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New Study Bolsters Idea of Athletic Differences Between Men and Trans Women

A new study financed by the International Olympic Committee found that transgender female athletes showed greater handgrip strength — an indicator of overall muscle strength — but lower jumping ability, lung function and relative cardiovascular fitness compared with women whose gender was assigned female at birth.

That data, which also compared trans women with men, contradicted a broad claim often made by proponents of rules that bar transgender women from competing in women’s sports. It also led the study’s authors to caution against a rush to expand such policies, which already bar transgender athletes from a handful of Olympic sports.

The study’s most important finding, according to one of its authors, Yannis Pitsiladis, a member of the I.O.C.’s medical and scientific commission, was that, given physiological differences, “Trans women are not biological men.”

Alternately praised and criticized, the study added an intriguing data set to an unsettled and often politicized debate that may only grow louder with the Paris Olympics and a U.S. presidential election approaching.

The authors cautioned against the presumption of immutable and disproportionate advantages for transgender female athletes who compete in women’s sports, and they advised against “precautionary bans and sport eligibility exclusions” that were not based on sport-specific research.

Outright bans, though, continue to proliferate. Twenty-five U.S. states now have laws or regulations barring transgender athletes from competing in girls and women’s sports, according to the Movement Advancement Project, a nonprofit that focuses on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender parity. And the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, the governing body for smaller colleges, this month barred transgender athletes from competing in women’s sports unless their sex was assigned female at birth and they had not undergone hormone therapy.

Two of the most visible sports at this summer’s Paris Games — swimming and track and field — along with cycling have effectively barred transgender female athletes who went through puberty as males. Rugby has instituted a total ban on trans female athletes, citing safety concerns, and those permitted to participate in other sports often face stricter requirements in suppressing their levels of testosterone.

The International Olympic Committee has left eligibility rules for transgender female athletes up to the global federations that govern individual sports. And while the Olympic committee provided financing for the study — as it does on a variety of topics through a research fund — Olympic officials had no input or influence on the results, Dr. Pitsiladis said.

In general, the argument for the bans has been that profound advantages gained from testosterone-fueled male puberty — broader shoulders, bigger hands, longer torsos, and greater muscle mass, strength, bone density and heart and lung capacity — give transgender female athletes an inequitable and largely irreversible competitive edge.

The new laboratory-based, peer-reviewed and I.O.C.-funded study at the University of Brighton, published this month in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, tested 19 cisgender men (those whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth) and 12 trans men, along with 23 trans women and 21 cisgender women.

All of the participants played competitive sports or underwent physical training at least three times a week. And all of the trans female athletes had undergone at least a year of treatment suppressing their testosterone levels and taking estrogen supplementation, the researchers said. None of the participants were athletes competing at the national or international level.

The study found that transgender female participants showed greater handgrip strength than cisgender female participants but lower lung function and relative VO2 max, the amount of oxygen used when exercising. Transgender female athletes also scored below cisgender women and men on a jumping test that measured lower-body power.

The study acknowledged some limitations, including its small sample size and the fact that the athletes were not followed over the long term as they transitioned. And, as previous research has indicated, it found that transgender female athletes did retain at least one advantage over cisgender female athletes — a measurement of handgrip strength.

But it is a combination of factors, not a single parameter, that determines athletic performance, said Dr. Pitsiladis, a professor of sport and exercise science.

Athletes who grow taller and heavier after going through puberty as males must “carry this big skeleton with a smaller engine” after transitioning, he said. He cited volleyball as an example, saying that, for transgender female athletes, “the jumping and blocking will not be to the same height as they were doing before. And they may find that, overall, their performance is less good.”

But Michael J. Joyner, a doctor at the Mayo Clinic who studies the physiology of male and female athletes, said that, based on his research and the research of others, science supports the bans in elite sports, where events can be decided by the smallest of margins.

“We know testosterone is performance enhancing,” Dr. Joyner said. “And we know testosterone has residual effects.” Additionally, he added, declines in performance by trans women after taking drugs to suppress their testosterone levels do not fully reduce the typical differences in athletic performance between men and women.

Supporters of transgender athletes, and some scientists who disagree with bans, have accused governing bodies and lawmakers of enacting solutions for a problem that doesn’t exist. There are few elite trans female athletes, they have noted. And there has been limited scientific study of presumed unalterable advantages in strength, power and aerobic capacity gained by experiencing puberty as a male.

For those who have competed in the Olympics, results have varied widely. At the 2021 Tokyo Games, Quinn, a soccer player who is trans nonbinary and was assigned female at birth, helped Canada’s team win a gold medal. But Laurel Hubbard, a transgender weight lifter from New Zealand, failed to complete a lift in her event.

“The idea that trans women are going to take over women’s sports is ludicrous,” said Joanna Harper, a leading researcher of trans athletes and a postdoctoral scholar at Oregon Health & Science University.

Dr. Harper, who is transgender, said it was important for sports to consider physiological differences between transgender women and cisgender women and that she supported certain restrictions, such as requiring the suppression of testosterone levels. But she called blanket bans “unnecessary and unjustified” and said she welcomed the I.O.C.-funded study.

“This fear that trans women aren’t really women, that they’re men who are invading women’s sports, and that trans women will carry all of their male athleticism, their athletic capabilities, into women’s sports — neither of those things are true,” Dr. Harper said.

Sebastian Coe, the president of World Athletics, which governs global track and field, acknowledged that the science remains unresolved. But the organization decided to bar transgender female athletes from international track and field, he said, because “I’m not going to take a risk on this.”

“We think this is in the best interest of preserving the female category,” Mr. Coe said.

In at least two prominent cases, the fight over transgender bans has moved to the courts. The former University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas is challenging a ban imposed by World Aquatics, swimming’s global governing body, after she won the 500-yard freestyle race at the 2022 N.C.A.A. championships. That victory made Thomas, who had been among the best men’s swimmers in the Ivy League, the first known trans athlete to win a women’s championship event in college sports’ top division.

Thomas did not dominate all of her races, though, finishing tied for fifth in a second race and eighth in a third. Her winning time in the 500 was more than nine seconds slower than the N.C.A.A. record. Her case, filed at the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport, is not expected to be resolved before the Paris Olympics begin in July.

Meanwhile, more than a dozen current and former U.S. college athletes, including at least one who competed against Thomas, sued the N.C.A.A. last month. They claimed that, by letting Thomas participate in the national championships, the organization had violated their rights under Title IX, the law that prohibits sex discrimination at institutions that receive federal funding. (Title IX has also been relied upon to argue in favor of transgender female athletes.)

Outsports, a website that reports on L.G.B.T.Q. issues, hailed the I.O.C.-funded study as a “landmark” that concluded that “blanket sports bans are a mistake.” But some scientists and athletes called the study deeply flawed in an article in The Telegraph, which labeled the suggestion that transgender women are at a disadvantage in sports a “new low” for the I.O.C.

So heated is the debate that Dr. Pitsiladis said he and his research team have received threats. That, he warned, could lead other scientists to shy away from pursuing research on the topic.

“Why would any scientist do this if you’re going to get totally slammed and character-assassinated?” he said. “This is no longer a science matter. Unfortunately, it’s become a political matter.”

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