Martina Navratilova on transgender athletes: 'It blew up and I realised perhaps I don't know as much as I thought'

Martina Navratilova with transgender golfer Alison Perkins

Martina Navratilova, pictured with transgender golfer Alison Perkins, explores the debate surrounding transgender athletes in a BBC1 documentary, The Trans Women Athlete Dispute

Back in February, legendary tennis champion Martina Navratilova faced huge criticism for saying that allowing transgender women to compete in women’s sporting tournaments was "insane and cheating".

The long-standing gay rights campaigner has since apologised for using the word "cheating" and is now exploring the controversial debate around transgender athletes for a BBC1 documentary.

Martina meets Joanna Harper

Martina meets Joanna Harper (Image credit: BBC)


Martina meets Joanna Harper, a transgender runner and medical physicist, who explains how her run times got worse by more than ten per cent following her transition.  Martina also learns more on sports science research at Loughborough University.

TV & Satellite Week caught up with Martina Navratilova to hear much more about the film…

TV & Satellite Week: Why did you want to make this documentary?

Martina: "How you identify is one thing, but how you compete in sport is another. I was trying to separate the two but some people think it should make no difference. I got into a big palaver with one innocent tweet and it all kind of went south. Afterwards I kind of stepped away from the debate thinking maybe I don't know enough so I need to educate myself and others. I wanted to put the debate out there without emotions or personal involvement."


TV & Satellite Week: When did the issue of transgender athletes first come to your attention?

Martina: "By being in the LGBT community for decades and having met lots transgender men and women over the years, but most of all through being a good friend with Renee Richards. Renee is transgender and was also my coach for three years, and I’d also played against her, so I thought OK I know a little about the issue! Then it blew up and I realised perhaps I don't know as much as I thought! I have no dog in this fight other than wanting to fight for equality and fairness."


Renee Richards, who went on to become Martina's coach, playing at the 1977 US Open Tennis Championships (picture: Getty)

Renee Richards, who went on to become Martina's coach, playing at the 1977 US Open Tennis Championships (picture: Getty) (Image credit: Focus On Sport)


TV & Satellite Week: What do you see as the main issues behind trans athletes possibly getting an unfair advantage?

Martina: "Testosterone isn’t the only marker that defines gender and the physiological differences between men and women. Maybe we'll learn more about what you can quantify and kind of neutralise the natural advantage of what makes a male stronger physically than a female. A built in advantage is the skeleton - height, thickness of bones and bone structure, and the alignment of the skeleton. Guys are a little more straight up while women are more curvy which leads to some disadvantages. Certainly there’s no advantage athletically to the female skeleton but there's a lot of athletic advantages to the male skeleton. That's something you can't ever take away."


TV & Satellite Week: Are there any compromises that can be made on either side of the argument?

Martina: "I’m meeting a variety of people but at the moment I'm pretty much where I've always been, which is, I want to have as level a playing field as possible. I just don't know how to get to that and it might not be possible to find a solution that makes everybody happy. So I guess do least harm. I'm hoping to get more information so that maybe we can find an equitable solution where you can make a rule and be more inclusive of the transgender community, without displacing women that were born female so that when they're competing against transgender women they don't feel it's an unfair situation."


* Martina's documentary, The Trans Women Athlete Dispute With Martina Navratilova, is on BBC1 on Wednesday June 26 at 9pm

Nicholas Cannon
TV Content Director on TV Times, What's On TV and TV & Satellite Week

I'm a huge fan of television so I really have found the perfect job, as I've been writing about TV shows, films and interviewing major television, film and sports stars for over 25 years. I'm currently TV Content Director on What's On TV, TV Times, TV and Satellite Week magazines plus I previously worked on Woman and Woman's Own in the 1990s. Outside of work I swim every morning, support Charlton Athletic football club and get nostalgic about TV shows Cagney & Lacey, I Claudius, Dallas and Tenko. I'm totally on top of everything good coming up too.