Athletes running

Elite athletes who are trans gender, like New Zealand Olympic weightlifter Laurel Hubbard, or have differences in sex development (DSD), like South African runner Caster Semenya, have been in the global spotlight.

Swansea University sports science experts are playing a key role in highlighting concerns with the eligibility criteria for competition in the female category, in the context of the latest evidence.

At Tokyo 2020, Hubbard became one of the first openly trans woman athlete to compete at an Olympic Games and was certainly the highest profile competitor. In 2019, Semenya was told by the Court of Arbitration for Sport that she would have to take hormone-lowering agents, or have surgery, if she wished to continue competing in her chosen athletic events.

Dr Shane Heffernan, senior lecturer in sport and exercise science at Swansea University, researches the complex issues involved in such cases. 

Recently, he was one of an expert team from the British Association of Sport and Exercise Science (BASES) which drew up suggested guidelines for UK and world sporting bodies, based on the latest evidence.

Dr Heffernan explained:

“The World Athletics, IOC and other governing bodies’ eligibility criteria for Trans and DSD elite athletes is a complicated issue of physiological capacity, genetics, societal/cultural change and medical ethics. In our expert statements we summarised the available data on whether these criteria are appropriate and made a number of recommendations based on the available evidence and the current criteria.

This work is continuing and is growing with colleagues globally, led by Dr Georgina Stebbings and Dr Alun Williams from Manchester Metropolitan University.”

Dr Heffernan, with his Swansea colleague Dr Andy Harvey and other collaborators, are conducting a new study called DATES: DSD And Transgender Elite Sports. Dr Heffernan said that DATES will explore some of the issues and concerns over the current eligibility criteria.

“We’re attempting to answer an important question which is currently unanswered: what are the attitudes, opinions and perspectives on the inclusion of non-cisgender athletes in the elite ‘female category'? To get a fully rounded frame of reference, we’re asking, and hoping to speak to, elite trans, DSD, and cisgender athletes, as well as the general public. 

We currently have two Swansea University Sports Science undergraduate alumni beginning their MSc by research projects on the DATES study this October. With the help of Welsh Institute of Performance Science (WIPS), we have the first questionnaire live and we invite athletes and non-athletes alike to complete it.”

Sport and Exercise Sciences at Swansea University

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