A conversation today got me thinking about the current controversy in the U.S. and in international athletics about transsexual women and girls being banned from competing in women’s and girls’ teams and competitions.
Here’s my question: Why do we still have gendered athletic competitions at all? The standard answer, of course, is that most women and girls, in most sports, will not be able to compete successfully against men and boys, who in general are bigger and stronger. But is the current norm—separate teams and leagues based on gender—the best solution?
In the case of school team athletics, for example, why not simply have First Tier teams, Second Tier teams, and Third Tier teams? Placement would be determined by performance, not gender. The current nonsense of classifying athletes by gender identity and testosterone levels could be put aside. All interested students could participate on teams suited to their skill levels. Girls, boys, and trans students skilled enough to compete against the best athletes in the First Tier could do so; those lacking the skills to make the First Tier could still enjoy playing in the Second or Third Tier.
The same idea could be employed in individual sports like tennis or swimming or track and field. In the Olympics, for example, instead of male swimming competitions and female swimming competitions, why not have First Tier swimming, Second Tier swimming, and Third Tier swimming? If your performances reach a certain level, you qualify for the First Tier. Otherwise, you compete in the Second Tier, or the Third. The objection, undoubtedly, would be the same argument used in favour of gendered competition: many women and girls would be excluded because they would not be able to compete successfully against men and boys, even at the Second or Third Tier levels. Dishonest individuals who could not win in the First Tier would deliberately underachieve so they could be relegated to the Second Tier, where they could then capture all the gold medals.
Maybe. But measures could be taken to mitigate against unfairness. And fears of cheating are overblown. Cheating is already a part of every sport, and every sport has rules and sanctions to minimize dishonesty. Most athletes, however, want to test themselves against tough competition. Winning against opponents whose skills are clearly inferior would hold no satisfaction or pleasure for the vast majority of competitors.
I am “thinking out loud” here, and perhaps I have not thought hard enough or carefully enough about these issues. It does seem clear to me, however, that banning and stigmatizing transsexual athletes is cruel and unsustainable. There has to be a better way.