'Clear risk': Transgender athletes facing ban from World Rugby

Chris Young
·Sports Reporter
·4-min read
A ball from the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan is pictured.
World Rugby has compiled a draft report through the transgender working group, which states there is an increased risk of injury to female players from male to female transgender opponents. (Photo by ODD ANDERSEN/AFP via Getty Images)

Citing safety concerns, World Rugby is set to become the first major international sports federation to place an outright ban on female transgender athletes competing in their competitions.

The Guardian reported a 38-page draft document, compiled by World Rugby’s transgender working group, acknowledged there was a ‘20-30% greater risk’ of a female player being injured when tackled by a player who had gone through male puberty.

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The draft document also recommended trans men seeking to play in men’s competitions sign a waiver in which the player acknowledges heightened injury risks associated with playing against opponents ‘who are statistically likely to be stronger, faster and heavier than transgender males’.

World Rugby’s research found that players assigned male at birth retain significant physical advantages over those who are not, and ‘are stronger by 25%-50%, are 30% more powerful, 40% heavier, and about 15% faster than players who are assigned female at birth (who do not experience an androgen-influenced development)’.

The federation says it remains committed to finding an appropriate solution which would allow male-to-female trans players to continue to compete, but that the use of testosterone-suppressing medication did not reduce the physical advantages of those players to an acceptable level.

“Current policies regulating the inclusion of transgender women in sport are based on the premise that reducing testosterone to levels found in biological females is sufficient to remove many of the biologically-based performance advantages,” World Rugby’s draft report read.

“However, peer-reviewed evidence suggests this is not the case.

“Ciswomen players (who do not undergo androgenisation during development) who are participating with and against transwomen (who do undergo androgenisation during development) are at a significantly increased risk of injury because of the contact nature of rugby.”

World Rugby’s significant concern over trans athletes

The draft paper went on to say that while there was a natural overlap in the speed and strength across players of all genders, in a typical situation it did not feel comfortable accepting an increased risk of innjury to players.

“While there is overlap in variables such as mass, strength, speed and the resultant kinetic and kinematic forces we have modelled to explore the risk factors, the situation where a typical player with male characteristics tackles a typical player with female characteristics creates a minimum of 20% to 30% greater risk for those female players.

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“In the event of smaller female players being exposed to that risk, or of larger male players acting as opponents, the risk increases significantly, and may reach levels twice as large, at the extremes.”

Experts had a mixed reaction to the move towards banning trans players, though World Rugby was praised for making a genuine attempt to find a reasonable and viable solution.

New Zealand Rugby’s Chief Operating Officer Nicki Nicol said it was unlikely to be a one size fits all policy, but said they were proud to be in the conversation.

“For us, it’s really the start of us taking that document and now coming up with what we think is an appropriate policy for us in New Zealand,” she said.

New Zealand Rugby's Nicki Nicol says they will take World Rugby's report into account when formulating their own policy for transgender athletes.  (Photo by All Blacks Collection/Getty Images)
New Zealand Rugby's Nicki Nicol says they will take World Rugby's report into account when formulating their own policy for transgender athletes. (Photo by All Blacks Collection/Getty Images)

“We may have different or tailored guidelines for us here in New Zealand, we just don’t know what the guidelines will be.

“The situation is quite complex, but I’m really proud that we’re having a conversation … and we’re trying to find ways that trans athletes can be involved in our sport.”

Medical physicist from Loughborough University and transgender woman Joanna Harper attended World Rugby’s transgender workshop, and told the BBC that while she accepted the complexity of the issue, bans were not the correct way forward.

“Putting restrictions on trans-women is a reasonable thing to do, but I certainly don’t agree with this idea of an outright ban,” Harper said.

“I don’t think this is necessarily the way to go. World Rugby has given us a month to issue responses and I will do so.”