How Does Michael Phelps’ Physical Superiority Aspect Factor into the Recent Trans Athletes’ Debate?

Published 04/23/2022, 10:15 AM EDT

Swimming legend Michael Phelps has been the absolute definition of hard work and dedication. Gifted in its truest sense, Michael redefined odds every time he dived into a pool. Coming from a family of swimmers one might argue he has great genetics to thank for his success; but would that be a justified claim or an insult to his hard work and talent? This is where the argument around ‘Biological Advantage’ comes to the fore.

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RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – AUGUST 09: Michael Phelps of the United States celebrates winning gold in the Men’s 200m Butterfly Final on Day 4 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium on August 9, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

In recent times, there has been an argument involving physically gifted athletes and Trans-athletes’ involvement in Sport. You would assume, ‘what does Michael Phelps have to do with Trans-athletes?’. However, there is a raging legal, academic and layperson debate on the Trans-athletes over the recent years and this debate has unfortunately involved Michael Phelps as well.    

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With the recent participation of Lia Thomas in the NCAA Swimming Championship, the debate on ‘fairness’ and ‘inclusion’ being mutually exclusive or not was reignited. The participation of transgender athletes in women’s sports has been deliberated at the apex sports organisations and even at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (Apex Sports Court). Experts and laypeople alike, who oppose their participation are of the opinion that trans women are biologically stronger than cisgender women. Thus leading to an unfair advantage, which is a blatant contravention to the fundamentals of sport (fairness and a ‘level-playing field’ for athletes). Even if there is a need to accommodate them into the sport, there should be a distinct competition that is befitting of their superior attributes.   

On the other side of the debate, the pro-trans athlete supporters are of the opinion that trans athletes have a biological advantage and should be celebrated for that reason. The concept of hyperandrogenism (higher levels of testosterone in trans women) needs to be well understood before undertaking this debate. Pro-trans athlete experts are of the opinion that Hyperandrogenism is a mere gift, and should not be a factor in alienating trans athletes. Moreover, these experts are of the opinion that Hyperandrogenism should be considered a ‘Biological Advantage’. As the fundamentals of sport continuously talk about the ‘inclusivity of marginalised social groups’, these experts are of the opinion that trans athletes should continue to participate in regular competitions for the sake of inclusivity. They have also reiterated that being a trans person should not be considered a defect, but rather normalised and celebrated.

Where does Michael Phelps fit in the debate of ‘Biological Advantage’?

‘Biological advantage’ is something that cannot be overlooked in any sport. Michael Phelps, the swimming legend was extremely gifted with his physical abilities. To start with, his height is 1.93 meters (6.4 ft), weighs 88 kg (194 lbs), with a wingspan of 2.03 meters (6.66 ft), and feet size of 14. Moreover, Phelps was known to produce half-the lactic acid compared to a typical athlete; as higher lactic acid increases fatigue. These were gifts that were marvelled at; meanwhile, the experts and the layperson-social media have been divided on the issue of biological advantage being a factor in permitting athletes.

The pro-trans athletes’ experts have portrayed the hypocritical stance on celebrating the differences in athletes (Usain Bolt with superior physical attributes, Phelps and Thorpe with their unique swimming attributes), and at the same time condemning trans athletes’ hyperandrogenism.

18 Sep 2000: Michael Phelps of the USA in action during the Mens 200m Butterfly Heats at the Sydney International Aquatic Centre on Day Three of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia. Mandatory Credit: Ross Kinnaird /Allsport (Getty)

The amount of work Phelps or other top athletes have put in to be at the top is simply unparalleled; but did their natural gifts give them an edge over the others? Michael Phelps’ has often been deemed a ‘freak of nature’ and has been the muse of many studies in this regard. Notably, this isn’t the first time he has been dragged into such debates. In 2019, when South African runner Caster Semenya was asked to take synthetic supplements to suppress her naturally elevated production of testosterone levels (hyperandrogenism), the experts (including human rights experts) have strongly condemned this by citing how the likes of Ian Thorpe or Michael Phelps were celebrated for being unique, and asking her to alter her equilibrium was hypocritical.

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In a nuanced argument around Trans-athletes and biologically gifted athletes, legends like Phelps tend to get dragged in, unfortunately. It is the need of the hour to not undertake unsubstantiated arguments and partisan discussions on an issue that is more sports-legally nuanced, as seen at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (Sports’ top court) and Caster Semenya in recent times. The issue of ‘Fairness’ vs ‘Inclusion’ shall continue to ravage the sporting world for a reasonable time, and Lia Thomas’ entry shall only escalate this discussion further.  

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 Where do you think this sports-legal issue is heading?

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Saurav Panwar

623 articles

Saurav Panwar is a US Sports writer at EssentiallySports. A postgraduate in Media and Communication Studies, he shares a profound love for creative direction and filmmaking. Saurav is also an avid reader and a literature devotee whose fandom spreads from classics to sci-fi, non-fiction, plays, comics, and much more.

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