Allyship in elite women’s sport
Throughout 2019, retired athletes Martina Navratilova (tennis), Sharron Davies (swimming), Kelly Holmes (athletics) and Paula Radcliffe (marathon) all spoke publically about what they perceive to be the unfairness of trans women competing in women’s elite sport. These successful athletes, all with a history of growing and promoting women’s sport, were simultaneously celebrated for sharing their thoughts on a complex issue, and labelled transphobic for expressing anti-inclusive and transphobic views. Navratilova, particularly, despite her long history of fighting for inclusion and to end homophobia in sport, faced a severe backlash for expressing anti-trans rhetoric. This paper examines the concept of allyship in the context of inclusion and fairness in sport. Conceptual clarification of what allyship involves and requires precedes an examination of whether athletes should be obliged to promote inclusive sport. I argue that elite women athletes have an obligation to promote women’s sport, but not one that extends as far as a requirement to actively act as allies. To support this conclusion, I argue that: 1) past and present trans athlete eligibility rules endorsed by the IOC are problematic; 2) the typical arguments from unfairness and performance advantages fail to demonstrate why trans athletes should not be welcome to compete; but 3) a requirement of allyship requires more from women athletes than we can reasonably expect. Being mandated to act as an ally, without full commitment, does more harm than good. Athletes thus are entitled to express their views, but sports organizations should be responsible for providing education to all athletes on the science and ethics of trans athlete inclusion.