The chair of British Rowing has urged World Rowing to change its transgender policy “out of concern that there is a threat to hard-fought-for progress in women’s sport”.
Mark Davies urged the sport to follow the lead of swimming’s governing body, Fina, which has voted to bar from the female category anyone older than 12 who has undergone male puberty because of the advantage it confers in strength, size, lung capacity and endurance.
From next year, transgender women in swimming will have to compete in an “open category”. However, most international sports, including rowing, still allow trans women to compete in the female category if they reduce their testosterone for 12 months.
Davies’ concern comes amid new research in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, which found that transgender women retain significant cardiovascular and strength advantages compared to female athletes, even after taking testosterone‑suppressing hormones for more than a decade.
Scientists at the University of São Paulo found that transgender women had on average a VO2 max that was 20.2% higher and a grip strength that was 18.9% higher than females in a study that looked at the impact of long-term oestrogen therapy, and the prior exposure to testosterone during puberty, on sporting performance.
The study was based on a series of tests on 15 transgender women, who had received hormone therapy for an average of 14 years, using treadmills and hand grip tests. Their performance was then compared to 13 cisgender men and 14 cisgender women.
Speaking at the World Rowing Congress, Davies said: “At British Rowing, we are about to publish an update to our transgender policy which will bring it in line with World Rowing’s.
“World Rowing is less protective of women’s sport than some other international sports federations like Fina, which has adopted a policy of having open and women’s categories, where open is for anyone who went through male puberty – recognising limiting testosterone levels fails to counteract the lasting impact of that.
“Would rowing look at its policy out of concern that there is a threat to hard-fought-for progress in women’s sport, and consider following Fina’s lead?”
Meanwhile, Alun Williams, professor of sport and exercise genomics at Manchester Metropolitan University, said the Brazilian study suggested that transgender women do have an unfair advantage over female athletes.
“This new evidence doesn’t support the eligibility of transwomen for the female categories of most sports,” he said. “The test of cardiovascular fitness looks pretty good and the scientists got people who have lowered their testosterone for years, which is unusual.
“However, there are better and more informative ways for testing strength in sport – even something as simple as squatting or bench pressing. We could then build on that in the lab in a more sophisticated way.”