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Transgender Athletes Raise Questions For Future Olympic Games


Chris Mosier is featuring prominently in Nike TV ads during the Rio Olympics. He is the first transgender athlete to make a U.S. national team in the duathlon, which is not an Olympic sport. So he's not competing at Rio, but the possibility of transgender Olympians got commentator Diana Nyad thinking.

DIANA NYAD, BYLINE: We, the human race, have lived most of our history in a binary universe. And I don't mean Democrat and Republican. From the moment a baby bump swells, the first question is, boy or girl? Yet, we have worked hard over recent decades to de-emphasize gender differentiation. Women command capsules into outer space, lead teams of surgeons in the operating room, and - who knows? - maybe become president of the United States one day. But the one arena where we demand a clear-cut separation of the sexes is sports.

Scientists, endocrinologists, gynecologists, gender experts have for years carved out a set manifest standard for what defines a male and a female athlete, ensuring that every person who steps up to the start line is not up against a chemically-engineered specimen quite unlike his or her birth profile. Simply put, the goal of most of the doping cheats in sports is to become somehow more male - the more male the body's chemistry, the higher potential for brute strength, explosive speed and efficient oxygen utilization.

Yet, today, the mandate of competing in the gender category of your birth is old school. And the Rio Olympics is the first games to accept transgender athletes. No known trans athletes are competing in these games. But in theory, we don't seem to argue when a transgender male athlete joins a competition. We assume that the once-female body brings nothing superior to the game. It's the converse situation that's tricky. If a male has gone through one year of hormone therapy and tests within the accepted range of estrogen-testosterone levels as female, even without undergoing sex-change surgery, she is now female, fair and square, in the world of sports. But is she?

The most famous male-to-female transgender athlete who actually competed as a female was Renee Richards. Renee played world-class tennis as Richard Raskind and then successfully sued to play in the 1977 U.S. Open women's draw as Renee. But there was protest. Some of the women at the time, although respectful of Renee's personal life decisions, deemed it unfair to face a 6-foot-1-inch athlete who was not long before male, with bigger-than-normal hands, a smaller-than-normal hip girdle.

Let's look at this as would a statistician. A born male has a range of height, wider shoulders and so on than a born female. So if you were born with those male skeletal characteristics, traits that don't change with hormonal shifts, and stand within any group of females, you have a likely chance of being bigger than average - an asset in most sports. I'm all for the rights of the transgender athlete. I'm ready to evolve from our binary model. But I admit, when it comes to the female trans athlete, I'm confused.

MONTAGNE: That's commentator Diana Nyad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.