Same wingspan, different times: US swimmers Ryan Lochte and Missy Franklin on the podium (L) at the FINA World Championships, Kazan, 2015

Turning a blind eye to a tilted playing field

Not only is it a page-turner, it’s also an essential manual for defending women’s sport


This article is taken from the February 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Unfair Play: The Battle for Women’s Sport, Sharron Davies with Craig Lord (Forum, £20)

Imagine lining up for an Olympic final knowing that at least three of the other seven women alongside you are drug cheats. No wonder Sharron Davies is furious seeing it play out again, this time labelled “progressive”. The energy, courage and determination which won her so many swimming medals shine through in this engaging and informative book.

It tells two scarcely credible, but true, stories, 40 years apart but with strong parallels. They are stories of wilful blindness, of people in powerful positions letting blatant unfairness play out on the world stage, whilst pretending all is well. With co-author Craig Lord, Davies combines the personal perspective and insight of an Olympian with rich anecdotes, rigorous research and thorough referencing. Not only is it a page-turner, it’s also an essential manual for defending women’s sport.

Davies is today well known for her fight against males in women’s sport, but first she addresses the state-sponsored doping that went on in East Germany for 20 years, depriving her of an Olympic gold medal and the life-changing benefits of being an Olympic champion. She unpicks what went on in the 1970s and 80s and how the East German regime got away with what she calls “the sporting crime of the century”. Just as astonishing, though, is the silent collusion of the rest of the world. It is a compelling tale, with many moments that make you gasp.

Davies has no hesitation in calling out the “two groups of men who bear responsibility” — two groups because she shows how the leaders of the German Democratic Republic were enabled by the International Olympic Committee. Older readers will know that East German women with deep voices won a lot of medals, but the detail here is breathtaking. It’s estimated that up to 15,000 athletes took performance-enhancing drugs, most with no idea that the “vitamin pills” their coaches were giving them would first virilise and later damage their bodies and in some cases the bodies of their future children.

A doping operation on that scale generated a lot of paperwork, some of which was saved from the shredders in 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down. In one year alone, a teenage shot-putter called Heidi Krieger who became Olympic champion was given almost twice as much testosterone as the Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson who won (and then was disqualified from) the men’s 100m in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.

Krieger became so masculine that she eventually underwent sex reassignment surgery. The medical consequences for some of the other women are shocking to read, as is the extent to which the Olympic authorities turned a blind eye and even appointed East Germans to anti-doping panels, where they could ensure their teams were always a step ahead of testing protocols.

All this was evident at the time. Everybody knew. But they were not allowed to say so. That is the clearest parallel with what we are seeing now. When a male swimmer can go from ranking 550th amongst US college men to winning a national women’s title, ahead of three Olympic medallists, no one believes it to be the result of a mere name change, or a good training regime.

Champion Katie Ledecky, regarded as one of the best ever, would be beaten by world-class junior boys

The second part of the book covers male and female differences in sport, which went without saying for so long that many people have no idea of the size of the gap. The world’s fastest women on the track or in the pool wouldn’t make a national team, never mind win a medal, if they had to compete against men.

Take the US Olympic champion swimmers Missy Franklin and Ryan Lochte. They are the same height with the same wingspan — very important in swimming. They won the same event, the 200m Backstroke, and both held world records. But if Franklin had raced in the men’s event, she would have finished 50th in the US Olympic trials, missing the team and the Games. Another champion American swimmer, Katie Ledecky, regarded as one of the best female swimmers ever, would be beaten by world-class junior boys.

And it is Katie’s record in US college swimming that was challenged by Lia Thomas, someone we never would have heard of if he had remained Will Thomas, an also-swam at the University of Pennsylvania. Yet some argued that because Thomas did not beat Ledecky’s record, it was fair competition. Wilful blindness indeed.

The third and final part of the book brings us up to date, with stories of male competitors around the world claiming places in women’s teams and on women’s podiums. The Welsh cyclist Emily (formerly Zach) Bridges, sought selection for the national women’s team, until women on Team GB objected. British Cycling’s rules would have allowed Bridges to compete, but UCI, which governs international cycling, intervened with new rules requiring a longer period of testosterone suppression.

This ruled Bridges out of women’s competition for another year, buying time for British Cycling and UCI to review their eligibility rules, reinstating a protected racing category for female cyclists. World Rugby had already protected women’s teams on safety grounds, but it took public humiliation for the cycling authorities to act to restore fairness. Despite this, many other sport bodies haven’t learned the lesson that this is coming, and they will not look good when it comes to them.

The part played by politicians cannot be ignored, since many sports receive public funding. Whilst UK politicians and policy-makers have mostly been supine in their failure to protect female sport, in the USA, President Biden’s proposal to change US federal law looks like an active attempt to dismantle it.

A 50-year-old US government regulation called Title IX requires equal funding for males and females in programmes receiving federal funding. This was a game-changer for female access to US universities, with sports scholarships, providing an affordable route into college. Young women now come from all over the world on sports scholarships which can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Yet Biden’s proposal that Title IX should apply to gender identity and not just sex means males claiming a female “gender identity” can qualify for women’s sports scholarships. College sports directors are competitive guys (mostly) whose jobs depend on winning. A quick flick back to the “Sporting Differences” chapter tells you they could easily fill their women’s places with males whose performance looks good compared with women.

And once one college does it, others will follow. The effect won’t just be on sport but on female access to education. Davies calls this sex discrimination, and it is a live issue right now in US politics. This time round, Davies is determined that those with responsibility will not be allowed to look the other way.

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