Ministers need to enforce fairness for females in sport – now | Mara Yamauchi

The Guardian
The Guardian
Mara Yamauchi competing in the Tokyo international women's marathon, November 2008 Photograph: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images

Why does the female category in sport exist? It exists so that those born female – women and girls – can participate, compete and excel in sport that is fair and safe. Without the female category, women and girls would be nowhere in sport because of the massive physical advantages that those born male enjoy.

The scale of these advantages is poorly understood, but was well illustrated by the UK sports councils’ hypothetical example of Sir Mo Farah being lapped twice in a 10,000m race if he were up against someone 10% faster than him – 10% being the gap between males and females in my own sport, running.

The fact of you reading this article right now is due to the female category existing. Without it, I would be a complete nobody. When I set my personal best , 2:23:12 in 2009, I was ranked second in the world in women’s road running. But 2:23:12 is, being frank, nothing special by male standards. In 2009, at least 1,300 men ran faster. If I had been told to suffer unfair competition against male-born athletes, I would never have become the UK’s joint most successful female marathon runner in the Olympics ever, and a Commonwealth Games medallist. I would have been excluded from things of value such as places on teams, prize money and podium places. That is if I’d persevered in sport at all – probably, I would have quit sport altogether. Why would anyone want to compete in an event that is unfair?

The whole point of the female category is it excludes the advantage male bodies have. Logically, this must be enforced, or it ceases to be the female category and instead becomes a mixed category. I therefore welcome Fina’s recently announced new policy to exclude male-born people from elite female competitions if they have experienced any part of male puberty, for two main reasons: it has focused, laser-like, on the source of male advantage – androgenisation, which is mostly acquired during male puberty (there are small differences evident in childhood). Second, Fina has made very clear its belief, which I share, that trans people must be welcome and included in sport, by committing to developing an open category. The details of this are to be decided, but this solution ensures fairness and inclusion for everyone, including for females. I hope other federations will follow Fina’s lead.

The debate about trans inclusion in sport has focused mostly on the elite level. But the crisis facing women’s sport is just as serious at grassroots level. Male-born people are competing in women’s sport all over the UK. Officials and event organisers, many of them volunteers, are powerless to turn away requests from people born male to compete in the female category. I know, because I hear about examples of this happening frequently. I am in touch with a group of women in the UK who have been deliberately avoiding events in which a male-born person is competing, and are considering quitting altogether. I can’t say which sport, to protect their anonymity. But why should any woman be put in this invidious position?

Last September, the UK sports councils made clear that fairness and safety for females on the one hand, and inclusion of male-born people in the female category on the other, cannot coexist, even with testosterone suppression. Fairness and inclusion cannot be balanced: sports face a choice. But since then, national governing bodies or NGBs have equivocated, and all the while there is evidence that females are being excluded from things of value in their own category, or are self-excluding.

The culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, has said she would instruct the national governing bodies to protect the female category. This is long overdue, and I hope she did exactly that in her meeting with them on Tuesday. It need not have come to this if the national governing bodies had protected the female category. But they haven’t, and although I am no fan of this government, I am glad to see leadership coming from the top. This issue affects 51% of the population; it is a public health matter, and millions of tax-payers’ money is spent on sport annually. I am glad to see what I hope will be the beginning of the end of this ideological assault on fair and safe sport for women and girls.

One feature of this debate that I find very frustrating is the lack of basic understanding of sport by many who favour inclusion of male-born people in the female category. For example, conflating the differences between the sexes (which are massive), with differences in bodies – for example big feet, or being left-handed – which occur in both males and females (and are, by comparison, minuscule). Otherwise known as the Phelps gambit – named after swimmer Michael Phelps and based on the idea that his physique gave him an unfair competitive edge over his closest competitors – this argument has been demolished by scientists numerous times, yet still it gets wheeled out.

Another misunderstanding is the asymmetry of what trans inclusion offers to the two sexes. Males can enjoy competition in the female category with retained male advantages, therefore enhancing their careers, opportunities and bank balances. By contrast, females suffer exclusion in their own category and have zero chance of being competitive in the male category, even on testosterone, which is banned anyway. The Tokyo 2021 qualifying standard in the men’s marathon was 2:11:30; the women’s world record is 2:14:04.

Inclusion’s supporters tout this as a social justice and human rights issue. If only they would include females in their crusade.

  • Mara Yamauchi is a former elite marathon runner and two-time Olympian

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