue at stake and not just the athletic performance. There are real implications (fines in the case of the Norwegian volleyball team) in the perceived femininity ( a gender issue) of female-sexed athletes, and the issue also concerns athletes with differences of sex development (DSD athletes) and trans athletes.
Arguments of proponents of sports sex-segregation
When it comes to sports, typically, different reasons are given to support sex segregation. There is the quality argument:
“female athletes are not as good as male athletes.”
Leading to the conclusion that for that reason, there should be sex segregation in sports.
There is the safety argument:
“female athletes are physically more fragile / weaker than male athletes.”
Leading to the conclusion that for female athletes’ safety, due to their intrinsic delicacy, they should compete in another category than men. With an even more disturbing and nonetheless serious follow-up justification of possible male aggressiveness due to being surpassed by a female athlete.
Those two arguments have flaws. Mainly, they are an overgeneralization. Even though there are some mixed sports and some mixed teams sometimes, sports tend to be still very much sex-segregated. Notwithstanding this overgeneralization, the on-average reason, the overgeneralisation that women are smaller than men or have a lesser muscle mass percentage, does not justify denying very talented females to compete in another group. This could be seen as a type of discrimination. Another flaw in the quality argument is that a ban seems to render any change impossible since one would posit it as a fact and not let the door open for a possible change. Maybe male athletes do outperform female athletes, take the example of running, but will this always be the case? Furthermore, to grow and continue to develop skill as an athlete, it is key to perform against athletes as good as or better than said athlete. Otherwise, performance will not change. Challenge is needed to grow; therefore, a strict ban would render such challenges impossible for leading female athletes. Of course, allowing is not the same thing as forcing; allowing some women to compete in the male category is not the same thing as forcing all women to do so.
The safety argument, too, relies on an over-generalisation. While it might be true that in contact sports, there is a risk of injury (but as far as I know, no male injury-prone athlete is banned from a team due to their injury-proneness – hello, double standard!), it is inexact to use that argument for non-contact sports: take golf for example, or skiing, there is no risk of being hurt by another athlete. That argument for those types of sports would then be irrelevant, yet sex segregation is still very much present in most types of sports.
Sports as a cultural phenomenon - Tännsjö’s suggestion for new sports values
Historically, sports and sports competitions have been largely built by and for men. Therefore it is not surprising that the qualities traditionally valued in sports are more typically male-associated values such as strength, dominance, and aggressiveness. Yet, as Tännsjö notes, these qualities are not always beneficial to make sports as a cultural phenomenon interesting. He takes the example of tennis: “ In modern tennis, the service is of enormous importance: an efficient service presupposes a lot of physical strength from the server. At the same time, an effective service tends to render the sport rather boring: it kills the game by taking the elegance out of it. An obvious solution to this problem would be to introduce a rule saying that a service is not successful unless the receiver has successfully returned it. “ (Tännsjö 2007 350)
What he suggests is developing sports – which lies in our power as there are organizations regulating sports – with a focus on other qualities that are not as tightly knit with traditional male-associated stereotypes and values. He gives the example of inventiveness, sensibility, cooperation, strategy, playfulness, wit, and moderation (Tännsjö 2007 354) as values (which are more readily found in female competitions) which would rejuvenate the sports industry by allowing it to let go of sex segregation. He takes moderation as being a key value here as: “The object of the moderation, that which ought to be moderated,is arrogant outbursts of (male) aggressiveness and (mere) strength. “ (Tännsjö 2007 354)
Ultimately, the testing of athletes to make them fit neatly in the (vestigial) binary of male and female is flawed and has always been. There is no correct way of identifying an athlete as male or female. Genitalia testing is out of the question because there is a great variety in genitalia and there are cases of hermaphroditism which render the distinction impossible. Gender is not relevant because it is too vague and not clear cut (and what criterion to take into account: how an athlete feels, dresses, appears, is perceived, behaves? ) Tännsjö mentions also the chromosomal testing which is problematic too because of chromosomic abnormalities such as the Turner (45 chromosomes; only one x) or Klinefelter syndrome (47 chromosomes, XXY). More recently (Luzzi, 2022) the point has been made for testosterone level as a defining criteria and this hormone based approach has been much in discussion in the case of trans athletes.
Trans athletes and sex segregation in elite sports – Luzzi’s suggestion for a high and low testosterone criterion
Here comes the point I want to bring home: sex segregation is not only unfair, but it does not allow for a clear place for transgender athletes and marginalizes them even more. They are the targets of attacks of all kinds and from all sides.
Having sports without gender or even sex distinction would cut short this discrimination and make it more open and welcoming to athletes regardless of their testosterone level. We can reshape sports. After all, nothing is set in stone.
Federico Luzzi (2022) suggests following Martínková that we could, in fact, replace the gender and even sex (as proposed by Martínková) terminology by testosterone level distinction between high and low testosterone. Currently, the hot debate about trans athletes arises from the conflation of sex and gender by sports regulating authorities such as World Athletics (WA) or the International Olympic Committee (IOC). This is harmful to trans-athletes but also to athletes with DSD (differences of sex development); because it is blind to their identity. Misgendering is a form of microaggression which consists in “using gender terms that exclude people from their gender category” (Luzzi, 2022: 5); as such, it is a harm and therefore has negative long-term consequences. The harm is even bigger when the misgendering or missexing comes from a figure of authority because it happens in a public context and is very much visible, and it is legitimized in the eyes of the spectators as the misgendering occurs due to public sports governing authorities. (Luzzi, 2022: 7).
“If one thinks that the eligibility criteria set by WA regulations are broadly correct, then one ought to jettison the current ‘women’s’/’men’s’ labelling in favour of testosterone-based labelling. » (Luzzi, 2022: 2) . It is interesting to see that since Luzzi wrote the paper and Martinkova et al. wrote theirs World Athletics did indeed ditch the man / woman category in their writings, and prefer now to use the male/female distinction :
In regard to transgender athletes, the Council has agreed to exclude male-to-female transgender athletes who have been through male puberty from female World Rankings competition from 31 March 2023.(see https://worldathletics.org/news/press-releases/council-meeting-march-2023-russia-belarus-female-eligibility)
While the testosterone categorizing allows a greater inclusivity, which is desirable if sports are to be a sustainable cultural phenomenon there remains a problem with the eligibility criteria as such, because there seems to be countless ways to circumvent this criteria or bring in new factors, such as the “Union Cycliste Internationale” (or UCI) has recently done, by excluding trans female athletes who have undergone a male puberty.
While I understand that there is an intention to ‘protect’ the female category due to less muscle mass, I believe that suppressing altogether the gender/sex talk in sports categories would be a good start, if not completely suppressing the male/female distinction in sports. Additionally, it remains unclear to me whether female trans athletes that have undergone a male puberty would be allowed to compete in the male category. Supposing that this is the case, this would – again – a microaggression to label them as men when they identify as a woman. If the concern is the likelihood of females having undergone a female puberty winning, this does not mean that there cannot be specific competitions in these cases. What it does mean is that there should be competitions where sex is simply not considered as relevant and forced upon the athletes. Instead of taking sex as the relevant factor, we could add other factors that could be more relevant to cycling, for example, height or weight, muscle percentage, and work from there. These factors would then define boxing categories as is the case of weight categories in boxing.
Starting a discussion in leisure sport activities
Nevertheless, we can also approach the problem from the other way around. As pointed out by Ludivine Brunes, generally speaking, it is only a minority of athletes who will become professional athletes; this minority is even smaller when considering trans and DSD athletes (athletes with differences of sex development). Most of the trans athletes and DSD athletes will join a sports club as a hobby or leisure activity. Given this, I think it would be beneficial to make amateur sports clubs more accessible and inclusive as first solutions would not cost too much.
In conclusion, the whole debate about trans athletes in sports urges the question again about the moral questions that arise in sports and the kind of blind spots which seem to be acceptable in sports but nowhere else. Let's take sports to be a cultural phenomenon that is there for all people. It becomes evident that inclusivity is an urgent matter to discuss from top down – as from sports organisations regulating the participation of professional athletes – but also from the bottom up by making sports and leisure activities available to all, period.
Martínková, Irena, Taryn Knox, Lynley Anderson, and Jim Parry. 2022. “Sex and Gender in Sport Categorization: Aiming for Terminological Clarity.” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport 49 (1): 134–50. https://doi.org/10.1080/00948705.2022.2043755.
Luzzi, Federico. 2022. “Conflating and Misgendering: Why World Athletics (and Other Sports Governing Bodies) Should Jettison the Competitive Labels ‘Women’s’/‘Men’s.’” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport 49 (3): 366–82. https://doi.org/10.1080/00948705.2022.2137030.
Torbjörn Tännsjö. 2007. “Against Sexual Discrimination in Sports.” In Ethics in Sport, edited by William J Morgan, 2nd ed. Human Kinetics.
On Isa Pulver winning the cycling race
On Nicole Reist:
Ludivine Brunes'site and thesis : Transidentité et pratiques sportives:
On World Athletics:
On UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale):