Stella Walsh, Helen Stephens and Lia Thomas: Should Transgenders Compete in Women’s Sports?

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On Thursday, March 18, 2022, University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas became the first transgender woman to win an NCAA Division I swimming championship when she won the 500-yard freestyle with a season-best time of 4 minutes, 33.24 seconds. She beat the second-place finisher, Virginia’s Emma Weyant, who finished in 4:34.99.

On February 1, 2022, the sport’s governing body, USA Swimming, adopted an Athlete Inclusion, Competitive Equity and Eligibility Policy, and established a three-person medical panel to administer the policy and review applications for elite and non-elite categories. The new guidelines require female athletes to have at least 36 months of testosterone blood levels below five nanomoles per liter.

The policy recognizes that transgender females should be allowed to compete in female sports because they are psychologically female. Allowing transgender female athletes to compete in female sports gives them tremendous psychological benefit. Lia Thomas said, “I just want to show trans kids and younger trans athletes that they’re not alone. They don’t have to choose between who they are and the sport they love.”

However, in the elite swimmer category, the applicant must show that prior physical development of the athlete as a male, as mitigated by any medical intervention, does not give the athlete a competitive advantage over the athlete’s cisgender female competitors. Even 36 months after surgery is performed and drugs are taken to reduce testosterone levels, transgender women can still have increased height, bone size, muscle size, and strength from their development with male testosterone levels. The only competitive advantage  that is reduced by lowering testosterone in a female athlete who was formerly male would be that blood hemoglobin levels become as low as those of a female, so the quicker recovery times from intense workouts are lost (British Journal of Sports Medicine, March 1, 2021;55(15)).

Stella Walsh and Helen Stephens in the 1932 and 1936 Olympics
Gender identity in women’s sports is not a new issue. Stella Walsh won the women’s 100-meter dash at the 1932 Olympics for Poland. Four years later, at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, she took the second-place silver, beaten by the American, Helen Stephens. Stephens also set new world records for the 200 meters and the standing broad jump, and she won the shot put.

Walsh didn’t like Stephens, and couldn’t believe that she was beaten by another woman, so she insisted that Stephens be examined by Olympic doctors. Walsh felt that she was so fast that only a man could beat her. The German doctors checked Stephens and declared that Stella Walsh had indeed been beaten by a woman.

Olympic historian David Wallechinsky quotes Stephens as saying, “Hitler comes in and gives me the Nazi salute. I gave him a good, old-fashioned Missouri handshake. He gets hold of my fanny and begins to squeeze and pinch, and hug me up. He said, ‘You are a true Aryan type. You should be running for Germany.’ So after he gave me the once-over and a full massage, he asked me if I would like to spend the weekend in Berchtesgaden.” She refused.  For the next 44 years, Walsh claimed that the only reason she didn’t win gold in Berlin was that she had been beaten by a man.

Stella Walsh’s Career in Sports
Walsh was born in Poland on April 3, 1911 as Stanislawa Walasiewicz, registered as a female on her birth certificate, and taken to the U.S. by her parents when she was three months old. Her family settled in Cleveland and she started school there as Stella Walsh. In 1930, Walsh ran 100 yards in 10.8 seconds, the first woman to run the distance in under 11 seconds. She won her first U.S. national championship in 1930 and the last one 24 years later, setting 20 world records and winning 41 United States national titles in events from the sprints to the long jump and discus throw. Walsh became an American idol as one of the greatest female athletes, and was inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame.

Walsh was married for a short time to an American boxer, Neil Olsen. She became a U.S. citizen in 1947. She lived a very private life. Before a competition, she usually arrived in running clothes, never changed in a dressing room, and left as soon as the race was over.

In 1980, at age 69, Walsh was shot and killed in a Cleveland parking lot. She happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. She was returning to her car when a robber shot her while fleeing from police.  The customary autopsy of a murder victim revealed that Stella Walsh was a mosaic, which means that she was both male and female. She had a small penis and testicles. She had XY (male) chromosomes, but she also had an XX (female) chromosome.

Testosterone Levels in Women
In the 1950′s and 1960′s, both male and female athletes began taking the male hormone, testosterone, to give them an advantage in sports.  Giving testosterone to a female will make her stronger, faster, and give her greater endurance. Athletes train by stressing and recovering, where they take a hard workout, damage their muscles, and feel sore on the next day. Then they take easier workouts until the soreness decreases. Testosterone helps athletes to recover faster, so they can take harder workouts more often and become much better athletes. Testosterone also gives a person greater endurance. It raises red blood cell levels so a person can transport more oxygen to their muscles.

While being a lesbian cannot be explained just by increased levels of testosterone, there is extensive evidence that many lesbians have much higher testosterone levels than heterosexual women. Lesbians are more than twice as likely as heterosexual women to have high testosterone levels (Archives of Sexual Behavior, May 13, 2020;49:2405–2420). Usually lesbian women are exposed to much higher levels of testosterone when they are still in the uterus. Studies have shown that the length of the fourth finger is determined by exposure to testosterone early in pregnancy, and the higher the testosterone level, the longer the fourth fingers will be (Nature, March 2000;404 (6777): 455-6; Behav Neurosci, 2010;124 (2): 278-287; Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences Of The USA, 2011;108 (39): 16289-16294).  Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), which is characterized by having cysts on the ovaries, also causes women to have high levels of testosterone. Eighty percent of lesbian women have polycystic ovaries, compared to only 32 percent in heterosexual women (J Fertil Steril, 2004;82(5):1352-1357).

The Future for Transgender Athletes
Today, for a transgender female to compete in NCAA women’s competitive swimming, she must have had surgery or taken drugs to reduce her testosterone levels for at least 36 months. However, she probably will still have an advantage over other women because her earlier time when she had high levels of male testosterone caused her to grow taller, have larger muscles and bones, and be stronger than women who did not have the advantage of having had previously high testosterone levels. The issue of transgender athletes in competitive sports is far from being resolved.