In October 2018, Dr. Rachel McKinnon, a 36-year-old Canadian transgender female was preparing to start in the finals of her signature event.The 200m Sprint. it was at the UCI Masters Track World Championships in Los Angeles. Her competition was Carolie Van Herrikhuyzen from the Netherlands and they were racing for gold. It was a tough final, both athletes were undefeated going into it. The event is contested in a 2 out of 3 races where the athletes go head to head with each other, and the winner of at least 2 of the races takes home the gold medal. Coming from a criterium background, McKinnon managed to ward off Van Herrikhuyzen’s strategy of pinning Mckinnon into the rail during the race. (Cycling lingo in which one rider tries to box in the other rider toward the inside of the track, forcing them to slow down).

By the second race, it was a cat and mouse game, with the two athletes changing positions between first and second, Van Herrikhuyzen was holding her position as the two approached the finish line, but at the last moment McKinnon surges ahead and snatches the win. Making McKinnon the first ever Cycling World Champion who is transgender and the first ever World Champion who is a transgender woman.

Following the race, the two competitors shook hands and celebrated a well fought race. McKinnon, in an interview with VeloNews stated“I was elated. I honestly couldn’t have raced against a nicer person. We shook hands and she motioned me forward to hold hands across the line. “

This victory, while McKinnon enjoyed her moment on the top of the podium, triggered a firestorm that in the 2 months since, has included McKinnon receiving more than 100,000 hateful and transphobic messages. The cyclist who placed third in the same event called McKinnon’s victory “unfair” and pushed for Union Cycliste Internationale, which is the world governing body of cycling, to change its policies to exclude transgender participants. Many people believe that the inclusion of transgender athlete, specifically transgender women, would “threaten the participation of women in sports” and create an unfair playing field. Her victory also led to more media coverage regarding transgender athletes in sports, both positive and negative.

The high levels of hate and transphobia that McKinnon has received, is not uncommon among transgender athletes. However, it is rooted in ignorance, bias, and lack of understanding regarding the physiological process of transition and how it relates to sports performance. In our story “Transgender Athletes and Sports, Facts versus Crap” Transgender athletes who have undergone Hormone Replacement Therapy tend to exhibit conditioning and strength levels comparable with similarly trained cisgender athletes of their gender.

At the UCI Masters World Championships, McKinnon competed in several events including the 500m Time Trail where she placed 4th, and in previous events including the Canadian National Championships, she placed 8th in the 500m. Her results were very much comparable with the cisgender athletes she races against. Her race against Carolie Van Herrikhuyzen was a close race that it is difficult to argue that one athlete had any kind of unfair advantage over the other.

In addition, McKinnon has been racing as a transgender athlete in accordance with Olympic policies regarding the participation and inclusion of transgender athletes in sports. Despite transgender athletes being able to participate in the Olympic Games since 2004, there have been no Olympians who have competed as transgender.

The common argument that arises in regard to transgender woman in sports is regarding testosterone and the perceived “competitive advantage” it could create. In her interview with VeloNews, McKinnon explained…

“I’m not denying there is currently a performance gap between elite male and female athletes. But there’s two questions here at the same time that have a complicated interplay. One: Why is there that gap? People like a simple answer. Men have more testosterone, so therefore, it’s because of testosterone. But our bodies aren’t simple; they’re complex and messy and beautiful. We see that 1/6 of elite male track and field athletes have lower than the average female testosterone yet they perform at a higher level, so it’s not just about testosterone. We’ve seen that the gap in performance between elite men and women is closing in every sport. As the men are improving and new records are being set, the women’s records are being set faster. The gap is closing. Its misleading to take the current gap and say that will always be the case. We’re seeing it close in some ultra-distance sports.

But people are mostly focused on power events where big muscle matters and this eyeball test that you talked about. One of the problems you talked about is that elite athletes are in a sense freaks. We all have a genetic advantage that makes us good in the sports we’ve selected. And that typically ignores the wide range of types of bodies of people of that type. So, we like to point to Caitlin Jenner and say look how big she is, that’s unfair to women. That ignores the 5-foot 1 kid who can’t throw a ball. It’s not the case that all trans women are these big six-foot-tall, 200-pound powerlifters. I happen to be a 6-foot-tall, 200-pound powerlifter, but that’s beside the point. So, it also ignores the range. We have no evidence at all that the average trans woman is any bigger, stronger, faster than the average cisgender woman.”

Unfortunately, the reaction to her win was overwhelming. From receiving hateful messages on social media, email and even physical messages at home and work. Forcing McKinnon to take a step back from it all. She expressed…

“I think my emotions afterwards were one of disappointment that we weren’t further along than I hoped.”

However, McKinnon did receive hundreds of supportive messages from all over the world. Many of whom came from people who identify as transgender, which had a special meaning for McKinnon who shared that her success helped inspire them to return to sport.

McKinnon’s main competitor and silver medalist, Carolie Van Herrikhuyzen was also very supportive and happy for McKinnon.  When McKinnon first came out as transgender, she almost completely walked away from cycling. This victory and the messages of love and support from other transgender people, fans and her fellow competitors was validation for McKinnon to have the courage to stay with the sport.

By Dirk Smith