NZ researchers: Gender binary in sports has perhaps had its day


University of Otago researchers have concluded that existing gender categories in sport should perhaps be abandoned in favour of a more “nuanced” approach in the new transgender era.

The authors are in favour of a radical change to what they describe as “the outdated structure of the gender division currently used in elite sport”.

Associate Professor Anderson and Dr Taryn Knox from the Dunedin Bioethics Centre, together with Otago physiologist Professor Alison Heather, investigate the ethics and science to do with the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) decision in research published in the latest issue of the Journal of Medical Ethics.

The recent IOC guidelines allow trans-women to compete in the women’s division if (amongst other things) their testosterone is held below 10nmol/L.

Heather says this is significantly higher than that of cis-women.

“Science demonstrates that high adult levels of testosterone, as well as permanent testosterone effects on male physiology during in utero and early development, provides a performance advantage in sport and that much of this male physiology is not mitigated by the transition to a transwoman,” she says.

However, not all researchers have interpreted the existing studies in the same way, or agree that trans women have unfair advantages.

Human Rights researcher Jack Byrne said studies about testosterone were red herrings because the majority of trans women reduced their testosterone to very low levels.

The Otago team propose possible solutions. Some options value inclusion more than fairness and vice versa.

They  include:

  • Excluding trans-women from competing in the women’s division
  • Creating a third division for transwomen and intersex women
  • Calculating a handicap for transwomen based on their testosterone levels – similar to that used in golf

Their preferred option is an extension of this with a proposed algorithm that could account for a range of parameters.


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