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Home » Sports » That High-School Running Competition: Anatomic and Physiologic Differences Between Men and Women and the Possibility of Sports Segregation by Anatomy and Physiology

That High-School Running Competition: Anatomic and Physiologic Differences Between Men and Women and the Possibility of Sports Segregation by Anatomy and Physiology

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Recently there has rightly been, much written about a certain high-school running competition. The competition in question was a girl’s high-school in-door state competition in Connecticut. The first two spots went to two transgender athletes, as if that is a surprise to anyone who knows basic body mechanics and anatomy and physiology. What really irks me about this is that it is demoralizing to the women who train hard year-round, who eat right and have the right mindset to be able to compete in these competitions. Then men who “identify” as women just pretty much walk onto the track and blow away the competition. In this article, I will discuss anatomical and physiological differences between the sexes and how and why these competitions are segregated. Finally, I will discuss Roslyn Kerr’s thoughts on why it may be time to end sex segregation in sports, because she drives a very compelling argument—and this may end the current problems we have regarding these current controversies in high-school—and all—sports.

I have previously written on transgender athletes competing in weight-lifting and the IOC’s (International Olympic Committee’s) guidelines on testosterone levels and “acceptable limits” regarding “transitioning” athletes. The IOC writes:

The athlete must demonstrate that her total testosterone level in serum has been below 10 nmol/L for at least 12 months prior to her first competition (with the requirement for any longer period to be based on a confidential case-by-case evaluation, considering whether or not 12 months is a sufficient length of time to minimize any advantage in women’s competition).

The athlete’s total testosterone level in serum must remain below 10 nmol/L throughout the period of desired eligibility to compete in the female category.

Compliance with these conditions may be monitored by testing. In the event of non-compliance, the athlete’s eligibility for female competition will be suspended for 12 months.

This is very strange to me. Quoting myself:

10 nanomoles per liter of blood converts to about 288 ng/dl (nanograms per deciliter). Going with the lower end suggested by other members of the IOC, 3 nanomoles per deciliter of blood converts to 87 ng/dl. The range for women is 15 to 70 ng/dl. Now, the 10 nmol/l is, as you can see, way too high. However, 10 nmol/l converts to slightly higher than the lower end of the new testosterone guidelines for the average male in America and Europe (which I covered yesterday, the new levels being 264-916 ng/dl). As we can see, even 10 nmol/l is way too high and, in my opinion, will give an unfair advantage to these athletes

10 nanomoles per liter of blood converts to slightly higher than the lower end for males. How is that fair, in any capacity? Though it is worth noting that other members of the IOC have contested this, saying that 10 nmol/L is too high. In any case, this discussion is really about what should happen at the 2020 Olympic Games, but it is useful for the current discussion since there is evidence that testosterone influences sporting performance. Now let’s get to this high-school running competition.

Transgender athletes Terry Miller and Andraya Yearwood finished first and second in an in-door track competition. Miller’s time in the 55 m dash was 6.96 seconds; Yearwood’s time was 7.01 seconds; and the third place winner’s—a biological female—time was 7.23 seconds. Now, quite obviously, since the top-two placers times are, far and beyond, better than the third placer’s time, there is something strange about it. Since Miller and Yearwood are biological males, they have the anatomy and physiology of males since they were born males and went through male puberty. Miller and Yearwood also won competitions last year as well. Looking at their anatomy, compared to the women’s in the competition, how is that fair? That they went through male puberty and were exposed to higher levels of testosterone, how is that fair?

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(From the Washington Times)

Look at the hips of the runner in red (a bio-male). Narrow hips are conducive to running success. This is because the quads run in a straight line from the hips, compared to a woman’s wider hips, where the quads sort of are on an angle. Another reason that wider hips are not conducive to running success—and why narrow hips are—is that women have what is called a wider Q-angle—or the quadriceps angle. Think of the average woman. Since they have wider hips, the angle for to their quads from their hips is wider. Males, obviously, have a narrower Q-angle, since they have narrower hips. Since they have narrower hips and therefore a narrower Q-angle, just on the basis of anatomy alone, we can say that, more often than not, men will blow women away in running—ceteris paribus.

You can even see what I mean just by looking at the above picture—there is a clear shot of the girl in yellow and how wide her hips are, although she is in motion.

Since males have narrower hips, then the quads almost go in a straight line, and since they are in the same line as the hips, they are in effect moving the same direction which does not impede running. Now, think of the Q-angle and how it is wider in women. Since the quads are not in-line with the hips, the quads need to do extra work in order to move the same distance as someone who has narrower hips. Women, compared to men, are less-efficient runners and this is due to their hip width and Q-angle.

Once puberty occurs is when the sexes really differentiate in both anatomy and physiology. This is due to the surge of testosterone increases in men, which cause harder bones, and is a driver of muscle growth. Testosterone stimulates red blood cell production (Beggs et al, 2014), which is important for work during a sprint, since the more blood that gets to a muscle, the harder that muscle can work. Women produce less testosterone. So, naturally, women will have less muscle than men. Even in men who “transition” to “women”—especially if they went through the male puberty—they will still have this advantage over them. A higher proportion of a man’s leg is muscle compared to women which can also help in running faster. Furthermore, since they have larger muscles and a higher percentage of their legs are muscle, then they necessarily would have higher amounts of type II muscle fibers which are conducive to sprinting success; sprinters are more likely to have fast-twitch (type II) muscle fibers in their vastus lateralis (Zierath and Hawley, 2004). (Also see Trappe et al, 2015 for a case-study on a world champion sprinter.)

Women have higher levels of estrogen than men; these higher levels of estrogen lead to higher body-fat percentage which then impedes running success. Higher levels of body-fat are not conducive to running speed/success because the body needs to work harder to move and, thusly, uses more energy to move since there is more weight—more fat—to move. Therefore, this is yet another reason why women are poorer runners than men.

Women have smaller, lighter lungs with fewer bronchioles than men at birth; boys have larger lungs than girls (Carey et al, 2008). Since women have smaller lungs than men, then, necessarily, women have a lower Vo2 max than men—meaning that women utilize less oxygen during exercise than men. The average Vo2 max for women is about 70-75 percent of that of males after puberty (Sharma and Kailashaya, 2016), while these differences in Vo2 max are still present even after correcting for muscle/fat mass (Stagner, 2009). So, the amount of oxygen that is produced during maximal exertion is greater for men; women have to work much harder than men to deliver more oxygen to their muscles to keep them going.

Women have smaller hearts (and smaller coronary vessels), which pump less blood per beat, meaning that their heart has to beat faster than a man’s to match a man’s cardiac output (Haward, Kalnins, and Kelly, 2001Prabhavathi et al, 2014). Since women have smaller hearts, they have a smaller stroke volume—meaning the amount of oxygenated blood that the left ventricle releases is less than that of men who have bigger hearts and therefore bigger stroke volumes. Women have a higher heart rate than men (Lufti and Sukkar, 2011), but this is not enough to offset the lower stroke volume. Therefore, each time a woman’s heart pumps, it delivers less blood and oxygen to the muscles. Furthermore, women have 12 percent lower levels of hemoglobin than men (Murphy, 2014). Hemoglobin is a protein in the red blood cells (which women have fewer of) that transports oxygen to the blood. Since women have lower levels of hemoglobin and lower levels of red blood cells, then, less oxygen gets carried to the body’s tissues—muscles included.

I am a betting man and I would bet that both of those individuals who took first and second place in the competition in question would have beaten the women in all of the physiological variables that I have just discussed. We can outright see that the winner had extremely narrow hips. This is not to say that women who have narrow hips should not compete—but the fact of the matter is, that person has a whole slew of advantages over the women that he competed against because he went through male puberty.

What should be done here? There are three courses of action:

(1) Don’t let transgender athletes compete with women.

This is the most obvious course of action. Due to the anatomical and physiological differences between men and women that I described above, these types of people have an unfair advantage over women who did not go through the same type of puberty that they did. Now, one can make the same type of argument for Caster Semenya, who has been the subject of controversy the past few years, though, point (3) will address this.

(2) Have a separate competition for transgender athletes.

This seems to be a logical point. Just because people “identify” as something does not mean that they should compete in that competition. If someone identifies as disabled—even though they are not, physically, for instance—should they then be allowed to compete in the Special Olympics? Having separate competitions for these types of athletes would end these types of discussions—women who bust their ass year-round in order to succeed against their competition would not have to worry about competing against someone who went through a male puberty which would then throw out all of their hard training out the window.

(3) Separate individuals by anatomy and physiology.

This third and final point is separating individuals on the basis of anatomical and physiological parameters. Kerr and Obel (2017) compellingly argue that, instead of segregating sporting competitions by sex, sporting competitions should be segregated by anatomical and physiological parameters.

For example, take sprinting. Success in sprinting hinges on a few things: (1) muscle mass; the more muscle mass one has, especially in their legs, the more power they can generate in order to efficiently move; (2) fast twitch fiber count: the greater number of fast-twitch fibers in, for example, the vastus lateralis dictates how quick and explosive one can be. Coupled with the right morphology and fast-twitch fibers, this leads to more explosive contractions in RR genotypes (Broos et al, 2016). So we can say that for the 100m dash, it can be segregated on the basis of RR genotypes, an abundance of fast-twitch muscle fibers and a mesomorphic somatotype. So, if we know about what certain anatomic and physiologic variables are conducive in certain sporting events (we do know this) then segregating certain sports on the types of variables more conducive to success in that sport would lead to more balanced competition.

This would then end these types of arguments. Transgender athletes would then compete with individuals—male or female—on the basis of whichever anatomic and physiologic variables are conducive to the sport in question. The argument that Kerr and Obel advance is certainly intriguing—dare I say, it makes sense. Though it would take a lot to get it put into practice, it is an interesting thought experiment and makes more sense than just segregating based on sex alone.

Finally, Miller and Yearwood made some comments on their performance in that competition. When some of the girls said that it was unfair that they had to compete against people who went through male puberty, Miller said that the girls just need to “work harder” to compete with them [Miller and Yearwood]. This is ridiculous, due to what I outlined about the anatomic and physiologic differences between men and women. One of the competitors in the competition, Selina Soule saidWe all know the outcome of the race before it even starts; it’s demoralizing.” Miller is the third fastest in the “women’s” (scarequotes due to the fact that it’s not all women anymore) 55-meter dash, while Yearwood is tied for 7th. These two should not be competing with women; they should either be competing with other transgender athletes or not competing at all.

In sum, we will be hearing a lot more about these types of things in the future. As more and more schools become “inclusive” to allow individuals who identify as X to compete in Y, there will be more and more outrage and then something would have to be done. I don’t see anything wrong with having them compete with other transgender athletes and only transgender athletes. Because then, the women who actually are women who train and bust their ass year-round to be the best they can be won’t be up-ended by men who walk onto the field who have anatomic and physiologic advantages who then blow them away (that much is clear by the time differences between the top two and third competitors in this competition).

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1 Comment

  1. John Doe says:

    Thoughts on the following tweet thread?

    To elaborate on the finer points of the claims, the person has written on this topic (here is a link: https://twitter.com/KirstiMiller30/status/1102381624811958272).

    Seems to say that endogenous testosterone levels are not a point of contention in elite play even between normal male and female athletes. The two issues that seem to stick out to me come from the tweet thread where it is also claimed that “Endogenous testosterone is the ONLY natural physical characteristic for which we deem women athletes ineligible for competition and all scientific evidence shows NO relationship w performance”. Whether or not there is an impact on performance is not the issue: it is that the only limiting factor that any agency uses to disallow women from competition in other fields is endogenous testosterone levels, which is in stark contract to the claims you made in the post above. Source for the claim: https://twitter.com/rachelvmckinnon/status/1101855521836023808. Seems to me that this is either deliberately ignoring the other physiological evidence or just an ill-informed opinion.

    The second thing that sticks out is the claim within the paper I linked above (https://twitter.com/KirstiMiller30/status/1102381624811958272) is that biological restrictions are not to be used as a limiting factor (that would be unethical and out of line with the IOC’s principles), that the only issue in-question is whether or not a woman is legally recognized as such (in order to compete with other women), and that discrimination on anything other than legal recognition is unjust. Seems to me that the authors are operating on the stipulation that endogenous testosterone levels do not impact performance (which may or may not be true, I have not examined any causal relationship myself) but missing the potential implications hormone levels have on the anatomy of the person during development/performance. That is to say: even if it is true that endogenous testosterone levels are inconsequential to sports performance, the hormone levels during the development of a person do impact their anatomy which, in turn, impacts their performance.

    Liked by 1 person

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