UK Sport is ready to fund any eligible transgender woman with Olympic or Paralympic medal potential, despite Boris Johnson’s call for their exclusion from female sport.
The Prime Minister launched into the debate on Wednesday by saying that “biological males” should not compete in women’s sport, but the public body which distributes athlete pay-outs from a mixture of Lottery and government income has stressed that decisions will remain based on performance and eligibility.
It follows British Cycling’s decision to accept Emily Bridges’s entry in the National Omnium Championships and include her in their provisional squad for the Nations Cup later this month. Bridges, a 21-year-old Welsh transgender cyclist, was then forced to withdraw from the national championships after the International Cycling Union (UCI) intervened and ruled that they wanted to set up an ‘expert panel’ to assess her eligibility.
This is likely to take around six weeks, even though Bridges is adamant that she meets cycling’s transgender guidance of having testosterone levels below 5nmol/L for at least the past year.
Asked whether UK Sport would fund Bridges if she is cleared to ride in women’s elite cycling, chief executive Sally Munday said: “We will support every or any athlete who a sport or governing body has deemed to have future potential and is eligible to compete.”
Munday also said that UK Sport was taking steps to ensure that Bridges was receiving sufficient support while her case is considered.
“I have huge empathy for Emily,” she said. “I have huge empathy for the women whom she would have been potentially competing against. I think this is a complex topic. I think that Emily has shown incredible courage. I think she has shown incredible resilience and huge determination.
“I think that when you are in the centre of something which is of national interest, which this has become, then clearly that creates a pressure. But this isn’t simply about Emily. This is a much bigger topic. We are in regular discussion with British Cycling about the support she is getting. But not just her – everybody who is involved in this discussion. We have to have these conversations respectfully because humans and human feelings and human experiences are at the centre of this.”
British elite women cyclists felt so strongly that they were ready to stage a boycott over the issue, according to a letter calling on the UCI to change its transgender guidance that has been signed by Sara Symington, British Cycling’s own head of Olympic and Paralympic programmes.
Munday stressed that it was for individual sports to form their own transgender policies and review their stance as new evidence emerges but highlighted the importance of inclusivity.
“Where possible, what we were really encouraging is sports to be creative, flexible and accommodating in their approaches so they could develop really meaningful inclusion polices that consider the needs of all people and all groups,” she said.
“What we have seen over the last two weeks is a sport grappling with the reality of this situation as it enters to the top level of domestic sport and how it might impact in terms of international sport.
“Whilst trans has been around for a long time, elite athlete trans has not been around in volume for a long time, so for a lot of sports this is new territory. What is really important is that we make sure as a sporting industry we are inclusive, that we are welcoming, that we enable everyone who wants to play sport to play sport.
“Where inclusion bumps up against fairness and safety, it’s down for an individual sport to consider and make the decisions that are most appropriate for that sport.”
Of the call for a review of the UCI guidance, which has been criticised for failing to sufficiently consider fairness and potential strength advantages even after hormone therapy, Munday said: “We ask the questions of any sport: ‘Have you been through an appropriate process to reach your policy?’ Our view would be that if British Cycling feel that they have different information and evidence available to them from when they made their policy, then yes it is appropriate for them to look at that policy again.”
Munday’s comments came as UK Sport launched a new independent disclosure and complaints service, which will be oversee by Sport Resolutions, and free of charge to governing bodies.
It follows accusations of bullying across a number of Olympic sports. UK Sport denied that it was being launched pre-emptively ahead of the Whyte Review, which will be published at the end of May and investigate allegations of mistreatment in gymnastics and a failure to deal appropriately with complaints. The new service, however, is not mandatory for national governing bodies to sign up to.
Ed Miliband, the former Labour Party leader and a member of the shadow cabinet, also argued for a sport-by-sport approach rather than a blanket ban.
“I think it is different for different sports,” he said. “I don’t think you should have a blanket ban. I understand the strong feelings there were in the cycling case and I think the sporting bodies eventually got to the right decision. The principle is we do need fairness and I think that is a decision for the governing bodies.”