“Recently, female athletes in the UK have shown their willingness to boycott their own national championship competition for the UCI and British Cycling to hear their concerns. It’s how seriously female athletes take the issue and we greatly respect what our sisters were willing to sacrifice to make their voices heard. We are saddened that this was ever necessary.
The letter states that Rule 13.5.015 “does not guarantee female athletes ‘fair and meaningful’ competition that displays and rewards the core values and meaning of the sport.”
In addition to calling for the rule to be overturned, they called on the UCI to “put in place eligibility criteria for the women’s category based on female biological characteristics.”
British Cycling has been warned by Symington, a former Olympian and performance director at England Netball and UK Athletics, that it is putting its name to the letter, despite its criticism of the sport’s governance.
“We understand this is an important issue for our staff and riders, which is why we have worked hard to provide forums for them to openly share their views on our policy and inclusion. transgender people more broadly,” a spokesperson said.
Athlete protests show change is afoot in cycling
By Jeremy Wilson
Among a long list of 76 women, some of whom had won world and Olympic titles, it was at first easy to forget the name of Sara Symington. She was identified simply as “2 x Olympian” on page two of the letter, but her presence among those demanding further transgender advice was significant for reasons that go far beyond her cycling career.
Symington was appointed head of British cycling’s Olympic and Paralympic program last October and, in this capacity, became one of the first senior administrators in sport to take a clear stance on an issue outlined by the performance director Stephen Park as the “biggest” facing the Olympic movement.
The impossible balance between fairness, inclusion and safety has often left athletes and administrators running for cover in recent years, culminating in the International Olympic Committee’s big fudge in November last year.
Let individual sports decide was the message, even if the larger meaning of their overall framework has been lost. For the IOC, it was also clear that there should be “no presumption of performance advantage” and that guidance should be based on “consistent, unfair and disproportionate competitive advantage”. The exclusion was then considered so serious that it had to be supported by powerful research.
The signers of Wednesday’s letter want a rather different starting point. It is incumbent, they say, on governing bodies to find “strong scientific evidence” that guarantees “fairness for female athletes”.
Three studies are currently underway at Loughborough University, including one that includes cyclist Emily Bridges, but the critical practical issue is that there are very few elite trans athletes and definitive answers take time.
Joanna Harper, one of Loughborough’s experts, notes that strength as well as obvious size differences remain even after testosterone reduction, but the extent of the strength advantage remains unknown.
So the decision is whether to start with equity or inclusion until more definitive research emerges. Symington’s decision to decisively demonstrate where she stands highlights not only her personal strength of opinion, but perhaps the riders she oversees as well.
They have been conspicuous by their collective silence in recent days, but the letter also makes it very clear that a boycott was firmly on the table had Bridges’ entry into last Saturday’s National Track Championships been approved.
This indicates a much more advanced and passionate collective vision than has been publicly revealed. So does the decision of the parents of active elite runners – Lisa Brambini and Megan Backstedt – to enter the letter.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s intervention on Wednesday was clearly also important and it is likely that other names in sport will now feel encouraged to speak out.
Such momentum, however, is not an automatic prelude to change that extends to Johnson’s suggestion to exclude transgender women from women’s sports altogether. There is the IOC framework for one thing. And then there are also broader and complex legal and ethical issues that sport must address.
The debate has inevitably been dominated by considerations of fairness in elite competition, but governing bodies must also consider their grassroots programmes.
Philippa York, one of Britain’s greatest male road cyclists before transitioning at the end of his career, warned of “fear of the unknown” and remarked that despite all the current noise , there is not a single example of a trans person actually winning a contest of global significance. And, even if that changed, do the arguments that fairness trumps inclusiveness hold the same value as you navigate further down the pyramid?
All this before even addressing the issues of law and human rights. Dr Seema Patel, lecturer in law at Nottingham Law School, has repeatedly warned sport of the legal implications of a narrow focus on inconclusive science. “There is a panic that is created around performance and advantage, which distracts from human rights issues,” she said.
Whatever your stance on the UCI rules, which seem increasingly likely to change, it shouldn’t be hard to agree that Bridges has been treated badly. She wants to compete. It followed the rules established by its board of directors. The result? The dithering, the prospect of changing goals and the uncomfortable reality of a 21-year-old student at the center of one of the most sensitive and moving debates in sport.
The sense of unfolding breakthrough change is always impossible to ignore. The question of sport is no longer theoretical. It’s convenient, and with it, support is now rallying behind new rules. The lingering hope is that it is the athletes, rather than the easy headlines, that will take priority in the ensuing decisions.