Emily Bridges has been prevented from competing in the National Omnium Track Cycling Championship against multiple Olympic and World Champion Dame Laura Kenny because his British Cycling registration records that he is male. But Bridges is transgender and will be allowed to re-register as female soon. At which point he will be allowed to compete against women.
Bridges was set to become the UK's Lia Thomas. In the USA, when Thomas competed as a male swimmer he was ranked below 450th, but now after undergoing hormone treatment to comply with testosterone suppression rules, Thomas is ranked number one in women’s swimming. The testosterone suppression rules are supposed to provide a level playing field by removing the physical advantages males have in sports, it clearly hasn’t worked in this case.
Science backs this up. We have several recent, high quality research papers confirming that one or more years of testosterone suppression do not reduce male muscle strength and running speed to the levels of equivalent females. Both World Rugby and the UK Sports Council Equality Group, in a report backed by UK Sport, Sport England, Sport Wales, Sport Scotland and Sport Northern Ireland have reviewed the scientific evidence and concluded that sporting competitions will be unfair for women – and in some cases unsafe – if men who want to be women are included in the female category.
Emily Bridges, like Lia Thomas, has complied with sports’ governing bodies hormone treatment regulations. But Bridges holds the British 25 mile Time Trial junior men's record, with a time that is two minutes faster than the elite women's record, held by Hayley Simmonds. He was good enough to be selected onto the Great Britain Cycling Team Academy as a junior male and is clearly a better cyclist than Thomas is a swimmer. Both are high achieving athletes, though, so significant effort has had to be put into justifying their inclusion in women’s sport.
Meaningful competition requires a level playing field
Although Joanna Harper has already published a review paper which is clear that testosterone suppression does not reduce the male advantage in sport, Harper continues to suggest that men who want to be women should be able to compete in female categories because there is still so-called “meaningful competition”.
This seems to consist of a very slight drop in an initially far better performance being regarded as similar to the difference between e.g., left-handed and right-handed athletes as Harper describes in a recent interview with The Times (30/03/22).
But we know that in endurance sports such as swimming and running, males typically outperform females by 10% and in strength sports such as weightlifting males outperform females by around 30%. We also know from the research, including Harper’s own review, that muscle strength reduces by around 5% after transition, and also that men who transition retain a significant advantage over women in running speed at three years after transition.
By Harper’s own evidence, there is a significant retained advantage after hormone treatment. Even a small retained advantage – especially when races are won or lost by tiny margins – is not a level playing field.
Marking his own homework
Back in October 2020, when Bridges publicly came out as trans in an interview with Sky Sports (coincidentally within a few days of British Cycling announcing their first transgender inclusion guidelines), Bridges made it clear that he wanted to prove that these rules were fair by participating in research.
Bridges said: "To help achieve this, I'm going to be part of research into the effect that a medical transition has on athletic performance. This will, as far as I'm aware, be the first time that an elite-level international athlete has done this. I understand this will be extremely useful research. I really want to demonstrate what effect hormone replacement therapy has on the body, and how it massively changes athletic performance in multiple ways. I know that people will have questions about fairness. I feel I have an opportunity to show that the existing eligibility rules for trans athletes in competition are appropriate." Everyone working in science should be aware of conscious and unconscious biases which can creep in, and the scientific method is specifically designed to try to remove these biases and provide objective results. It would therefore be sensible when looking at performance levels of athletes to use an experimental method that would ensure that athletes could not consciously or unconsciously underperform during testing. Despite this, the experimental protocol used by Joanna Harper's research does not include a method of testing that would mitigate any effects of underperformance.
Put simply, it is not in Bridges interests to perform at his best. This would have been very easy for him to do, and the experiment doesn’t control for it.
Some we lose, some he wins
Transition does appear to have had an effect on Emily Bridges’ performance. Bridges describes the shock of taking part in a men’s cycling race at the Loughborough Cycling Festival after starting hormone treatment, where he was lapped four times and finished 43rd out of 45 riders. He experienced a 13-16% drop in power output after transition, which is in the middle of the range of advantage of males over females in different cycling events, cited at 9 to 24% depending on the event, in a review.
Given that the winning margin in many cycle races is less than 1%, with this loss of power it would be expected that Bridges would no longer be in any way competitive with male cyclists. And yet, at the British Universities and Colleges Sports Track Cycling Championships in February 2022, Bridges won gold in the men's points race beating the 2019 Scottish National scratch race champion, Tim Shoreman. He also won a bronze medal in the men’s team pursuit and just missed out on a bronze, finishing fourth in the men's individual pursuit.
You can probably draw your own conclusions from this.
Transgender Women in the Female Category of Sport: Perspectives on Testosterone Suppression and Performance Advantage. Emma N. Hilton, Tommy R. Lundberg, Sports Medicine 2020
How does hormone transition in transgender women change body composition, muscle strength and haemoglobin? Systematic review with a focus on the implications for sport participation Joanna Harper, Emma O’Donnell, Behzad Sorouri Khorashad, Hilary McDermott, Gemma L Witcomb, Br J Sports Med 2021;0:1–9. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2020-103106
Effect of gender affirming hormones on athletic performance in transwomen and transmen: implications for sporting organisations and legislators. Timothy A Roberts, Joshua Smalley, Dale Ahrendt, Br J Sports Med 2020;0:1–7. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2020-102329
Muscle Strength, Size, and Composition Following 12 Months of Gender affirming Treatment in Transgender Individuals. Anna Wiik, Tommy R. Lundberg, Eric Rullman, Daniel P. Andersson, Mats Holmberg, Mirko Mandić, Torkel B. Brismar, Olof Dahlqvist Leinhard, Setareh Chanpen, John N. Flanagan, Stefan Arver, and Thomas Gustafsson, J Clin Endocrinol Metab, March 2020, 105(3):1–9
SCEG Report - New guidance for transgender inclusion in domestic sport published.
Emily Bridges Coming Out Interview - Emily Bridges: Coming out as trans in cycling is a crucial step on my journey. Last Updated: 12/10/20
Emily Bridges Cycling Weekly Interview - 'I just want to be competitive again'.By David Bradforfd. Published March 03, 2022