The complex story of Emily Bridges
Media feminists are feeling a little sorry for themselves over the threat posed to female athletes by competitors who were formerly male. The most recent of these cases in the UK is the cyclist Emily Bridges. In May 2021 Emily finished 43 out of 45 male riders in the elite men’s criterium at the Loughborough Cycling Festival and in September she was second to last in the Welsh National Championship men’s road race, a 12km lap behind the winner. If she is allowed to compete in women’s races I predict she will do better than that. Bridges began hormone therapy last year as a treatment for gender dysphoria and as a result of her lowered testosterone levels, she will potentially be allowed to compete in women’s events.
The sympathy I feel for female cyclists threatened by her participation does not extend to feminist journalists who have done much to pave the way for cyclists such as Emily Bridges. Think back to 2019 when the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, a one-day cycle race in Belgium, became front-page news and was featured on the Today program on BBC Radio 4. In a normal year, in the UK at least, this race would not make it out of the specialist cycling press.
So what made it newsworthy? According to the BBC online and The Guardian, Nicole Hanselmann leader of the women’s race that had started 10 minutes after the men’s race, caught up with the male competitors and had to wait until the men could re-establish the gap. There was predictable feminist outrage on social media. One commonly poised question was ‘why wasn’t the men’s race paused to allow the women to pass?’. Similarly, commentators argued that this was just another example of the patriarchy supporting fragile male egos and holding women back.
So, what was the truth? The women’s race of 123km started ten minutes after the men’s race of 200km. Both races followed the same route through to the early section of cobbles by which time the leading male rider was 14 minutes ahead of Nicole which means that the men had gained 4 minutes on the women. The women’s race had to be neutralised at this point, not because Nicole Hanselmann had caught up with the men, but because she had caught up with the following support vehicles. Unfortunately, the bottleneck as the road entered the cobbles meant that the following cars could only travel in single file, resulting in a tailback. Think of what happens when one lane of the motorway is ‘coned off’. Poor planning perhaps, but race neutralisations are not uncommon in cycling and usually occur, as in this case, to protect riders from danger.
The winner of the men’s race of 200km would average 41kph and the winner of the women’s race of 123km averaged 36.7kph. Even the slowest male rider did better than this averaging 39.8kph. In short, the women were slower over a shorter course. This doesn’t mean that the women’s race was not a compelling spectacle or a remarkable athletic achievement but it does mean that the women were not held back by the men as some feminist commentators claimed. Humans are a dimorphic species and from a physical point of view, at least, men and women are not interchangeable. However, the sloppy reporting of this race by feminist journalists fed into a different narrative that has facilitated the rise of athletes such as Emily Bridges.
This misreporting was part of a wider picture. Action films have been remade to show female characters beating up men. Similarly, look at the film Aeronauts which was released on December 6th 2019 by Amazon Studios. This depicted the remarkable 1862 balloon ascent of James Glaisher and Henry T Coxwell. The story was very much a boys-own adventure of Victorian daring-do. The aeronauts used themselves as human guinea pigs and ascended higher than anyone had ever gone before, but they nearly died in the attempt. The balloon, filled with coal gas, kept ascending higher and higher because the valve to control gas release had become jammed. At a height of 29000 feet, Glaisher had already lost consciousness, but the balloon continued rising until it reached an estimated height of 37000ft – the height at which jumbo jets fly. Coxwell’s vision was failing, his fingers had turned black with frostbite and he had lost the use of one arm. Unless something was done both aeronauts were going to die – and soon. In an act of astonishing bravery and physical endurance, Henry Coxwell managed to climb up onto the rigging and release some gas from the balloon envelope by opening a trapped valve with his teeth. First, the balloon stopped ascending and then began to descend and Glaisher rapidly regained consciousness. In the film account of this epic adventure, Coxwell had to be written out of the script, or erased in feminist parlance, in favour of a woman who was smarter and stronger than her male colleague.
This kind of nonsense, as well as being socially unjust, feeds into the idea that men and women are physically equivalent, which they are not. In turn, this makes it easier for formerly male athletes to ague that they should be allowed to compete in women’s races.
Some feminists need to look at themselves when trying to understand the problem of trans athletes competing in women’s sports.