Martina Navratilova has a point when she questions trans rules


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 Tennis legend Martina Navratilova has highlighted a real threat to women's sport.

OPINION: Martina Navratilova must be wondering why she ever opened her mouth. Last week, the magnificent multiple grand-slam winner offered her opinion on the issues surrounding transgender sporting participation.

She suggested that, unless sport was careful, it was opening itself up to the possibility of cheating, as male athletes could manipulate more liberal rules to clean up the prize money available in women's sport through the pretence of being in the process of transition. Vigilance was required, she said. Proper rules needed to be instigated quickly to protect the integrity of women's competition.

As soon as she had said her bit, the professionally-easily-offended assaulted her integrity. She was denounced as transphobic, accused of claiming all trans people were cheats, asked to stand down as an ambassador for an LGBT group which found her comments "deeply troubling".

As it happens, she had not for one moment done any of the things of which she was accused. What she had actually pointed to was a real issue sport now faces.

I was first made aware of it when I recently went to see Michael Beloff, QC, give the annual law lecture at Oxford University. The man who has carved out much of the legal framework for countering drug cheating suggested that the biggest challenge sports law will have over the next few years is that of ensuring women can compete without fear that their physical difference is being compromised.

The issue is a simple one, he said: men are stronger than women.

It was in order to maintain the veracity of women's sport that the use of male hormones such as testosterone was banned. As society becomes more open in its definitions of gender, that raises a problem.

In wider society, we might accept a man who identifies as such as a woman. Indeed, we should not allow any prejudice against them in Sport, however, has a unique difference: such a person would retain the physical advantage of maleness. Which, if sports law were not one step ahead of the rest of society, would open up a potential new area for cheating.

If Beloff seemed to be indulging in pointless scaremongering, consider this. The women's world record for the marathon remains the one set by Paula Radcliffe in 2003: 2hr 15min 25sec. Eliud Kipchoge's men's record, achieved last year, stands at 2hr 01min 39sec.

Now – admittedly in my case this is an absurdly unlikely possibility – say you were a man who could run a marathon in 2:10. You would be well off a winning time in any of the big men's races, but would easily take a women's title.

Financially, that is some temptation. Because the prize money for coming first in next month's London Marathon is £41,000 (NZ$79,260) in both the men's and women's races, with a further £75,000 offered to any woman who runs under 2-18.

In other words, there is potentially £116,000 (NZ$225,000) available for a fleet-heeled bloke who claims to identify as a woman. And if that seems the most unlikely bit of cheating, it is worth remembering the pioneers of sporting deviousness who have gone before. At the time, it seemed ridiculous to think Lance Armstrong could be behaving in an underhand fashion when he agreed personally to finance the offices of cycling's anti-doping operation. It seemed absurd even to imagine that Russian anti-doping officers were systematically swapping samples through a hole in their laboratory wall.

Navratilova, like Beloff, has no problem with athletes who have transitioned, like the cyclist Dr Rachel McKinnon. Her concern is about those who might fraudulently engineer the rules by claiming to be in the process. And she has a point.

Tags: Martina Navratilova,, transsport