The Debatable Land #16: The Lia Thomas Problem
Can Trans rights be squared with sporting fairness?
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From small fish to bigger fish
Five years ago John McEnroe, who had a book to promote at the time, gave an interview to American public radio which - surprisingly, seriously - caused a rumpus. McEnroe was asked about Serena Williams whom he had called “the best female player in the world”. In the interview he went further, describing Williams as the “best female player ever, no question”. Which was where the trouble began:
Interviewer: Some wouldn't qualify it, some would say she's the best player in the world. Why qualify it?
McEnroe: Oh! Uh, she's not, you mean, the best player in the world, period?
Interviewer: Yeah, the best tennis player in the world. You know, why say female player?
McEnroe: Well because if she was in, if she played the men's circuit she'd be like 700 in the world.
Interviewer: You think so?
McEnroe: Yeah. That doesn't mean I don't think Serena is an incredible player.
A number of things were apparent here. First, rightly or fairly or not, McEnroe’s comments revealed an uncomfortable reality: men’s tennis (and men’s sport more generally), is still often considered both the default level of competition and its acme. There is tennis and then, as a subset of the game, there is women’s tennis. Secondly, though, McEnroe was obviously right. And the person to ask about this is Serena Williams herself.
During an appearance on David Letterman’s TV show in 2013, the subject of playing one of the top male players was raised. Williams offered an unequivocal response:
"If I were to play Andy Murray, I would lose, 6-0, 6-0, in five to six minutes, maybe 10 minutes. The men are a lot faster, they serve harder, they hit harder. … It's a completely different game."
There is a reason the top women in the world, including Williams, hire men to be their practice partners but none of the world’s best men hire women to be their hitting fodder.
If tennis were organised on an open basis, without division into men’s and women’s tournaments, there would be almost no, if any, professional women’s tennis players. A decent enough male player will beat even the greatest female one. Serena’s claims to greatness are indisputable but any estimation of her place in the pantheon is made on the basis of relative, not absolute, ability. There is nothing shameful or weak about this just as there is nothing shameful or weak about measuring boxers from different weight divisions against one another on a pound-for-pound basis. On that measure, Williams undoubtedly has a place in the - idle, but irresistible - conversation about greatness.
Nevertheless, it is simply a fact that at any given level in almost any sport a male competitor will beat a comparable female athlete. Men are stronger and faster and, by the bloodless measurements of time and distance, better. These inherent advantages begin in puberty and thereafter they never really disappear. The best men will always beat the best women and there is nothing the women may do about it.
In sports of pure strength, such as weightlifting, the male advantage is around 30 percent; in swimming and athletics, the gap between elite men and women is typically around 10 percent. Perhaps that does not seem like a lot? But 10 percent in activities which may be won by a hundredth of a second or a centimetre is not the difference between winning and losing; it is the difference between winning and not even being in the same race.
For in swimming and athletics - in some ways the purest of all sporting endeavours, being chiefly a question of physical ability - the plain reality is that elite teenage boys are “better” than elite women of any age. Here is a comparison between the times registered by American boys at the national under-18 swimming championships in 2016 and those registered by women at the 2016 Olympics.
In 16 swimming events the best female swimmers in the world would have won just a single bronze medal if they had been competing against the best high school boys in America. Women do slightly better in athletics but here too the pattern is broadly the same: teenage boys beat women Olympians.
Which brings me to the case of Lia Thomas, a transwoman who is now the champion collegiate swimmer in the United States at the 500 yard distance. Thomas, who formerly swam for the University of Pennsylvania men’s team, began transitioning in 2019 and has, whether she likes it or not, become the focus of two very different arguments. The first of these - the rights of trans people to live as they please - ought not to be controversial save in a relatively small number of areas where doing so unavoidably intersects, indeed clashes with, the rights of women to same-sex spaces.
The second argument is one of sporting fairness and integrity. A credulous piece recently published by The New Yorker strongly suggested that the only reason people have an issue with Thomas is that she is a transwoman who dares to win. Indeed, the headline was “The Trans Swimmer Who Won Too Much” and we were invited to conclude, I think, that this is a petty and unseemly thing to worry about.
And in one sense, it is true that it is Thomas’s victories that have made this into an issue. We hear very little about transmen playing men’s sport because, of course, transmen - being biological women - are not in danger of winning anything. (This may also explain why one of Thomas’s rivals on the Yale women’s swim team is a trans man who has not medically transitioned.) But sport is also, at one level, all about competition. There is a difference between recreational and competitive sport and the higher up the talent ladder you rise, the more important the winning becomes. And so, yes, it does matter that Thomas wins.
The scale of her competitive transformation is easily demonstrated.
During the last season Thomas competed as a member of the Penn men’s team, which was 2018-19, she ranked 554th in the 200 freestyle, 65th in the 500 freestyle and 32nd in the 1650 freestyle. As her career at Penn wrapped, she moved to fifth, first and eighth in those respective events on the women’s deck.
And although Thomas has been suppressing testosterone for two years doing so has not unravelled the advantages derived from passing through puberty as a male. She swims more slowly than she did but her performance has declined by around five percent. In other words, if you use the typical ten percent difference between males and females as a yardstick, Thomas has lost only about half her male-endowed advantage. That leaves her with a significant advantage over her female rivals and it is worth noting that the woman she beat to win the NCAA title is herself an Olympic silver medallist. Thomas has gone from not making to the field to winning titles.
It is not unreasonable to note that this is a pretty big deal, even if it is also - at least for now - a rare one.
Otherwise intelligent people now busily argue that, actually, it’s quite difficult to say precisely who or what a woman is. All that human experience is just so much junk. Of course there are so-called “edge cases” - rare biological conditions that complicate matters or blur boundaries - but while these may often be interesting they are rarely important. A duck-billed platypus is a mammal and it lays eggs and this does not invalidate the statement “mammals give birth to live young”.
In the case of Lia Thomas you may argue that it is unfair to ask Thomas to forego the right to swim in the class she identifies as. That is one view. It is also possible to argue that it is unfair that Thomas’s rivals be compelled to compete against - and sometimes be beaten by - someone whose biological advantages stem from having been born in a different class to them. The greater injustice, it seems to me, is suffered by the women Thomas competes against.
Here again we run into clever-clever arguments that are actually simply dumb. What about Michael Phelps? He had freakish physical advantages over his rivals! What about the cyclist Miguel Indurain? He too had - has, I suppose - an unusually large lung capacity which helped him win five consecutive editions of the Tour de France. Are these advantages not also “unfair”? Why, then, the big deal over Thomas or some similarly equipped trans woman?
To which the answer is blindingly obvious and simple: differences within a class are not the same as differences between classes. And these differences are why we have different classes in the first place.
Thus, while a world champion lightweight boxer would indeed be able to defeat many heavier boxers, a world-class heavyweight will always defeat a world-class lightweight. The purpose of differentiating by type - whether that be by age, weight, or sex - is to maintain competition, ensuring that like competes with like, the better to promote a fundamental sense of fairness. It is why we do not allow physically mature boys to compete against women in sports such as, say, rugby. (Any decent schoolboy side would massacre even the best women’s international teams. It would be a grotesque - and dangerous - spectacle.)
It might also be worth noting that these differences between the sexes are not limited to human beings. Just six fillies have won the Derby and the most recent of these was Fifinella in 1916. At the highest level male horses are faster than female ones which is why, on the flat, entry to the 1000 Guineas and the Oaks is restricted to fillies. The best mares can compete with many male horses but we have mares-only races (and handicap allowances for mares in other races) for a reason.
I am sorry if all this seems too obvious to need stating but at present even obvious realities need reiterating.
None of which - does this need to be said too? - justifies the kind of hysterical reaction against trans people now evident in a number of Republican-governed American states. Trans people - and especially trans youth - have plenty of amply-documented problems which require, demand in fact, sensitive and compassionate handling. In most instances their rights will not clash with anyone else’s but it is also not unreasonable to note that in certain areas they will. And do.
However fashionable it may be to declare that one may be anything one wishes to be simply by affirming this is so, reality is not so forgiving. You may indeed change gender but changing sex is a physical impossibility. If this is to be deemed “transphobic” then, regrettably, we must conclude reality is transphobic.
Better, then, to accept that certain truths are simply dispassionate records of reality and the world as it is. Trans-rights advocates are not helped, I think, by wishing these things away and nor is their cause enhanced by insisting upon measures that - at least as a hypothetical matter - would end with the functional abolition of elite women’s sport.
Thomas is in some sense a victim in this too. There is no reason to suppose she is acting opportunistically but sporting fairness, I think, requires that her transition come with certain consequences attached. Among these is the realisation that you cannot always have everything you want. This, I suppose, is something many women - so accustomed to juggling the competing demands of family and careers and much else besides - realised long ago. Trade-offs are the things upon which a life is built.
“I’ve been trying to think of a term for this phenomenon, where the reaction is disproportionate to the original provocation (or even seems to precede it). I’ve settled on orphan take. An orphan take is an opinion expressed in backlash to a marginal, nebulous or anticipated opposing view. If you see angry tweets or opeds about the horror of a viewpoint you’ve never seen expressed in the wild, that’s an orphan take.” Brilliant Helen Lewis piece about being too much online and thinking Twitter matters more than it really does. A warning to, ahem, newspaper columnists everywhere.
“In Putin’s view, and in the view of many Russians, it was humiliating - and not because the empire collapsed, but because it did so without a fight. Nobody died heroically; there was no glory in defeat. Its leaders allowed the great Russian superpower to be tipped over on to its back by the perfidious West, while making barely a squeak. Rectifying this betrayal is what drives Putin.” Very smart Ian Leslie piece on Putin’s hatred - and fear - of the west.
Why is the north of England so much poorer than the (broadly comparable) Netherlands? Tom Forth asks a good question and the answer is both nuanced but also kinda clear: investment. Duh.
Andrew Cotter takes his famous dogs to the beach.
That’s all for this week, peeps. Many thanks for reading and if you fancy sharing this on the platform of your choice that would be very much appreciated. See you next time!
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Excellent summary to what is an important subject that so many hide away from. Thanks.
Those who make the Phelps point don't realise the logical endpoint of their argument, which is the end of all classes, right across the board. Everyone can compete against everyone, meaning no Paralympics, no kids sports etc. It's a silly argument.
Boxing is at once a good and not so good example. If Lennox Lewis decided he was a woman (brrrr) and competed in the female heavyweight division, where there is no upper weight limit, someone would die, and it wouldn't be Lennox. In fact this has almost already happened in MMA where a transwoman kept that critical detail quiet until after some poor unaware woman fighter had the shit kicked out of her. Unfortunately I feel something like this may be necessary before the course is altered, because no-one cares about swimming or weightlifting. But anyway, it is not an outrageous suggestion that a lightweight boxer could beat a heavyweight, on points obviously.
A corollary question to all this - there are some sports which don't require physical endeavour. So why aren't there any female snooker players, darts players, chess players who routinely beat the best men in the world?