- Jul 2011
Davies, left, who is leading a British bid to prevent trans athletes competing as women, with her 20-year-old daughter Grace, an ex-British junior heptathlete Times Photographer Marc Aspland
Sharron Davies has competed in an uneven field. She explains to Martyn Ziegler why she wants strict controls on transgender athletes.
As Sharron Davies lined up against Petra Schneider at the start of the 400m medley final at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, she knew that she had no chance of beating the East German. By Schneider’s own later admission, she had spent years being doped up to the eyeballs on testosterone as part of the Stasi’s drugs programme.
The East German swimmers that Davies, then 17, spent the best part of two decades competing against “looked like men and sounded like men”.
Davies — who competed for Britain at the 1976 Olympics aged 13 and won multiple Commonwealth and European medals before retiring in 1994 — finished with a silver medal behind Schneider, but that sense of injustice at having to compete against athletes who had been pumped full of male hormones had proved lasting.
Indeed, it has been instrumental in her decision to become a driving force in a British campaign to persuade the International Olympic Committee not to allow transgender women to compete in women’s sport.
Last week, Davies sent a letter to the IOC’s president Thomas Bach signed by 60 former British athletes — including 20 gold medallists — calling on the organisation to rethink its guidelines which, from 2015, have made it much easier for men who identify as women to compete in female sport.
We meet on a cloudless day in Bath, near to where Davies, 56, lives. She is accompanied by Grace, her 20-year-old daughter, a former British junior heptathlete, from her marriage to Derek Redmond — who won a 4x400m gold medal at the 1991 world championships.
Five weeks have passed since Davies was inspired by Martina Navratilova’s column on the issue of transgender sport in The Sunday Times to join forces with Dame Kelly Holmes and Paula Radcliffe to ensure that British athletes are heard. Tessa Sanderson, Daley Thompson and Carl Froch are among those to have signed.
“I saw Martina’s column, and spoke to Kelly and to Paula and all of us were, ‘Oh my goodness, we need to stand up and be counted on this’,” Davies says.
"I don’t think people realised how the rules changed in 2015. I believe it was stealthily done. There is the potential to seriously ruin sport for females. I think ‘who is protecting the females and standing up for female sport?’ I know what it feels like to be standing on the block next to someone you know has an unfair advantage. That injustice is ingrained in me and makes me more determined to have a voice in this.”
Davies has been targeted by what her daughter calls “nasty” stuff on social media because of her stance.
Dr Rachel McKinnon, an academic and transgender cyclist who won a masters world championship race last year, labelled Davies a “transphobe” and posted a picture saying that “a lot of people would be calling her a man”.
Grace says that she finds it difficult not to respond to the insults about her mother.
"It has been quite hard when you see things on social media, and it’s quite easy to just snap back, especially when it’s a nasty comment,” Grace says.
"But she has handled it with a lot of dignity and kept it very factual.
“Mum is coming at it from a personal point of view. The people she was competing against were not transgender, but they did have an unfair advantage. She has a personal connection. People are scared to speak out.”
Holmes found her sponsors targeted when she did so. Davies herself says that she can cope with the comments from "a small but very vigilant, nasty group of people, which can make it quite scary”.
One argument is that the number of trans women who want to compete in elite sport is so tiny that they should be encouraged. But Davies says that it is a matter of time before a country decides to exploit the rules.
She points out that in 17 American states, teenagers only need to identify as a girl to take part in female races, something that could lead to lucrative college scholarships.
"It is about the potential for the abuse of the system which has not been looked at,” she says.
"We have countries in the world that don’t care quite how they earn their medals, we know that from history and from what the Russians did at Sochi in 2014. So, if you have a rule that says people don’t have to have surgery any more, only have to self-identify and have reduced testosterone for one year — and who is monitoring that? — they can turn up at the Olympics and compete in a women’s event.
"If I was Vladimir Putin I would be picking out my tenth and 12th-best male athletes and saying, ‘Right, you can go and bring back a big old sack of medals from women’s sport and you wouldn’t be breaking any rules’. We know from East Germany the lengths people will go to. Their athletes were put on these terrible drugs through puberty which has given them some terrible health issues now. They were victims as well, as they were probably given little choice.”
Finding a solution is less straightforward but Davies believes that the beginning should be protecting women’s sport.
"This was a kneejerk reaction by the IOC before the proper research has been done and they need to go back to the old guidelines and do the research,” she says.
"In terms of competition, perhaps you have an open class for everyone with XY chromosomes, and a protected class for XX. Maybe the pride games [the Gay Games, a multi-sport event held every four years] needs to grow and the transgender community looked after more there. I have no problem with people being transgender and I want to help them participate in sport, but as a mum and a former athlete I also want to protect sport for young women.”
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Schneider was among the East German athletes to come forward and tell of their doping past. In her case, she had been given anabolic steroids since the age of 14 yet the IOC decided against reallocating any Olympic medals and Davies says the pain of injustice that first burned inside her 40 years ago still hurts.
"It does — and that’s why I am doing this. Righting those wrongs years down the line is not what we should be aiming to do.”
FWIW, I doubt very seriously that Russia specifically would be an issue with this...
This lady does not realize the level of homophobia and transphobia in that society. This is a country where you can get killed for walking around in drag. I read not too long ago about a once known actor over there, who was secretly transgender, and once finally went out in Moscow dressed as a woman, and a group of men literally stomped him to death. That's how dangerous it is to be trans there...
Russians, majority of them, would never put up with any kind of transgender on a national team, even if Putin himself gets behind that idea. The Orthodox Church would go apeshit about it. And the Church has a LOT of say over there, even on this issue, these days.
Russian Olympic Team goes to prayer and special meal/pep talk with Patriarch Alexey at Christ the Savior Cathedral
and a priest, a certain Father Andrei, has been assigned as official cleric of the team, who accompanies the athletes to all the games and sets up makeshift chapel for them at every Russian section of an Olympic Village
I can just imagine those guys blessing off transgenders... lmao When Hell freezes over...
The Muslim leadership also would NOT be ok with it. Heck, not just the religious, the Communists (number two party) would likely be pissed too. Communists are NOT liberal over there, Russia is a very different country... Russians would overwhelmingly be against this. No amount of medals would be worth it, in their view, I can safely promise that.
And no athlete would go for it, even, again, under personal order (and protection guarantees) from Putin himself. Violent retribution aside, it would simply not be worth losing all your friends and family and being shunned and ostracized in general...
In more open and tolerant, Western societies, could this eventually become an issue? Perhaps, possibly...