Research shows that most female athletes support categorisation by biological sex

23rd April 2024

The majority of female athletes (58%) support categorisation by biological sex, rather than gender identity, but views differ according to sporting context, a new study shows.

The peer-reviewed study is the largest of its kind and, based on comprehensive and rigorous analysis of data, is published in the Journal of Sports Sciences.

It reports the opinions of 175 national, elite and world-class female athletes from a range of sports and countries regarding the eligibility and inclusion of transgender athletes. Respondents included 26 World champions, 22 Olympians - including two gold, two silver and three bronze medal winners - and six Paralympians.

The study looks in depth at important differences that other surveys fail to include. For example, questions related to “precision sports” such as archery, sports “heavily reliant on physical capacity” such as 100m sprinting, and “contact sports” such as rugby union. It is also the first study to show that female athlete opinions on transgender athlete eligibility and inclusion differ according to sporting context, level of competition, and stage of career. The survey also revealed that a large majority (81%) of female athletes believe sporting bodies should improve inclusivity for transgender athletes. The study could become an important resource for sport’s governing bodies in establishing rules and procedures.

The study was led by Dr Shane Heffernan (BASES member) and Dr Andy Harvey of the Applied Sports Science Technology and Medicine Research Centre (A-STEM) at Swansea University, with principal collaborators Prof Alun Williams FBASES (BASES member) and Dr Georgina Stebbings (BASES Member) of Manchester Metropolitan University Institute of Sport, and Dr Marie Chollier of the University of Chester.

Prof Alun Williams FBASES, Professor of Sport and Exercise Genomics at Manchester Metropolitan University Institute of Sport and principal collaborator of the study along with Dr Georgina Stebbings, said: “This study is by far the largest of its kind, and provides a detailed, wide-ranging and revealing set of insights, based on robust data that have been independently assessed. It shows that female athlete opinions on transgender eligibility and inclusion differ according to sport, stage of career and level of competition, so sport federations must consider that when asking athletes for their opinions if they are to truly understand the athlete viewpoint.

“Overall, categorisation was favoured according to biological sex, although opinion differed according to sporting context. There was least support for trans women eligibility in the female category of contact sports and those heavily reliant on performance-related biological factors that differ between sexes.

“However, a range of views were expressed regarding some aspects, differing between groups when higher stakes were involved, or when individuals were no longer at the pinnacle of competition. It is crucial that governing bodies ensure policies and committee membership reflect the key stakeholders and understand that views differ among athlete groups and sports.

“Importantly, 94% of the athletes were supportive of transgender people in society in general, and a large majority (81%) of respondents said sporting bodies should be more inclusive for transgender athletes, so the opinion expressed in favour of sport categorisation by biological sex does not seem to emerge from wider negativity towards trans people, and instead appears rooted in the desire to maintain fairness and safety in sport.”

Prof Williams’ expertise lie in the upper limits of human physical performance, and he has published widely on genetic profiles of elite athletes, the improvements in performance that can result from physical training, and sport-related injuries, as well as ethical and policy issues. He has also appeared as an expert at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) for Caster Semenya in her legal battle with the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF).


BASES stands for the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences. BASES is the professional body for sport and exercise sciences in the UK.

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