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In the world of sports, where milliseconds and millimetres often separate champions from contenders, fairness is everything. This is a point that has largely been lost on politicians gripped by identitarian politics and wrangling over whether a woman can have a penis, with Orwellian rhetoric from our public sector bodies increasingly seeking to manipulate language and redefine truth to fit a particular ideological agenda.

In such an environment, the Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer’s belated support for measures to protect the female category of sporting competitions this week is appreciated. After previously declining to publicly confirm his position, Starmer has since said he is “supportive” of measures which protect the female category of sporting competitions. Although, the Labour leader gave no specifics about how this would be done at a grassroots level. 

In the context of grassroots sports, there is a growing discussion about the necessity of segregating sports by sex to ensure fair competition. This debate has ramped up after it was reported by the Policy Exchange think tank that biological men hold at least three Parkrun female records because of its policy that lets entrants self-identify their gender. Parkrun subsequently removed gender, course and age records from its websites after rejecting a campaign to make transgender runners record their sex at birth. A decision which will no doubt have harmful repercussions on female participation, motivation and sense of belonging in the event. 

During a recent ultra-marathon event around the Jurassic Coast, I crossed the finish line in fifth place among female competitors, marking a significant personal achievement. Without sex-specific categories, amateur athletes like myself may find ourselves overshadowed, with opportunities for recognition and advancement in the sport hindered. When I reached the final checkpoint of the race at 45K, the first question I put to the race wardens – between gulps of Lucozade and mouthfuls of Haribo – is where I was amongst the female competitors. Having access to women-only categories in the ultra-marathon meant I could challenge myself to be the best I could be and push my limits without feeling outdone by biologically superior male competitors. If you take away sex-specific categories from grassroots sport – i.e. those sports practised at a non-professional level for health, educational or social purposes – you take all of this away from female competitors. 

Calling for grassroots sport to be sex-segregated should not be controversial. The physiological advantages that men possess over women in sports have long been known, encompassing factors such as bone density, hormonal influence and cardiovascular function. One of the most notable physiological differences between men and women is muscle mass and strength. On average, men have a higher proportion of muscle mass and greater muscle strength compared to women. This inherent advantage enables men to generate more power and exert greater force during athletic movements such as sprinting, jumping and lifting weights. Consequently, male athletes often excel in sports that require explosive power and physical dominance, such as sprinting, weightlifting and football.

Another factor contributing to the male-female disparity in sports performance is bone density and skeletal structure. Men typically have denser bones and larger skeletal frames, providing greater support and stability during high-impact activities. This advantage not only reduces the risk of injuries but also enhances overall performance, particularly in sports that involve contact, collisions, and repetitive stress on the bones and joints. Sports like rugby, basketball and gymnastics – which demand robust skeletal support – often showcase the benefits of male physiology.

Testosterone, the primary male sex hormone, plays a crucial role in shaping physiological characteristics that confer athletic advantages. Men naturally produce higher levels of testosterone, which stimulates muscle growth, increases red blood cell production and enhances aerobic capacity. These hormonal differences contribute to greater muscle mass, faster recovery times and improved endurance among male athletes. While women also produce testosterone, albeit in smaller quantities, the disparity in hormone levels can influence athletic performance, particularly in endurance-based sports like cycling, distance running and swimming.

While both sexes are capable of extraordinary athletic achievements, understanding and acknowledging these inherent differences is essential for promoting fairness, inclusivity and participation. At a grassroots level, female categories undoubtedly encourage greater participation among female athletes by removing barriers and obstacles that may deter them from joining sports activities. For many women, the opportunity to compete against other women can also be a catalyst for overcoming cultural, social and logistical challenges that may otherwise hinder their involvement in sports.

Whilst Keir Starmer’s intervention this week is welcome, policymakers must go further to protect female sport at a grassroots level. This could be providing financial incentives for sports clubs and organisations that prioritise the development and promotion of female-only categories, such as grants, subsidies and sponsorship opportunities – and removing funding from those which do not. The Government should also look to enact legislation requiring sports clubs and organisations to adopt gender equality policies that prioritise female participation and representation in decision-making roles. 

Above all, we need to fix the Equality Act, as championed by former Prime Minister Liz Truss and former Home Secretary Suella Braverman this week, to ensure that sex means biological sex. By clarifying that “sex” in the Equality Act refers to biological sex, policymakers can establish a clear framework for ensuring fair competition and preserving the integrity of women’s sports.

Women-only categories in sports play a vital role in encouraging female participation and providing opportunities for women and girls to excel. However, the inclusion of transgender athletes in these categories, without regard for biological sex, will undermine the progress that has been made in promoting women’s sports. By reaffirming the importance of female-only categories through legislative reform, policymakers can send a powerful message about the value of women’s participation in sports and the need to protect their rights and opportunities.

From trailblazing Olympians like Wilma Rudolph and Nadia Comaneci, to the athlete-activism of Billie-Jean King and Martina Navratilova, women have left an indelible mark on sports history through their unparalleled achievements and contributions. By maintaining women’s categories at a grassroots level, we honour the legacy of these remarkable athletes and we affirm our commitment to creating a future where every female athlete has the chance to pursue her passion, fulfil her potential and leave her mark on the world of sports.

As we navigate complex debates surrounding gender identity and expression, let us remain vigilant in defending clarity, integrity and respect in discourse, ensuring that truth triumphs over Orwellian distortion.

Isabella Wallersteiner is an Associate Fellow at Bright Blue.

Views expressed in this article are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Bright Blue.