Transgender athletes 'in anguish' at centre of fairness debate

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London (AFP)

Transgender athletes face the painful challenge of gaining acceptance and overcoming prejudice as sports federations grapple with the thorny question of how to balance women's rights and fair competition.

The issue was brought into sharp focus at the recent Commonwealth Games when Samoan weightlifting coach Jerry Wallwork and Australia's weightlifting federation chief Mike Keelan questioned Laurel Hubbard's right to compete.

Wallwork told the ABC it was unfair, adding: "A man is a man and a woman is a woman and I know a lot of changes have gone through, but in the past Laurel Hubbard used to be a male champion weightlifter."

The 40-year-old, who formerly competed as Gavin Hubbard, suffered a career-ending elbow injury in the +90kg competition.

Michael Irani, competition doctor for the International Weightlifting Federation, dismissed the notion that athletes change their sex in the pursuit of sporting glory.

"They go through anguish," he told this month's Sport Resolutions conference in London. "It is not just a whim or a caprice, 'I want to change gender'. It is a release, it is something which is humane."

He also questioned underlying assumptions.

"What is maleness? What is femininity? Is it binary or do we have a range, where we say he is 99 percent male, she is 55 percent female? What do we rate as masculinity or femininity?"

- 'Unfair' -

Scottish international field hockey player Fiona Bruce, who appeared on the same panel in London discussing the topic "Transgender Athletes and Their Right to Compete", reflected the unease that many professional athletes feel over the issue.

"Earlier this year I turned up for a cricket training session and there was a transwoman," said Bruce. "She could bowl twice as quick as the others, which is slightly intimidating.

"I like to think of myself as open-minded but if I were to put my hockey hat on and I was to come up against a transwoman it would not sit very comfortably with me. In terms of physique and power I think it is unfair."

Adrian Christy, chief executive of Badminton England, believes for the moment the issues are more pressing at recreational level.

"The majority of people who play sport are recreational sportsmen and women. We (the federation) got a call out of the blue in 2011 from a club that one of their members had announced she was transitioning.

"This woman has been a star, not through any desire to self-promote, and in 2014 put together a club welcoming pack for those who were going through gender transitioning."

Christy said even the most mundane issues had to be dealt with tactfully.

"You don't say to the transgender athlete 'get changed in the car park or at home before you come to the club'," he said. "You have to be sensitive and that takes time."

Christy said the attitude at his golf club also illustrated the long road ahead towards accepting transgender athletes.

"The club I play at there is a transperson and the women cannot accept her no matter how good, bad or indifferent she is," he said.

"That is where focus is needed. Duty of care is focused on the professional area but not at the recreational. We look at the shop window the whole time and not enough behind it."