BY CHIP DAVIS
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“This policy destroys fair competition for girls and women, but it protects it for boys and men. By allowing males to identify as girls and women to compete in the women’s category, fairness for female athletes is blatantly discarded,” said Dr. Mary O’Connor, an Olympic rower and a member of the Independent Council on Women’s Sports (ICONS).
USRowing, recognized by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee as the sport’s national governing body, issued an updated gender-identity policy in December of last year.
The new policy, to be revised annually, permits rowers to declare confidentially that they are women, without any medical treatment or documentation, and race in women’s categories in regattas that are not run by World Rowing (the international rowing federation formerly known as FISA), or under the jurisdiction of the NCAA or “other national rowing governing organizations.” Mixed events are the only ones in which the new USRowing policy addresses “athletes assigned as female at birth.”
“USRowing made sure that fairness and competition was protected for boys and men by defining eligibility based on sex in only one category—the mixed-boats category,” said O’Connor, who was among the Yale women who stripped naked and wrote “Title IX” on their bodies in 1976 to advance women’s sports.
“Why? Because if they did not do so, that would make competition unfair for men potentially if the men were competing in a mixed event against boats with males who identified as women.
“This is the only category—namely, when females are racing with men—in which being female is the criterion for inclusion. Otherwise, women have to compete in women’s events against men who identify as women.”
In simple terms, the debate is about sex versus gender. The sex camp argues that male physiological differences, such as more testosterone, larger size, and higher oxygen-carrying capacity, confer an undeniable advantage in competitive sports such as rowing. Hence, fairness requires separate events for males and females.
The gender camp argues that how a person self-identifies should determine the arena in which they can demonstrate their talent, achieve their potential, and enjoy competition at a time when efforts are being made to erase discrimination and right past wrongs by emphasizing diversity, equity, and inclusion.
USRowing CEO Amanda Kraus defended its policy in a statement to Rowing News.
“At USRowing, we seek to make rowing a highly competitive, safe, and inclusive place where all athletes, including transgender athletes, can participate fully and feel a sense of belonging.” Kraus wrote. By accepting gender as a self-identified attribute, “we are saying we TRUST [sic] our rowers and believe in them when they say they are a man or a woman.”
For O’Connor and ICONS, which includes Olympians and former U.S. National Team members Carol Brown, Jan Palchikoff, Patricia Spratlen Item, Valerie McClain, and Ann Simpson, that doesn’t cut it.
“The science is very clear,” said Dr. O’Connor, a physician and orthopedic surgeon. “Sex is absolutely the single most important determinant of athletic performance. Males are bigger, stronger, faster than females. There is no debate about this.
“We also know that males who identify as women cannot become female. Humans cannot change their sex. Males who identify as women and suppress testosterone do not lose their male physiologic advantage. It is changed, it is decreased somewhat, but that does not level the playing field, and therein lies the problem.”
In NCAA rowing, where coaches have embraced enthusiastically the recruitment and importation of athletes from Europe, Australia, and New Zealand to win championships, the possibility of a crew consisting of men who’ve declared themselves women doesn’t exist, even though the NCAA ducked the issue by referring gender-identity policymaking to the governing bodies of each sport.
“With respect to collegiate athletes,” wrote USRowing’s Kraus, “our policy follows World Rowing’s policy of a maximum of five nanomoles per liter of testosterone for a minimum of 12 months for trans women to compete”—a reference to the hormonal threshold for eligibility after testosterone-suppression treatment.
O’Connor criticized that part of USRowing’s policy.
“Testosterone suppression does not equalize the playing field. There’s lots of scientific data to support this. In the longest study, even after 14 years of testosterone suppression, a male taking testosterone-suppressing medication who identifies as a woman is still 20 percent stronger and has 20 percent greater heart and lung capacity than a female. The physiologic advantage of being born male cannot be erased.”
Dr. Kate Ackerman, a former U.S. National Team rower and current chair of the USRowing medical committee, said, “Unfortunately, we do not have prospective, sport-specific studies to fully understand how much prior testosterone exposure with subsequent testosterone suppression contributes to a trans athlete’s boat speed. No studies in trans rowers have been performed to date.”
As this issue went to press, World Athletics (track and field’s governing body) was considering a limit of 2.5 nanomoles per liter after two years of suppression. World Rowing might adopt the same lower threshold, but Dr. O’Connor doesn’t believe that solves the fairness issue.
“Suppressing testosterone for two years, even at a level that is closer to females, will not erase the biological advantage of being male,” she said.
In a written response to Rowing News, Dr. Ackerman, a sports medicine physician, endocrinologist, and director of the Female Athlete Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, elaborated:
“The IOC has asked that sports governing bodies, including World Rowing, strike a balance between fairness and inclusion. This is a difficult task when we don’t know the direct effects of hormonal transition on trans rowers’ sports performance. As a member of the World Rowing Medical Commission and as the chair of the USRowing Medical and Sports Science Committee, I can assure you that both organizations are putting a lot of thought into their gender-inclusion policies.”
The USRowing policy was approved by its board with no public record of how members voted. Rowing News has learned that among board members there is significant disagreement. USRowing said the board engaged in “several lengthy and comprehensive discussions” that elicited “varying opinions.”
“It’s not fair to let males, even though they identify as women, compete against females,” Dr. O’Connor said. “It’s blatantly discriminatory to females.
“The better policy would be to say, ‘Here’s the female category where females compete and here’s the open/male category where men and individuals who are male but are suppressing testosterone can compete.’ The female category has to be protected.”
“We will regularly revisit this policy as and when appropriate,” Kraus promised, “to ensure that it does not become an issue for rowing.”