SwimmingSports Scientist Ross Tucker Discusses Transgender Participation Debate

Sports Scientist Ross Tucker Discusses Transgender Participation Debate

Leading Sports Scientist Ross Tucker Sheds Light on Transgender Participation Debate

The issue of transgender participation in women’s sports has been a major topic in swimming, most notably Lia Thomas – a three-year men’s team member at the school – representing the University of Pennsylvania and winning an NCAA title in March. The debate, however, goes beyond swimming, and the issue of fairness for biological women is at the heart of the discussion.

South African sports scientist Ross Tucker, an expert on the topic, was recently interviewed by Medscape and provided insights on transgender participation, including the inherent advantages maintained by trans women after transitioning. Here are some of the comments made by Tucker, and here is the complete interview conducted by Medscape.

On Women’s Sports Having Its Own Separate Category

Women’s sports exist because we recognize that male physiology has biological differences that create performance advantages. Women’s sports exist to ensure that male advantages are excluded. If you allow male advantage in, you’re allowing something to cross into a category that specifically tries to exclude it. That makes the advantage possessed by trans women conceptually and substantively different from an advantage that’s possessed by Michael Phelps because his advantage doesn’t cross a category boundary line.

If someone wants to allow natural advantages to be celebrated in sports, they’re arguing against the existence of any categories, because every single category in sports is trying to filter out certain advantages.

Weight categories in boxing exist to get rid of the advantage of being stronger, taller, with greater reach. Paralympic categories filter out the natural advantage that someone has if, for example, they are only mildly affected by cerebral palsy compared with more severely affected.

If someone wants to allow natural advantages, they’re making an argument for all advantages to be eliminated from regulation, and we would end up with sports dominated by males between the ages of 20 and 28.

Shouldn’t Transgender Women Unequivocally Dominate?

That (commentary) misunderstands how you assess advantage. For a trans woman to win, she still has to be good enough at the base level without the advantage, in order to parlay that advantage into winning the women’s events. If I was in the Tour de France and you gave me a bicycle with a 100-watt motor, I wouldn’t win the Tour de France. I’d do better than I would have done without it, but I wouldn’t win. Does my failure to win prove that motors don’t give an advantage? Of course not. My failure says more about my base level of performance than it does about the motor.

In terms of trans athletes, the retention of biological attributes creates the retention of performance advantages, which means that the person’s ranking relative to their peers’ will go up when they compare themselves to women rather than men. Someone who’s ranked 500 might improve to the 250s, but you still won’t see them on a podium. It’s the change in performance that matters, not the final outcome.

On the Emotional Nature of the Debate

There are a few things in play. There are nuances around the idea of advantage that people from outside sports don’t always appreciate. But then the second thing comes into play and that’s the fact that this is an emotive issue. If you come to this debate wanting trans inclusion, then you reject the idea that it’s unfair. You will dismiss everything I’ve just said.

There’s a third thing. When people invoke the Phelps wingspan argument, they haven’t thought through the implications. If you could sit them down and say, “Okay. If you want to get rid of regulating natural advantages, then we would get rid of male and female categories,” what do you think would happen then?

They may still support inclusion because that’s their worldview, but at least they’re honest now and understand the implications. But most people don’t go through that process.

To read more of Tucker’s comments, visit the full Medscape interview.


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