USRowing rejected fairness for female rowers of all ages and levels with the release of its updated Gender Identity Policy on December 1. We are a group of former Olympic rowers, and we are enraged that USRowing would adopt a policy that so blatantly discriminates against female athletes in rowing.

The updated policy permits males, with or without testosterone suppression, to compete in girls’ and women’s events. Only at the collegiate and elite level has USRowing allowed any restrictions. At that level, male rowers competing in the women’s category must comply with World Rowing’s policy, which requires 12 months of continuous testosterone suppression at no greater than 5 nmol/L, twice the high end of the normal range for females.

Science has unequivocally proven that testosterone suppression—even for years—does not erase the physiologic advantages that males have over females. Every cell has a sex which influences all aspects of the body’s development. It is not biologically possible to change sex at the cellular level, even with hormone therapy. Suppressing testosterone, regardless of the degree, does not remove all the sex-based advantages that males possess, such as greater heart and lung size. Males as a sex are physically bigger, stronger, and faster. While some females can outperform some males, at any matched level many males outperform all females. By permitting males to compete against females, the updated USRowing policy grossly discriminates against its female athletes.

USRowing recognizes that maintaining biological categories for competition is essential for fairness, but has chosen to apply this principle inconsistently. Racing as a lightweight rower is restricted to a maximum body weight—larger bodies move a boat faster than smaller ones. Master’s racing is set by age categories—younger athletes are faster than older ones.

In the height of irony, USRowing chose to protect fairness based on sex in only one racing category: mixed events. In these competitions, men and women race together in the same boat. USRowing specified that such boats must be 50 percent female. It is the only event in which female sex is an eligibility requirement. Without this sex requirement, a mixed boat could be comprised entirely of males, some of whom identify as women; such a boat would possess an unfair advantage over a boat comprised of 50 percent males and 50 percent females. Hence, in a move that can certainly be viewed as misogynistic, USRowing defined eligibility based on sex only when not doing so could make competition unfair for males.

USRowing appears to understand that doping, including with testosterone, creates an unfair athletic advantage. The new policy is clear that females who are taking testosterone should compete in the men’s category. However, males who naturally produce testosterone—at a level after puberty exceeding 15-fold that of women—are allowed to compete against females. USRowing has chosen to selectively recognize the performance advantage of testosterone for females but not for males.

To support its updated policy, USRowing cites concern for the mental health of trans athletes, noting that 45 percent of LGBTQ youth seriously considered suicide in the past year. Certainly, this is a startling statistic and anyone suffering with mental health concerns should receive professional medical attention. However, justifying a position of discrimination against females by using concern for the mental health of another group is an unfair and inappropriate burden for females to carry. In essence, females are told by governing bodies that they must subjugate their rights to support the mental health of others. This is nothing short of emotional blackmail and we have first-hand knowledge that many young females are afraid to speak their minds because of it.

We have lived through decades of evolution in women’s rowing and are in a unique position to understand the devastating implications of this policy. As Title IX pioneers and first-generation United States Women’s Rowing Olympians, we experienced discrimination in our rowing careers. Our coaches were systematically underpaid; our training opportunities and facilities were unequal. We represented the United States in Olympic women’s rowing competition at a time when female athletes from the Soviet Union, East Germany, and other Eastern bloc countries doped with testosterone to enhance their performance. In the 50 years since Title IX prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex in education, we have seen the development of equal opportunity for females and males at nearly all levels of rowing. USRowing is now undermining the equality we fought so hard to achieve.

USRowing must change its grossly discriminatory policy and protect the female category. Promoting the rights of one group by destroying the rights of another does not represent a just solution. Trans athletes can fairly compete in a male/open category. We expect USRowing to immediately rescind its policy and replace it with one that recognizes the value of female athletes.

Mary I. O’Connor, MD was a member of the 1980 US Olympic Rowing Team and chairs ICONS RowingCarol Brown was a member of the 1976, 1980, and 1984 US Olympic Rowing Teams before a career in Non-Profit Finance and Administration. Jan Palchikoff was a member of the 1976 and 1980 Olympic Rowing Teams before embarking on her career in sport and event management. Patricia Spratlen Etem was a member of the 1980 and 1984 US Olympic Rowing Teams and is a Public Health Policy and Health Workforce Diversity professional, dedicating a career to public service. Valerie McClain was a member of the 1980 and 1984 US Olympic Women’s Rowing Team and has worked as a Compliance, Ethics, Risk and Governance Officer.