Sharron Davies is a blisteringly forthright advocate for women in sport.
The former Olympic swimmer — who lost out on a gold medal in Moscow in 1980, coming second behind an East German competitor whose victory was drug-enhanced — has trenchant views on the institutionalised doping that cost her the ultimate sporting accolade.
She calls it ‘the biggest heist in sports history, an official cheating plan that made the German Democratic Republic (GDR) the most successful medal factory in Olympic history’.
‘The crime,’ she says, ‘began with a group of men agreeing if they could make a woman more like a man, the chances of her beating other women in speed and strength sports were extremely high.’
The male hormone testosterone was administered routinely to female athletes from the GDR and they had no choice but to take it. It made them virtually invincible.
Sharron Davies (pictured) is a blisteringly forthright advocate for women in sport. The former Olympic swimmer has trenchant views on the institutionalised doping that cost her the ultimate sporting accolade
Pitting Sharron (left) against Petra Schneider — a pawn in the GDR’s corrupt regime, who set an improbably fast world record in 1980 — was like a ‘nuclear torpedo racing a dolphin’, says Sharron.
Pitting Sharron against Petra Schneider — a pawn in the GDR’s corrupt regime, who set an improbably fast world record in 1980 — was like a ‘nuclear torpedo racing a dolphin’, says Sharron.
Today, the flagrant injustice still rankles: ‘I want the official record books to be changed,’ she says. ‘I don’t want to demand Petra give her medal back — I have nothing but immense sympathy for what she was put through. It is more about who the medallists should have been.
‘Of course, we all knew the GDR were up to something — they were smashing world records; it was impossible — but the International Olympic Committee (IOC) just wasn’t interested in finding ways to stop it.’
Now, she is considering collective legal action against the IOC if they do not right these historic wrongs.
All that happened 40 years ago, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, but Sharron believes a similarly gross iniquity is being played out in women’s sport today.
She sees echoes of the institutionalised cheating that robbed her — and many other athletes — of medals in the growing prevalence of transgender women in sports, all over the world, today.
Outspoken, fearless and unrelenting, she speaks out against a barrage of vitriol from trans activists and despite the fact that sponsors and charities she has supported for years have deserted her.
She says sportswomen — already a disadvantaged and tiny minority compared with men — are, once again, being denied records, sponsorship, honours, acclaim and the profile that goes with podium places, because biological males identifying as women are (quite literally) muscling in on their sports.
And, once again, she levels the full force of her anger at a supine IOC who, in 2015, waved through a new policy that she regards as ‘highly questionable on ethical grounds’.
‘They removed the obligation for male athletes who identify as women to have genital sex-reassignment surgery. They just had to identify as women and have therapy to reduce their testosterone levels and they could take part in women’s sports. It was like telling biological men, ‘Roll up for a ticket to the female locker room.’
‘All they needed to do was self-identify as a woman and keep their testosterone to a level that actually was set well above a biological female’s.
‘As a result, far more trans women — cyclists, swimmers, rowers and weightlifters among them — saw Olympic sport as a viable option.’
What Sharron finds boggling, is the complete absence of rigour behind the IOC’s decision.
‘They didn’t say, ‘We need to invite proper sports scientists to examine the facts.’ There was no integrity, no process. They just said, ‘There is no evidence that trans women are stronger than women.’
That’s mind-blowing — and completely false. 97.5 per cent of average males are stronger than females. Men punch harder, kick harder, run and swim faster and that biological advantage is not lost when you reduce their testosterone levels.
‘Typically, males have 30-60 per cent more muscle strength than women, and testosterone suppressants reduce that by just 0 to 9 per cent.Studies show a huge difference in grip strength between trans women and biological women — and this does not diminish when you cut down on testosterone.’
She has the statistics at her fingertips because she has written a book — Unfair Play: The Battle For Women’s Sport — in which, with forensic attention to detail, she gathers the hard evidence that proves it is simply unjust for trans women (she has no compunction about referring to them as biological males, which will doubtless incur the wrath of those who object to her views) to pit themselves against women in sport at any level.
Serialised in tomorrow’s Mail on Sunday, her book gives a compelling account of how women in sport continue to be subjugated.
‘We’re already miles from equality,’ she tells me in an exclusive interview. ‘Only around 1,000 women in the UK earn their living from sport against 11,000 men — and now we’re supposed to move over for biological males who identify as women.
‘It’s already so unequal. Why is it always women who have to give up their hard-won opportunities? And the lack of respect, debate, engagement with female athletes is shocking.’
At 60, she is a striking figure. Tall and clear-skinned with long, natural ash-blonde hair (she hasn’t been to a hairdresser for four years), she still has an athlete’s imposing physique and bearing.
Three times divorced and mum to three children — Elliott, 29, Grace, 25 and Finlay, 16, who was born after IVF treatment — she is also grandma to three-year-old Aryia, her elder son’s daughter by his long-term partner Emily.
‘I have Ariya one day a week and I’m so surprised about how much I love being a grandma,’ she smiles, scrolling through her phone to show me photos. We’ve been swimming a few times.
‘Ariya says, ‘Grandma is fast in the water!’ We go to the park. We draw together. It’s switch-off day. No electronic devices. Life goes by at 100mph but with Ariya we just live in the moment.’
She muses about the value of fresh air and exercise; their inestimable benefits to a generation of children beleaguered by mental health problems. ‘We have to be careful not to kill our kids with kindness. Lots of them aren’t very resilient, but the biggest life lessons are learned through failures.
‘If you wrap your kids up in cotton wool and they go for their first job interview and don’t get it, what happens? One of the life lessons sport teaches you is, if you don’t win, you pick yourself up, train harder, find out how you can improve.’
Her own mental toughness was honed from the age of 11 when she started swimming for the British national team. She has faced bigotry and abuse with the same robustness that propelled her to the top in her sport.
She calls it ‘the biggest heist in sports history, an official cheating plan that made the German Democratic Republic (GDR) the most successful medal factory in Olympic history’ (pictured: Shannon pictured with Petra Schneider)
When she married black Olympic sprinter Derek Redmond in 1994 she was deluged with racist insults: ‘There were letter bombs; vile hate mail,’ she says.
So when, four years or so ago, she put her head above the parapet and dared to challenge transgender orthodoxy, and insisted that no one can ever change their biological sex, she was primed for the torrent of abuse.
‘I got death threats. Charities I’d collaborated with for 25 years dropped me. The trans activists rang every single company I worked for saying I was a transphobe.
‘I’m not. My stance isn’t anti-trans. I have great empathy with anyone who is gender dysphoric. I have friends with trans children. I just want fairness.
‘It was a very difficult time because my corporate, advertising and TV work fell away. No one wanted to be associated with me. For almost three years I had no income.
‘I came close to having to sell my home.’ She lives in a glorious listed Georgian house just outside Bath.
What saved her financially was a legacy from her mum, who left Sharron and her twin brothers equal shares in her house when she died.
‘I lived on Mum’s money for those years. She was incredible; very self-reliant, and I know she would have been proud that I was standing up for women. But it was a very difficult period,’ she says.
During those fraught years she also had to contend with a house fire, which started in her car and spread to the home. Mercifully, it was contained, ‘although there was terrible smoke damage’.
Then she broke her leg while on a cycle ride with Finlay and her friend and supporter, former Olympic gold medallist Daley Thompson. ‘I caught my pedal on a raised bit of pavement, ground to a halt and Daley went into me. He didn’t get hurt but my femur broke in four places.
‘It proves something: men have much denser bones and muscles, stronger ligaments and tendons. There are hundreds of anatomical differences.’
She praises Daley for being ‘brave and speaking out in support of women athletes on the trans issue while so many household names in sport agree with us but keep their heads down’.
She makes little of her own courage but her campaigning is getting results: World Rugby, World Aquatics — her own sport — as well as athletics and, recently, British cycling and triathlon have now all banned trans women from competing in the female categories of their sports.
She would also have no compunction about invoking the Equality Act and taking legal action against any sport that failed to give parity to both sexes.
‘I’m happy to take on anyone, from British Rowing to the Park Run,’ she says.
Unsurprisingly, the campaign against her continues. Only four months ago she was due to give a motivational talk — there was no contentious content — at a railway event that was cancelled the day before in a ‘short and nasty email to my agent saying they’d been informed I was a transphobe’, which really upset her.
She was gratified, however, when MP Huw Merriman, then chair of the transport select committee, also declined to speak at the event as he — and the Government — share Sharron’s views. ‘Significantly, though, he hadn’t been asked to step down, which proves this is a witch-hunt very much against women,’ she says.
I ask how she would react if any child in her family came out as trans. ‘I’d be open-minded,’ she says. ‘I’d support them to identify as they wished but I’d be very loath to medicalise them because they will be taking monumental decisions that will affect them for the rest of their lives.
‘Every generation has a cause, a crusade, and I worry that this has become a social contagion, but it comes with a very high price.’
Her 50-year career in elite sport (she competed in three Olympic Games over three decades) and then sports broadcasting has, of course, informed her views.
She believes sports in schools should be both competitive and segregated by sex.
‘What’s the point in non-competitive sport? It’s a chance for kids to shine. And it’s very unfair if girls are running against boys. It teaches the girls they don’t have a chance.’
She was coached for the Olympics by her own father Terry — now 88 and still coaching.
‘He was extremely blinkered and very strict,’ she says. ‘He knocked a lot of the enjoyment out of swimming because of that. We never had holidays because he was scared if he gave me time off my opponents would overtake me.
‘He kept pushing, pushing, pushing. When I broke my arms [falling from a tree swing aged 11] he tied them up and I did leg work in the pool. The reverse happened when I injured my knee.
‘He shouldn’t have done it like that, but he was learning on the job. The result was that when I won my first Olympic medal I couldn’t wait to stop. I thought, ‘I’ve paid everyone back for their sacrifices now.”
She did, however, return to elite swimming, and the Olympics, after a break. ‘The sportswoman in me has taught me that if you do something, you do it properly, but with my own kids I’ve steered a sensible, middle territory. I haven’t pushed them too hard or done anything to excess.’ Aryia, similarly, won’t be forced.
Grace competed successfully at junior international level in various track events, even setting a UK record, but a recurrent foot injury scuppered her. Now she has a flourishing career in a creative agency.
Elliott won a rugby scholarship to Millfield public school in Somerset, but turned down a contract to play with the Dragons in Newport, South Wales. Now he runs his own thriving recruitment business.
Finlay — whose dad Tony Kingston is an airline pilot (he and Sharron split up after seven years of marriage in 2009) – ‘loves all sport: swimming, golf, rugby. He’s desperate to be a Formula 1 driver but a) he’s 6ft 2in and b) I can’t afford it. So it’s a no to that one!’ Sharron laughs.
We talk about the self-sacrifice and relentlessness that propelled her to the top in swimming and she confesses that the hardship of this was insignificant compared with the sheer misery of IVF treatment.
She had eight rounds of it and suffered three miscarriages before she fell pregnant with Finlay, aged 44.
‘With Grace and Elliott it was like shelling peas,’ she says. ‘And I thought there would be no issue having a third baby. I was fit and healthy. But the biological clock still ticks. It took four years to have Finlay and IVF is the most unpleasant thing in the world.
‘I wasn’t prepared for how difficult it would be; not physically but emotionally. Tony didn’t have any children of his own and I desperately wanted a baby — as much for him as me. I felt a complete failure when I couldn’t.
‘I didn’t talk about it enough after Fin was born but I want to let women know now: don’t leave it too late to have a baby because it might not be as easy as you think.’
She is frank, open, likeable — and admirably uncomplaining. She shows me a bee sting on her leg which has flared to an angry red. Later she texts to say she is in hospital having antibiotics for cellulitis.
She does not fuss unless it is necessary — but when women’s equality and fairness is at stake she believes incontrovertibly that it is.
‘The trans lobby have tried very hard to stifle debate but the tide is turning now. And quite a few brave women — and men — have sacrificed a lot to get the truth out there, to have balanced opinions heard.’
And Sharron Davies, for all that she plays down her courage, is foremost among them.
- Unfair Play: The Battle For Women’s Sport by Sharron Davies with Craig Lord is published by Forum.