When I was on the British international rowing team in the 1980s and 1990s, I had to submit to a test before World Cup competitions — to confirm I wasn’t a man.
The check was not pushy or demeaning. An official simply rubbed a cotton swab around the inside of my mouth — a procedure known as a “cheek-buccal swab” — and sent it off for analysis.
At the time, there were rumors that the Soviet and Eastern Bloc trainers would do anything to win; not only forcing their female athletes to take testosterone and other hormones or drugs, but even enticing men into their women’s teams.
As a result, the sport’s governing body was keen to detect signs of male chromosomes in female athletes.
I thought nothing of it. It was only part of the price all athletes paid to keep cheaters out of the sport.
Trans woman Sarah Gibson (pictured), who was biologically male, competed in the 2015 Cambridge University women’s reserve squad at the annual Boat Race, it was revealed earlier this week
Sarah (fifth from left) rowing on the River Thames for the Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club in 2015
So I was stunned to read in the Mail last week that in 2015 one of the rowers on a women’s team competing in the classic Oxford and Cambridge varsity Boat Race was biologically male.
That year was a historic one as 2015 marked the first time the women’s teams raced the full 4-mile stretch of the Thames that the men had rowed in over 150 years.
Until then, women had competed for more than a mile on the Thames at Henley, a decision likely influenced by organizers so old-fashioned that they believed overexertion could impair female participants’ ability to bear children. .
By then, Sarah Gibson – the trans woman who rowed on the Cambridge team eight years ago – was already a prominent LGBT+ campaigner.
Two years earlier, she had participated in a campaign forcing colleges to adopt a “gender-neutral” dress policy at graduations, allowing students to wear a suit or dress as they saw fit.
And as a transgender representative for the university’s LGBT+ student union, she had also published a report on trans and intersex sports facilities in Cambridge.
Given her profile, it’s inconceivable that anyone on the team didn’t know she had gone through male puberty.
But the rules said the organizers and the other rowers couldn’t challenge Gibson’s self-declared status as a woman.
Olympian Tish Reid (pictured) was part of the British international rowing team in the 1980s and 1990s
She said she was a woman: therefore she was. End of discussion. I talked to ex-rowers about the race that year and we came to the conclusion that they had no choice but to include Gibson in the squad. I’m not sure if I could have acted differently in their place.
Trans activists reject this story, claiming it is unimportant and that Gibson’s gender was irrelevant. She was not in the first team, the so-called Blue Boat, but in the reserves, rowing in the so-called ‘Blondie’ boat. And at least Oxford won.
This proves, the trans campaigners say, that trans athletes do not have unfair advantages, and that any women who object are simply transphobic.
Well, I object, very strongly. That doesn’t make me transphobic: it makes me a passionate defender of women’s sports.
In rowing, more than in almost any other major sport, men’s bodies have a colossal advantage. Pulling a leash is all about leverage and the efficient use of muscle power.
If you have longer arms and legs and a longer back, you are a stronger rower. That’s why rowers in the Boat Race are generally tall. It’s just physics. And the benefits of going through male puberty are just biology. It offers invariable advantages, including larger organs, such as heart and lungs, as well as a larger skeleton. That is why sport is segregated based on gender.
Trans activists claim that hormone therapy can eliminate the differences between men and women. But that’s nonsense. No medicine can shorten arms and legs.
Obscene as it is that trans athletes are expected and encouraged to take drugs to affect their performance.
When I was an Olympic athlete, we weren’t even allowed to take Lemsip because one of the ingredients was on the banned list.
The simple fact is that a trans woman who has gone through male puberty and competes with women will have a significant advantage. They may not win every time, but they shouldn’t be there in the first place in my opinion.
In a brochure published by Stonewall, Gibson said: ‘I’ve wanted to take part in the Boat Race since I was a little boy and I was thrilled when I got the chance.
“The club and the coaches have been very helpful. Without such an inclusive environment I would not have been able to enjoy it or reach my full potential.”
I applaud Gibson’s ambition, but sport is meant to be competitive.
What about the dreams of the woman who didn’t make it to the 2015 Cambridge team? There were eight seats in the Blondie boat, and one of them was given to a trans woman — a decision that pushed a female rower out.
This is not a one-off. It’s a problem that threatens female rowers across the sport. I am 59 and it even affects me.
I still train on an indoor rowing machine and I’m competitive by instinct. But when I set goals for myself, it’s demoralizing to see several records in the older women categories held by a trans woman.
Although nominally female, she also sometimes rows with a men’s team. This is possible because there are two categories in rowing: ladies and open. The open competition is just that: open to everyone.
In the 1980s, when I was training for single sculls — that is, just rowing a boat — I entered an open race myself.
It was a fantastic experience, but I was defeated. I didn’t stand a chance against the men.
Losing men openly was one thing. Discovering that female records were set by a trans woman was something else entirely.
The thought of taking part in an inherently unfair event seems so unpleasant that it put an end to my plan to return to indoor rowing at a competitive level.
How much worse must it be for young women at the start of their rowing career knowing that in women’s races they will be competing against male rowers. They will no doubt wonder, “Why should I bother?”
That would certainly have been my first reaction. When I arrived at Somerville College, Oxford in 1983, when it was still an all-female institution, I was not a rower. Lacrosse was my sport. But the coaches saw that I was six feet tall and took me to the water in a frog march.
Serious rowing takes a lot of effort. It is physically demanding and involves many early mornings. If I was condemned to lose every time to male-bodied rivals, my competitive spirit would have been crushed. And then I would have missed a wonderful sporting career that culminated in my rowing at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona – an unforgettable experience.
Women’s sport is now taken more seriously than ever before. When I rowed in the Boat Race in 1986, and in the Commonwealth Games that year (where I won a bronze and a silver medal), it sometimes felt that the media was only interested if we posed in our college gowns.
That has all changed. Women’s football and rugby, for example, are now both big news and a source of national pride.
These are gigantic achievements and we must protect them. Women’s sports should never be invaded by male-bodied athletes. That is not inclusion. It’s injustice.