Transgender athletes: fair competition versus acceptance

Using a recent case study, Tim argues that the acceptance of transgender triathletes is more important than who is first across the finish line

Credit: Daniel Seex

It’s a topic emotive as it is complex, but before becoming lost in the minutiae of laws designed to ensure fair competition, let’s briefly consider the human aspect…

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In 2003, aged 30, sedentary and obese, Warren lost 50kg in a year, became an Ironman finisher, and proudly represented New Zealand at age-group level for a decade.

Yet any nerves before racing back then pale when compared to the anxiety now felt at the notion of simply turning up at the local pool for a recreational swim. So, as we begin to discuss eligibility, do not think that standing atop a podium is anything like the priority any more.

Warren is now Serah Sutherland, a transgender triathlete from Wellington. Articulate and engaging, she’s also a Libra, which – according to astrology – means she sees all sides to every argument. When others suggest that someone born a male shouldn’t compete as a female, she understands why.

Serah only became aware of her gender dysphoria in recent years and is transitioning. There’s a two-year wait for surgery, then up to nine months before she’s able to properly exercise. The physiological transformation is life-changing; the mental adjustment perhaps even bigger.

“The anxiety associated with returning to sport is 10 times that of social interactions,” she explains, but is determined to persevere. “Not every trans person wants to be a world-class athlete. Most do sport for the love of sport, the friendships, the emotional and health stimulation.”

For the inclusion Serah craves, she first had to educate herself on the technicalities. International Olympic Committee guidelines state a four-year stand-down period for those transitioning from male to female to rule out any competitive advantage – predominantly from elevated testosterone. The IOC ruling sets its limit at 10 nanomoles per litre (nmol/l). Serah currently has a reduced level of 3.8 nmol/l, with the side-effect of hormone drugs being low blood pressure, so intense exercise makes her dizzy.

Still, even when she becomes IOC compliant, what about the local race director who receives a complaint citing gains made from years training as a man give an unfair advantage? Or what of those advocating she competes in a separate ‘trans’ category? If the former is a moot point, the latter serves to ostracise.

“Being attacked for being a transgender woman doing sports doesn’t help anyone,” she says. “It just reinforces a prehistoric view that sports is a binary world where people like me shouldn’t be involved.”

In striving for acceptance and relative anonymity, Serah has chosen to speak out, even if behind the brave facade her world can be both isolating and debilitating.

“I want to play by the rules, have discussions regarding inclusion, enlighten event organisers, and make it easier for those that follow. And ultimately, I’d love to do one more Ironman. No drama, no special treatment. Just one woman hoping to be called an Ironman.

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