political attacks on trans life have increased across the English-speaking world, sport has been a highly effective route through which the anti-trans right has addressed the general public. Their messaging tends to argue that trans participation in sport threatens the so-called integrity and fairness of women’s competition, the segregation of which has been a hallmark of most levels of organized sport since women were admitted into those spaces. Unfortunately it is sport’s very professionalization that has created the conditions for its weaponization by transphobes. Escalating demands for higher levels of performance and an environment that provides great sums of money to medalists, and scraps for the rest, have shifted the social and philosophical foundations of sporting practice away from principles such as participation and personal fulfillment. There is, increasingly, a singular focus on the value of victory. In a sport like track and field, where individual achievement is the sole vehicle to winning and economic security, this creates a particularly dangerous route through which anti-trans rhetoric can be spread.
On March 23, the international track and field governing body, World Athletics, announced that it would impose a ban on any trans woman who had undergone “male puberty,” or reached the age of twelve, from competing in the women's category for all track and field events. This ban had been a long time coming. The campaign began sometime in the early 2000s, when a few women with suspected intersex conditions began having success in the 800 meters, and ended here—at least, for now.
The economic structure of elite track and field and the attacks on trans participation in sport are not separate. In a major way, the material conditions of professional competition incentivise the retention of separate but equal categories. The distinction between men and women in competition ensures that a few women, slower than men as they statistically are at the highest levels, can still make a living as professional athletes in a cut-throat system that only prioritizes maximal performance. The social and economic prioritization of absolute success at the highest level, rather than relative success at any level, has created the perfect conditions for competition in individual sports to become the point of the spear for far-right movements seeking to vilify and attack trans people on a wide public stage. The central concern of some advocates for cis and trans womens’ separation in sporting competition is that cis women should be at the top of the podium, and should be the only ones compensated monetarily for their presence on that podium.
There is an economic relationship between the gold medal, public glory, and financial security. The most important principle of sport in the modern capitalist era is not victory, but in fact scarcity—of college scholarships, race winnings, sponsorship money. Losing is that much harder when it also means losing your rent money. This mandate traps so many athletes, who sometimes train for decades for a few chances at glory, in the mindset of highest, fastest, strongest. It enshrines the need to slice and dice individual sports into divisions, so that rather than just rewarding a single person, a handful of people from different groups can be rewarded.
The day before World Athletics announced their latest anti-trans and anti-intersex ruling, a distance runner competing for New Zealand, Zane Robertson, was announced to have tested positive for erythropoietin (EPO), a common blood doping drug used to improve endurance. He was pilloried in the media for providing anti-doping organizations with the excuse that he had been falsely administered EPO by a doctor in Kenya when he went to a local hospital for a COVID-19 vaccine. The same day as the trans ruling came down, Robertson went public regarding his reasons for taking EPO. He expressed that he chose to dope because after the COVID-19 pandemic began, his sponsor offered him a pittance contract, and prize money dried up as many races were canceled. The funds did not re-emerge to pre-pandemic levels when races were held again. He decided to take EPO, more or less, because being faster meant he could make more money, and more money meant he could survive and continue doing what he loved.
The image of Olympic sport as a venue for achieving glory and riches is a facile one that maintains the exploitation of athletes in niche sports like track and field. For professional track athletes, the economic realities are stark. With the exception of a few at the very top of marquee events like the 100 meters, competition winnings and sponsorship contracts often won't manage to cover the costs of traveling around the world and entering meets (not to mention the bills from managers, coaches, agents, and other staff like therapists, nutritionists, and psychologists.) Particularly during the winter or indoor season, where meets are even less publicized and short on prize money, participation may represent a net monetary loss, even if a given athlete wins their event. For athletes winning championship titles at the recent 2022 USA indoor championships, USATF’s first-place prize was $6,000. For the 2023 outdoor championships, prizes topped out at $8,000 dollars. Without a gigantic shoe deal, most elite athletes are relegated to working jobs on top of their full-time sport, or relying on the generosity of their loved ones. About half of all track athletes in the top-10 of their event earn less than $15,000 from any income related to their sport performance, and can struggle to hold down jobs when they routinely travel overseas to compete for months at a time.
While athletes are forced to spend immense sums of money to compete and maintain their fitness, the organizations governing their competition and the companies funding it are flush with cash. USA Track and Field (USATF) tax filings last year revealed its CEO, Max Siegel, was compensated $3.8 million in 2021––11% of the organization’s revenues in a country where the sport struggles to maintain television presence outside of Olympic years. While athletes can barely afford travel and hotels in Eugene, Oregon, Nike paid USATF $400 million dollars to maintain its influence in the organization through 2040, with everyone at the bargaining table reportedly walking off with $1 million bonuses. Nike executives remain more than happy to slash star athletes’ contracts at the drop of a hat. The situation is worse for women competitors, who, across almost all sporting disciplines, have publicity and funding limited to an even greater degree than men. When Allyson Felix, a sprint star for decades and one of history’s most decorated athletes in any sport, revealed that when she became pregnant, Nike offered her a seventy percent pay cut as recompense.
Shoe companies and other sponsors, national sporting bodies, advertisers, and the general public care little about those who don't make it out of the semifinals at the Olympics. And for that group of people, the “elites" (who nonetheless aren't quite in the top five or ten in the world), participating in sports like track and field is often a constant struggle against precarity. This precarity must be taken into account when understanding the momentum of arguments to segregate trans girls and women from the lower, slower divisions of sport. So often, the herald call of a movement against a particular youth or collegiate trans athlete comes after that athlete has success in competition, “stealing” a spot on the podium from the girl who was at the top before her. Within the US, the few cases where trans athletes have won championship medals have generally been at the high school level. As the president of World Athletics, Sebastian Coe, acknowledged when he announced the ban on trans women, there has never been a trans woman in competition at the elite level of women's track and field.
Instead, Caster Semenya, a Black South African woman competing at 800 meters, was likely the earliest target of World Athletics’s most recent rendition of gender panic: she and several other African women succeeding at the highest levels in the 800 were accused of having intersex conditions, and World Athletics began seeking scientific justifications for an effective ban against their participation at the elite level. The end result was a 2019 mandate to take testosterone-blocking agents to reduce a woman’s serum testosterone below an accepted upper limit for cis women, 5 nmol/L, in events ranging from 400m to 1600m. World Athletics officials continued their pursuit: in the intervening years, Semenya had limited success at longer unregulated distances such as 5,000 meters, and the intersex ruling dovetailed neatly with the growing panic over trans women in competition.
Semenya’s case, and now the situation presented for trans athletes, represents an attempt to police which bodies are permitted participation in track and field. Track and field is unusual in that it showcases a larger variety of bodies than might be present in other sports: Black and white, short and tall, fat and skinny, muscled and lithe. But when concerns about women with intersex conditions cropped up—and indeed, ever since— targets have been strictly African women. Banned athletes hail from South Africa, Burundi, Kenya, and Namibia.
On online track and field outlets and forums, writers and fans speculate constantly about whether particular women look too masculine, more frequently targeting Black women. Physical appearances are closely scrutinized as to whether they step too far beyond acceptable feminine embodiment and therefore constitute a threat to the integrity of competition. Trans and intersex bans have been floated as maintaining a sort of race-neutral fairness within women’s competition—and yet their implementation has been almost exclusively to exclude Black women, often from poorer economic backgrounds, from competition.
The narrative of the unfairly stolen medal is a useful one for far-right actors explicitly because it references one of the most important dreams of capitalist societies: standing atop a purely meritocratic hierarchy. It can conjure the notion that, in a bygone era uncorrupted by gender confusion, sport was pure (even as track and field have been dogged by allegations of doping for decades.) But in this imaginary golden era, at least the deservingness of the normative white, cis body at the expense of other bodies went unquestioned. To the victor go the spoils—and the victor, for the far right, ought to be cis. Sport is further tied up in normative notions of which bodies are granted social value—the lean, muscled sprinter, or rangy, powerful jumper—and so becomes a convenient display for traditionalist notions of the kind of body normativity that helps exclude trans people from various facets of life.
Capitalist scarcity and precarity in sport makes it a useful tool for shaping the kind of society that the anti-trans far-right desires. By distilling the goals of an athlete down to only the gold medal, a neat motivational fable emerges. Young athletes are told that their only purpose is to achieve at the highest level—while the segregated nature of modern sport is used to create narratives about who deserves this victory. The economics of sport all but guarantee that professionals are funneled into such a mindset, and as such become effective mouthpieces for the project of trans exclusion. In January, World Athletics had initially announced it planned to extend a maximum testosterone level rule to trans women, but Seb Coe told the BBC that he had been “inundated” by calls from women athletes to institute a ban. That response indicates a need to defend one's turf—one's earnings—and in doing so become useful to the forces of reaction.
Track and field is the largest participation sport in the United States at the high school level. Participation can be a primary value in track, a place where so many student-athletes go not for the raw reality of the gold medal, but to be with friends, to run a little faster, even to stay fit for their other, primary sport; the horizons of possibility include alternatives to the meritocratic ideal. Ranking, in the world of the right, is the sole focus of sport. A recent example came when The New York Post turned its vitriol on trans woman Glenique Frank, who the Post claimed had beaten “14,000 women” in the London Marathon. After a long anti-trans screed, the article finally notes that Glenique had lost to another 6,150 women and that her time, 4 hours and 11 minutes, was far, far away from elite territory. Glenique said she would compete in the open or male category in future races, partly to avoid “steal[ing] anyone's money.” Of course, at the level of the 4-hour marathon, there is no money to be won at all. No one competing in London that day would likely have known who Glenique was, what category she entered under, or how many people she beat, without the intervention of outlets like the Post. To anyone watching or taking part, she simply would have been running with everyone else. But this is the entire point: the use of the ranking systems in elite sport tends to ensure that a more meritocratic philosophy is enforced across all levels, all while politically excluding a group deemed undesirable.
Anti-trans advocates often joke that if trans women should be allowed to compete in the gender class they identify as, we should simply dissolve all sporting distinction. Could we actually imagine such a horizon, if only we could make the economic benefits of being first within your division irrelevant? Individual sports are the most egalitarian in all competition, if only we separated competitors strictly by time run, distance thrown or jumped, weight lifted. Not all men run faster than all women—looking at the women's world best 400m times, I can personally attest to my own relative slowness. Not all able-bodied sprinters run faster than sprinters with both legs amputated, but they are separated into different categories in professional competition.
It does not, in fact, always have to be this way, nor is it always this way. Outside of World Athletics-sanctioned competitions, amputee sprinters often compete alongside able-bodied runners. To my knowledge, no one has turned to their amateur competitor using prostheses and told them off for having a mechanical advantage, as World Athletics claimed when it banned bilateral amputees from able-bodied championships. This is not to deny the basic fact: hundreds of boys and men outrun the top women's times in history every year. But still, there are many more who never even get close. Current categories are deeply entrenched, but they are not immutable.
Winning is a fine goal, and competing against bodies similar to one's own is a fine standard; but it is not the only standard. The constant striving for highest, fastest, strongest, and tying that maximal success to economic survival, makes sport and its divisions one of the most effective political wedges by which the forces of reaction can introduce the project of limiting which bodies are acceptable in public life. It does not have to be this way: the reward system can be utterly reshaped. The idea of the gold medal itself is not immutable, and can be reimagined—or abolished outright—in a world where survival is no longer linked to one's earning potential. Those who seek to limit the horizons of trans life have learned well how effective the ceilings imposed by capital and the need to maintain an absolute hierarchy of greatness are in advancing their agenda across virtually all mainstream political leanings.
For me, track has been liberatory. As a high school student, I remember being profoundly uncomfortable in my own skin, and after trying and failing to find a sport that stuck, my parents pushed me to try out for the track team. I picked the easiest two events, the 100 and 200m, and had no business running either of the short sprints. On whim, my coaches threw me into a 4x400m relay as a junior, and from that day onward I was the 400m star at our high school. I was never particularly fast by comparison with the world’s greatest, but the instant camaraderie being “part of the team” earned me broke me out of the awkward state into which I’d grown. Now, the track is a piece of weekly ritual: the smell of the clay in the first few days of spring, the feel of tightening a pair of featherweight spikes onto my feet as I wrap up my warm-up, the weight of my body shifting as I rise in the starting blocks. These are things as close to my heart as family, after nearly twenty years in competition. I hate to think of denying any person the joy this sport has brought me––advantage or none. I am getting older and slower now, and the days of dreaming of fast times are far behind me. But still, there are moments of magic, when everything aligns and I can feel the power with which my body meets the ground, the simple reality of a sport where all one needs is a pair of shoes and the unreasonable desire to be a little quicker than you were the day before.
These days, however, I am dismayed by the sport I call home shutting its doors to an increasing number of competitors, and the narrowing imagination of its fans. Removing the power that sponsors and winnings hold over athletes would defang much of the right's winning-only power. It would not, of course, eliminate the idea of winning. But people can strive to be the 100-meter champion, and strive for other things at the same time. Before anyone can be an Olympic medalist, they must first get on the starting line, time and time again, and be the best version of themselves they can offer in a given race, no matter how fast the person next to them runs.
When a professional athlete's next meal isn't determined by where they end up in the rank order, competition might become less and less important. In a glorious display of the infinite beautiful variation and possibility of the human form, each of us—able-bodied, amputee, wheelchair-mobile, old, young, cis, trans, man, woman, everything in between—might one day line up at the starting line together, settle into position, and rise to meet the starter's call.