We’ve had a seemingly endless series of discussions about the various aspects of the “transgender debate” here, many of which focus on the continued and worrisome spread of normalization gender dysphoria in society, the military and beyond. But one of the side-bar aspects of this discussion has had to do with the world of sports. Whether you’re talking about a girl wrestling against boys or comparing the Bobby Riggs vs Billy Jean King tennis match to Renee Richards, questions of gender bending in the competitive arena come with all sorts of complications.
Now another sport is being featured in this ongoing debate and it’s the world of competitive cycling. For the first time a man identifying as a woman will be racing in a USA Cycling sanctioned event in the women’s category and competing against some of the top female cyclists. Jillian Bearden (formerly Jonathan) is going to be competing in the Colorado Classic and is able to do so because both the International Olympic Committee and Cycling USA have removed the requirement for transgender athletes to have their “transition” surgery prior to being able to compete. What they’ve done instead is require that men “transitioning” to be women spend at least one year on medication to suppress their testosterone production, increase estrogen and keep their T levels below a certain, unspecified level. (It will come as no surprise that there are no parallel testing requirements for women identifying as men.) From theDenver Post:
The new rules simply require transwomen to keep testosterone below a certain level for a year before competing and must present a doctor’s note showing their testosterone levels are below the IOC threshold. The IOC recommendations include no restrictions for athletes transitioning to male.
USA Cycling was one of the first national governing bodies to embrace the new policy, thanks in part to Bearden’s help. She had the science to support the new rules.
As an elite male racer, she had regular benchmarks measuring her power and lactate threshold. After more than two years of blocking testosterone and boosting estrogen, her wattage output has dropped by 11.4 percent. That mirrors the performance gap between top-tier male and female athletes.
Bearden has done precisely that and claims that his performance has decreased substantially from his days cycling as a man. Because of that, the argument goes, there’s no problem with him having any sort of unfair advantage.
Bearden has watched her performance ebb since beginning hormone-replacement therapy in 2015. As testosterone fades and estrogen grows, her fastest times on favorite climbs have slipped into what she calls “the gutter.”
It was tough realizing her hard-earned power, developed over more than a decade of elite-level bike racing, was waning.
“I went from 16 minutes to 26, 27, 28 minutes,” she said of her times on her those climbs. “I was like holy … Testosterone gives you this drive, this oomph, and I didn’t have that push.
I’ll confess I hadn’t given much thought to this aspect of it. The difference in performance levels between men and woman in all of these sports is well known, and letting a guy compete with the women would be grossly unfair. But if you suppress his testosterone levels enough, will his performance really degrade far enough to keep things competitive?
He’d better have suppressed it a lot. I was looking over some of the current records for cycling in the 24 hour competitions on both road and track. (That’s the distance you can ride in 24 hours.) The women’s road record currently stands at just under 470 miles. The men’s record? 557 miles. The indoor and outdoor track records similarly have a disparity of one hundred miles or more in the men’s favor. Is a vastly decreased T level enough to make that much of a difference? While it’s not being applied to gender dysphoria situations, several medical resources indicate that markedly lower levels have an impact, but precisely how much is unknown and can vary from individual to individual.
Because testosterone plays a role in building muscle, men with low T might notice a decrease in muscle mass. Studies have shown testosterone affects muscle mass, but not necessarily strength or function.
The major problem here is that we don’t have a baseline to study. Because of a lack of professional or Olympic records (at least as far as I can find and they aren’t mentioned in the Denver Post article) we have no idea how great of a cyclist Jonathan Bearden was before he started riding as Jillian Bearden. If he winds up coming in at the back or in the middle of the pack I’m sure everyone will be all smiles and say it was great having him in the race. But what has that really proved? The best woman cyclist in the world will no doubt be able to smoke a mediocre male rider while the top flight men would leave her in the dust based on current Olympic records. We’re looking at a situation similar in some ways to the aforementioned tennis scenario with Renee Richards. Keep in mind that he was in his mid to late 30s already by the time he was entering tennis full time and was certainly competent, but was only ranked in the top 20 in the “over 35” category. Yet when playing as a woman Richards reached a ranking of 20th overall (against the best female players of any age) in 1979 and reached the women’s doubles finals at the US Open that year.
That leaves us with an open question as to how well he’ll do in this race and, perhaps more importantly, how well he’ll be received. It’s been a rousing and supportive welcome thus far, but if Bearden waltzes in there and wins (or comes fairly close) having no real racing bona fides beforehand, do you suppose all of the female competitors are still going to be quite so supportive and welcoming?
Stay tuned. We’ll have some of those answers later this month.