Back in July I wrote about how there is controversy on whether or not MtF transgenders should compete with ‘bio women’ and whether or not their anthropometry or hormones gave them an advantage over biological women (I am aware that T levels decrease once they go on HRT, just a lot of them still have T ranges in near the low end of the new numbers for men). Well I am reading The Sports Gene by Jerry Epstein and he brings up two (anecdotal) examples of MtF transgenders who take HRT and see a decrease in performance due to decreased T:
No scientist can claim to know the precise impact of testosterone on any individual athlete. But a 2012 study that spent three months following female athletes from a range of sports—including track and field and swimming—showed that elite-level competitors had testosterone levels that consistently remained more than twice as high as those of the nonelites. And there are powerful anecdotes as well.
Joanna Harper, fifty-five, is a medical physicist who was born a male and later transitioned to living as a woman. Harper also happens to be a nationally accomplished age-group runner, and when she started hormone therapy in August 2004 to suppress her body testosterone and physically transition to female [Note from RR: I, of course, do not agree with the use of ‘her’ and that ‘she’ ‘physically transition[ed] to female’] like any good scientist, she took data. Harper figured she would slow down gradually, but was surprised to find herself getting slower and weaker by the end of the first month. “I felt the same when I ran,” she says. “I just couldn’t go as fast.” In 2012, Harper won the U.S. national cross-country title for the fifty-five-to-fifty-nine age group, but age and gender-graded performance standards indicate that Harper is precisely as competitive now as a female as she was as a male. That is, as a female, Harper is just as good relative to women as she was relative to men before her transition, but she’s far slower than her former, higher-testosterone self.
In 2003, as a man, Harper ran Portland’s Helvetia Half-Marathon in 1:23:11. In 2005, as a woman, she ran the same race in 1:34:01. Harper’s male time was about fifty seconds faster than her female time. She has compiled data from five other runners who have transitioned from male to female, and all show the same pattern of precipitous speed decline. One runner competed in the same 5K for fifteen years straight, eight times as a man and then seven times as a woman following testosterone suppression therapy; always faster than nineteen minutes as a man, and always slower than twenty minutes as a woman. (Epstein, 2013: 78) [Keep in mind that I have the nook version so the physical copy may have this on a different page.
Yes this is anecdotal evidence that testosterone gave an advantage while ‘male’ and then when they ‘transitioned’ to ‘female’ it showed that they became weaker, but still at the top level of women’s performance. Knowing this—how this man had an advantage ‘as a man’ and kept the same relative advantage when he ‘transitioned to a woman’ is a large clue that testosterone does infer an inherent advantage to athletes who have more of the hormone surging through their body.
Testosterone is known to affect skeletal muscle growth, but the mechanisms by which testosterone affects muscle growth are not known (Bhasin, Woodhouse, and Storer, 2001). Also, women with very high androgen levels—whether it’s due to endogenous or exogenous testosterone—have a 2.5 to 5 percent advantage over women who have androgen levels in the normal range (Berman, 2017). So the difference in performance—between women at least—with high and low levels of testosterone is not too great, though that 2.5 to 5 percent advantage most likely would come into play at the very end of the race.
Also recall that I previously wrote that, per the IOC guidelines, a ‘MtF’ needs to ‘declare herself’ a woman for at least four years while taking HRT for 1-2 years to be able to compete with ‘the gender they think they are’. Well, the testosterone levels that the IOC states is ‘OK’ for ‘MtFs’ is still in the low range of the new testosterone guidelines for men! Testosterone most definitely does give an advantage in sports. Think of sports as a modern day test of survival. Basically, those good at sports—such as football and basketball for instance—would have been better able to form hunting parties in our evolutionary past. So while forming these parties, testosterone rose since testosterone raises while men are in groups as well as preparing for competition (Booth et al, 1989). So since our modern body plans sprang up around 2 mya with the appearance of Homo erectus in the fossil record, we can logically infer that cooperation and testosterone—among other things—were needed to be successful hunters.
So if you look at most sports as just a way for men to have a competitive spirit and simulate fighting/hunting with other men, then it makes it clear that testosterone does infer an advantage in sports. For instance, there is a clear relationship between testosterone and explosive jumping (Cardinale and Stone, 2006). These relationships are very clear, have large effects yet bodies like the IOC disregard these findings, allowing MtFs to compete with real women, even when the data and verbal argumentation against letting them compete are logically sound.
Studies do state, of course, that the relationship between high testosterone and athletic performance hasn’t been proven, they also haven’t been refuted either (Sudai, 2017). In fact, all you need to look at is traits that are influenced by testosterone—height, size of limbs, fat mass, shoulder width/size (the most androgen receptors lie in the shoulders and traps muscles, so to tell if someone is juicing, they will have low levels of body fat but ‘3-D delts’ and large traps) etc. So just by looking at a few simple traits and then comparing anatomy with females who have high testosterone compared to women who do not have high levels of testosterone, we can draw the logical conclusion that testosterone does increase sports performance for both men and women, and we have both anecdotal and experimental evidence for the assertion.
In sum, the anecdotal evidence from Epstein’s book is a good start. However, we will need more than anecdotal evidence to prove that testosterone truly does give individuals an advantage if they do have higher testosterone levels than their competition. As larger studies get done, these effects will begin to get teased out. I am certain that testosterone will be found to give a huge advantage in terms of sports, and since sports are a way for us to compete with each other, impress women, gauge other males’ fighting skills, and began as a way to hone skills used to hunt and fight (Lombardo, 2012). Sports began as a way for us to develop the skills needed to survive and hunt, among other things, and so, to hunt, you need to have high levels of testosterone to give that ‘boost’. So if sports began as a way to gauge potential rivals and allies, and as a way to hone/improve fighting skills, then we can logically state that testosterone does give an advantage in sports competition.