“This Scientist is Racing to Discover How Gender Transitions Alter Athletic Performance—Including Her Own”

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The Story

“This Scientist is Racing to Discover How Gender Transitions Alter Athletic Performance—Including Her Own”
by Katherine Kornei
Science, July 25, 2018

The Pitch


It was great to meet you at the World Conference of Science Journalists Power Pitch. I’m following up, as promised, with a pitch about transgender athlete performance.


Doping is a hot-button topic in athletic performance, but there’s a decidedly more personal change that might also affect an athlete’s race times: gender reassignment.

Joanna Harper, a medical physicist at Portland Providence Medical Center in Oregon, is one of the few researchers studying the physiology of transgender athletes. In particular, she’s focusing on transgender women—males who have transitioned to females. “The important question is whether reasonably equitable competition exists between the two groups [cisgender women and transgender women],” Harper told me. There’s been a lot of recent news coverage suggesting that transgender women might have athletic advantages over individuals who have identified biologically and societally as female since birth, like the case of Hannah Mouncey, a transgender women barred from competing in the Australian women’s football league on the basis of her “transgender strength, stamina, and physique.”

However, there’s been very little research in the field of transgender athlete physiology to determine whether the perceived advantages are real. “There was no documentation on what precisely happens to athletes bodies during transition before I started to gather data,” Harper told me. Her 2015 study, published in the Journal of Sporting Cultures and Identities, focused on the race times of eight transgender (male-to-female) distance runners collected over seven years. Using race times from competitions ranging from a 5k to a marathon, Harper found that seven of the eight runners experienced a “substantial reduction” in their times after transitioning. However, the runners’ age grades—their performance adjusted for their age and gender—before and after transitioning remained largely constant. Because age grading is a standardized and widely accepted method for evaluating athletic performance among runners, Harper concluded that “transgender women run distance races at approximately the same level, for their respective gender, both before and after gender transition.” In other words, the data didn’t reveal an advantage.

Harper herself is a competitive distance runner, but her work is deeply personal for another reason: in 2004, at the age of 46, Harper transitioned from male to female. Her own race times were roughly 12% slower after her transition, but her age grade remained constant.

Harper has shared new unpublished data with me from both a larger study of transgender athletes who have completed gender reassignment–including runners, a cyclist, and a rower–and a case study of a 27-year-old male distance runner whose physiology and biology (VO2max, body mass index, body fat) were repeatedly measured as he underwent hormonal therapy. “The hormonal changes that transgender athletes experience have enormous effects upon athletic performance,” she told me. “By studying these athletic changes I hope we can provide support for testosterone-based rules to separate athletes into male and female categories.”

There’s been some progress in implementing these rules, and Harper has been involved. Prior to last year, the International Olympic Committee’s Stockholm Consensus required that transgender athletes had to undergo surgery of their external genitalia and obtain legal recognition of their assigned sex prior to competing, both “very difficult barriers” according to Harper. Under the IOC’s new regulations, which Harper helped to define at the Consensus Meeting on Sex Reassignment and Hyperandrogenism held in Switzerland in 2015, a transgender female athlete is allowed to complete as a female if her testosterone levels are below 10 nanomoles per liter for at least 12 months, without any other stipulations.

How about a profile piece focusing on Harper and her trailblazing work? She lives in Portland, Oregon, which is where I’m based. I fall squarely in the “recreational jogger” category, but I’d ask to join her on one of her regular runs by the city’s waterfront.

Harper has written opinion pieces in The Washington Post in 2015 and The Huffington Post in 2016 (link below), but there hasn’t been much other news coverage focusing specifically on her besides a piece on the American Physical Society website and Ozy.com.

A bit about me: I’ve covered stories ranging from solar physics to air quality to ocean litter for Science’s website. I hold a Ph.D. in astronomy, but writing about biology isn’t completely out of left field for me: in 2016 I wrote a feature for Discover that focused on experimental work to mature eggs in the lab to give sterile cancer survivors a shot at motherhood.

Thanks for your consideration.


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