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Tennis coach worries new transgender athlete policy unfair to girls

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Under the Ontario Tennis Association’s new ‘honour-based’ trans policy, players may participate without restrictions in the gender category in which they self-identify

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Junior competitive tennis coach Michael Paduch is aware that he’s wading into an emotionally charged debate by questioning a new policy that allows transgender players to compete against other girls, “without restriction.”

“It’s a complex issue; it’s an issue a lot of people care about,” Paduch said. “But I have a keen interest in ensuring that female tennis in Canada is not affected negatively by policies that are put in place.”

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The certified tennis instructor is referring to an email that recently popped into his inbox informing Ontario Tennis Association (OTA) member clubs of a newly implemented Transgender Athlete Participation Policy for all OTA-sanctioned events.

Under the policy, players may participate in the gender category in which they self-identify, “without restriction,” and with no requirement for gender-reassignment interventions, such as hormone therapy, nor any requirement to disclose transgender identity or history to the OTA or any of its coaches, staff or officials.

The eligibility rules stand for league and recreational levels, as well as provincial competitive levels.

Paduch, a certified tennis instructor who has been coaching girls’ and boys’ competitive tennis for 15 years, taking some players, a number of them girls, to the national level, wondered why he and other coaches hadn’t been more broadly consulted on a transgender policy that’s less restrictive than the rules adopted by the sport’s global governing body.

Under the International Tennis Federation’s (ITF) policy, a male-to-female transgender player who wishes to compete against biological females must provide a written and signed declaration that her gender is female; must demonstrate to the ITF’s satisfaction that her serum testosterone has been below a maximum limit continuously for at least 12 months; and must be “ready, willing and able to continue to keep it below that level for so long as she continues to compete in the female category of competition.”

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Paduch, who also is a certified wheelchair tennis coach for those with disabilities, is aware of the risks of voicing concerns about a hot-button issue most people are reluctant to speak about publicly.

“I don’t think there is anybody in the coaching community who would not agree with the statement that tennis should be as inclusive as possible,” he said.

Once you get into the teenage years, girls are just not able to keep up

However, “We accepted a much more watered down, much weaker policy than the ITF’s, potentially at the expense of girls,” he said. He said he’s not anti-trans, or opposed to trans athletes competing in female categories, but believes there should be some hormonal restrictions on their participation. “I believe in policies that are built based on sports science,” he said.

“In theory, right now anybody who is completely fully male in their teens in Ontario could compete against girls and could be winning titles based on this policy.”

It is the latest example of how sports bodies in Canada, for the most part, have adopted more liberal rules around trans inclusion than a growing number of international federations governing sports.

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The OTA guidelines “are intended to ensure, insofar as possible, that transgender athletes are not excluded from any opportunity to participate in sporting competitions and are provided a sporting environment free of discrimination,” the policy reads.

But Paduch said they offer an unfair competitive advantage to players born male who register in girls’ and women’s categories based upon self-identified gender status alone.

The Ontario Tennis Association’s policy is virtually identical to one implemented last year by Tennis Canada, which also recommends allowing athletes, including high-performance athletes, to compete without restrictions in the gender category consistent with their gender identity.

Tennis Québec, by contrast, requires trans athletes wishing to compete in Tennis Québec-sanctioned tournaments in the category of their new gender to provide a change of sex designation certificate, issued by a Quebec civil registry office.

“In the case of Ontario, we have not done that,” Paduch said. “It is essentially an honour-based system, and we all know honour-based systems tend to be ripe for abuse or misrepresentations.”

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The policy adopted by the world governing body of tennis is also a more “science-based policy that seems to have checks and balances in place to ensure that girls in particular are not affected negatively by participation of fully hormonal males in the teenage years,” said Paduch, who is also an ITF tournament director.

“At that stage of development, a fully hormonal male who declares themselves a woman has a significant physiological advantage in terms of heart size, density of muscles and ability to perform,” he said.

“Once you get into the teenage years, girls are just not able to keep up.”

Ball and racquet on a tennis court.
“I don’t think there is anybody in the coaching community who would not agree with the statement that tennis should be as inclusive as possible.” Photo by Getty Images

Athletes who want to participate in competitions and games sanctioned by the International Tennis Federation must comply with ITF rules. Yet in order to gain that international level of play, “you have to be exposed to high-level competition,” said Paduch, who played varsity tennis competitively in Poland, where he grew up.

“There is a theoretical possibility that (biological girls) will be prevented from reaching those high levels of girls’ competition if there is an increasing number of hormonally stronger former males taking those spots from girls,” Paduch said.

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The Ontario Tennis Association and Tennis Canada did not respond to several requests for an interview before deadline.

But the debate has become a flashpoint in Canada. Alberta Premier Danielle Smith, who has pledged to create biological-female-only sports leagues for women and girls, has criticized the “unfair disadvantage” young female athletes face when competing against those born biologically male. Conservative party Leader Pierre Poilievre has said female sport categories, and change rooms, should be off-limits to “biological males.”

The Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport maintains that athletes should be permitted to participate in the gender category of their choosing. A scientific review published by the Ottawa-based non-profit in 2021 concluded that trans sport policies “use arbitrary bounds that are not evidence based” and that “available evidence indicates trans women who have undergone testosterone suppression have no clear biological advantages over cis women in elite sport.”

But other research suggests that testosterone suppression has only a modest effect on diminishing muscle mass and strength.

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Depending on the sport, “the performance gap between males and females becomes significant at puberty,” often amounting to 10 to 50 per cent, added the authors of the review, published in the journal Sports Medicine.

It’s not known how many trans athletes are entering tennis competitions. The sport was the first pro sport to open to transgender athletes, when Renée Richards successfully sued to play at the 1977 U.S. Open after undergoing sex-reassignment surgery.

Renee Richards and Martina Navratilova.
Renee Richards, left, with Martina Navratilova, after Navratilova was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame on July 15, 2000. Photo by Elise Amendola/AP, File

In a 2022 interview with the New York Post, Chris Evert, who faced Richards six times, winning every match, described struggling to beat Richards when Richards was 43 and Evert was ranked number one in the world. “The wingspan. The size of the heart. The size of the lungs. The speed. The fast twitch muscles. The testosterone,” Evert said. “There’s just everything pointing to the fact that men are quicker, stronger, etc. than women — especially after puberty.”

Richards would go on to coach tennis legend Martina Navratilova to several Grand Slam wins, but Navratilova herself has faced fierce criticism for posting comments on social media that say allowing trans females who haven’t undergo sex reassignment to compete in women’s categories is “not fair” and “not right.”‘ After World Athletics, the international governing body for track and field, last year voted to exclude male-to-female trans athletes who have experienced puberty from female World Rankings competition, Navratilova wrote in Britain’s The Times that the “best idea” would be an “open category” for trans athletes.

Paduch is concerned that, without “a medical aspect of certification,” the new tennis policy could have a profound impact on girls’ tennis. “We can’t just be inclusive at the expense of girls,” he said.

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