Cyclist Emily Bridges had 'physical threats' after PM's comments on trans participation in sport

Cyclist Emily Bridges told ITV News Sports Editor Steve Scott how she suffered an avalanche of violent threats, following comments by the prime minister

Online abuse has become a way of life for Emily Bridges: "It is very difficult to read everything people are saying about you, and it hurts, it hurts."

But nothing could have prepared her for the onslaught she suffered when Boris Johnson shared his views recently about transgender women’s place in sport.

"I don't think biological males should be competing in female sporting events," the prime minister said.

His comments triggered an avalanche of hate-filled threats to Bridges, including from someone who promised extreme violence if she ever lined up in a women's race.

'The response was as expected, I had threats of physical violence made against me,' says cyclist Emily Bridges

"It's really strange to see probably the most famous man in Britain talking about you and having an opinion on something that he doesn't know anything about," Bridges reflected.

"The response after that was as expected, I had threats of physical violence made against me by complete strangers online.

"People are entitled to hold an opinion about it, but there's a way to go about voicing that opinion - and threatening to kneecap me is not that way.

"I'm scared a lot of the time about being who I am in public. Is someone going to recognise me? They were real concerns and it was a real fear that I had after the comments were made, and it was scary. I was scared."

Bridges has become one of the most talked about athletes in Britain and the discussions about her are seldom nuanced. She sits at the centre of a polarising issue that sport in general is struggling to reconcile.

The one thing missing from a sea of largely extreme views on trans athletes competing at a professional level has, until now, been her voice - and nothing is off limits.

She speaks openly about everything from her treatment by those who run cycling, about the research she's taking part in, to the current and former athletes who say she should never be on the start line with other women.

Bridges is also keen to correct the mass of inaccurate information that’s peddled about her online, like the rumour she only decided to transition when she lost her funding at British Cycling (BC).

"It’s just flat out false. Anyone who is peddling that - it's just completely wrong."

Bridges says she had come out to most of her family and friends in the year or two years leading up to that moment and had also told her lifestyle advisor at BC about her plans, months before she was dropped from the programme.

Steve Scott on where this "divisive" debate in sport is going

There are many reasons Bridges’ critics round on her and her place in women’s sport, chief among them - fairness. They cite the fact that she was riding in men’s races until very recently, and won the last one she entered, sanctioned by BC, at the British University Championships.

In hindsight, Bridges admits it was a mistake, but she says the full context about all her performances at the event have never been acknowledged.

"It probably wasn't the right thing to do," she says.

"At the time, I wanted to do it because I wanted to keep my skills sharp... I wanted to keep my technique, like cornering and stuff, and my mind and my tactics sharp - and I thought that it would put me in a good place for when I started racing with women because I was obviously losing performance.

"The day before, I come fourth in the individual pursuit. I was 12 seconds slower than I'd gone previously, which is obviously a massive, significant amount of time to lose."

And on the points race she won, she says, it had little to do with her physical performance, more her experience in that type of discipline.

"I raced it tactically. I wasn't the strongest rider in the race. I was probably fourth or fifth strongest, but I used my head to get the best out of myself.

"Immediately after I came off the track, I was like, 'I kind of wish I hadn't done that', because I knew what was coming. I knew that it would be picked up on."

'I wanted to do it to keep my skills sharp... It probably wasn't the right thing to do'

There was an online backlash but nothing compared to what lay ahead when it emerged that Bridges, with BC’s blessing and within their inclusion policy, was due to ride her first women’s race at the National Omnium Championships.

That would have put her in direct competition with Dame Laura Kenny and other Olympians. Leading up to the competition there were rumours that some women riders were threatening to boycott if Bridges was allowed to compete - there is no suggestion Dame Laura was one of them.

The Wednesday before the event, she was contacted by BC to be told the world governing body, the UCI, could not sanction her taking part because international ranking points were at stake, and they needed to put her case in front of an expert panel which would take another six weeks.

It was unexpected and devastating for Bridges, who had already satisfied BC that her testosterone levels had remained under the permitted level for the required period, allowing her to race with women, under BC's own policy.

"It just felt like, because it was so last minute, it was just really messed up and there were just so many oversights. It feels like, wasn't why wasn't it checked earlier?

"It was incredibly difficult because I knew that my main goal for the season, the Commonwealth Games, was then out of the question because I couldn't race this event, and it was unlikely I was going to be able to race any international events during the Welsh Cycling's set timeframe for the selection. So the Commonwealth Games were gone. I feel a real pride about being Welsh and I wanted to represent my country at the highest level."

"Things were looking really good and then it seemed like someone leaked my participation, my potential participation, in the Omnium to the press and then it kicked off.

"So obviously it came at very last minute, but I'd say that there's potentially a lot of public pressure to stop me racing."

Without warning BC then suspended its trans and non-binary inclusion policy completely. Bridges was effectively excluded from all women’s racing, and it looked a lot like having initially been supportive, BC was suddenly moving the goalposts.

Bridges who had done everything she was encouraged to do and had been on the cusp of her first women’s race, was now out on a limb.

"I think there's a lot of public pressure to pull the policy and I think that's why it was it was pulled," she says.

Since that decision Bridges has not heard anything from BC and BC has not announced a new policy.

"I’ve heard nothing from them. They said that they'd be in touch about the procedure, about how they were going to make the new policy. But I haven't heard anything.

"So, either they're not doing anything or they're not doing what they said in their email to me and including me in making a policy."

She did, however, hear from some elite women cyclists.

"I've had a few athletes reach out to me and kind of offer support and talk to me. One before everything kicked off, who asked me to do an event with her, and then another athlete who texted me just to say how unfairly I've been treated by British Cycling."

Few high-profile current athletes have spoken out, other than double Olympic Gold medallist Katie Archibald who released a statement saying both female and transgender athletes had been "let down" by current policies.

She was also supportive of Bridges in criticising those that run cycling: "They chose to delay action until it became sadly personal for one rider. That wasn't fair. I have the utmost respect for transgender people and equally respect their right to fair and safe inclusion in sport."

Archibald ended her statement by addressing the issue that is front and centre of this complex debate: "I'd like us all to continue welcoming trans athletes into our clubs, our training sessions, and our races. But I'd like us to do all this without sacrificing one of the foundational pillars of sport: fairness."

Bridges has now been told by the UCI that they require more information from her before they agree to her registration. That could be at least another two months. Another barrier to the category she wants to race in and more moving goalposts.

In the meantime the UCI is, of course, entitled to adjust its current policy. The intelligence leaking from many governing bodies is the new direction of travel is to lower the level of testosterone still further, and to insist trans women keep below that level for a longer period.

Emily Bridges appearing in DIVA magazine. Credit: DIVA magazine

When Bridges was stopped from racing at the Omnium Championships, there was a sizeable community online that did not hide their pleasure - her presence, they argue, "steals" a place from another woman.

So, what is Bridges message to those she wants to compete against, from the Olympians down?

"I haven't taken anything. I haven't been considered for any teams or squads or races or anything," Bridges says.

"And when the time comes that I am selected, or put in a pool for selection, I will compete with other athletes as they do, as they compete with their fellow athletes, for spots.

"Only a certain number of people can be selected. I don't want special treatment from anyone, I just want the same opportunities as my fellow female athletes."

'I would ask if you can empathise with me, because I can empathise with you?'

Bridges continues: "I empathise with where you're coming from. I empathise with why you feel potentially threatened by my inclusion; you might feel like the patriarchal structures that govern cycling and society in general, it’s another thing that's being pushed on you and it's another thing you've got to fight against.

"But those same structures those same attitudes are the same things that pushed me down, pushed me into the closet, that I couldn't be myself.

"So, I would ask if you can empathise with me, because I can empathise with you?

"I don't know if this will change anybody's mind but that’s the message I give you."

But there is a widely held view that trans women should never compete in women's sports, especially at elite level, if fairness is a priority.

"I can understand how they’re feeling that way, especially athletes I’ve grown up with because they haven’t seen me much, they still view me as the same person as I was pre-transition.

"I don’t have that performance anymore. My performance has decreased massively across aerobic performance. I've lost more than the gap is between male and female athletes. Over explosive distances, I've gotten worse comparatively," Bridges says.

"I am not near the top female athletes when it comes to explosive power. They're fundamentally better than I am from that standpoint, which is the same as I was pre-transition.

'All of the research that's been done previously has not been done on athletes'

On the subject of fairness, what of the argument that parity can never exist with a trans woman who has been through male puberty, and the current science supports this?

"All of the research that's been done previously has not been done on athletes, it's been done on sedentary individuals. Many of them are flawed - they're using grip strength and lean body mass, sometimes on individuals who haven't completed 12 months of hormone therapy, so they're not relevant.

"It's laughable, there's a number of papers that they cite and reviews that they cite and and a lot of the data that's in those papers just isn't relevant - especially to cycling.

Bridges is being tested by specialist scientists at Loughborough University, who are monitoring the decline in her performance levels as a result of the medication she’s taking for her transition.

This research even includes muscle biopsies as they examine the change in her physiology.

"I'm part of research that is going on, we've observed the changes over a year of hormone therapy and I feel, and the leaders of my study feel, that any advantage that I had pre-transition is gone."

'Watch them take muscle cores out of my muscles, physically cutting me open'

Many have suggested that the testing has to be unreliable as Bridges is unlikely to push herself because if she did, the results wouldn’t help towards her ultimate goal.

In other words, there is an incentive for her to underperform.

To that, she says: "Firstly, they've obviously never met an elite athlete who will always get the most out of themselves. Secondly, I invite them to come and watch me doing the research.

"Watch them take muscle cores out of my muscles, to physically cut me open, and take muscle from me to store and to look at under a microscope to investigate the changes. To watch me doing a VO2 max test, to look how hard I go, to look at the line, to look at the way my oxygen and CO2 is to show that I am giving my absolute all - it is laughable."

"I find it offensive for people to say that I'm not going to give my absolute all for this research, because I want to prove that is fair. For me to prove that this is where I belong."

In the face of such opposition, why doesn’t she just quit, or race only in men’s events?

"I can't race in men's [racing] anymore. It's not something that I'm prepared to put myself through again. Because there was a deadline, when I knew I didn't have to race with men anymore, I could manage it, but I can't do that anymore. It's not who I am".

'I can't race in men's anymore. It's not something that I'm prepared to put myself through again'

For Bridges, though, how much of it is about medals and winning, compared to inclusion?

"The whole appeal of cycling as a sport for me, and sport in general, is about the struggle.

"I want to fight to get the best out of myself, to get the best performance that I can do. It's not about the winning for me. Obviously, I like winning, I want to win, but it's secondary to being allowed to compete - being given the opportunity to get the most out of myself, on an equal playing field, against people who have an equal performance to me."

Each sport in the UK is currently encouraged to come up with its own specific policy for transgender athletes. Directed by government funded UK Sport and Sport England, governing bodies are advised to use the Sports Council Equality Group Guidelines (SCEG) as a benchmark.

Emily Bridges, who was in British Cycling’s senior academy in 2019, came out as a transgender woman in October 2020. Credit: DIVA magazine

Bridges believes that body of work is flawed, mainly because it is underpinned by unreliable research.

"The research that they cited as inherently flawed. Some of the studies that one of the papers cites are completely irrelevant to sport in general. To say that inclusion of trans women in sport cannot be guaranteed if fairness is being prioritised - I feel like that's wrong. They're referencing evidence which isn't applicable to support, if you're looking at a 12 month testosterone suppression.

"If you look deeper into the SCEG policy, the questions are very loaded. There's a lot of transphobic dog whistles inside the questions. They've obviously been written with someone with an explicit agenda to push.

"And then there's the matter that, I think, a large percentage of the people of the athletes asked were men who it doesn't affect. There were very few, if any, trans athletes asked about it. No athletes who compete on a team with trans women were asked. It's just, it's very flawed.

So, Bridges has finally told her side of this divisive story. Will it inject a bit of empathy, a touch more kindness into the debate? Will the online discussions become more measured?

There certainly seems to be a large number of opinions masquerading as facts out there, which really doesn't help anyone, least of all Emily Bridges - who above all is only trying to live her life as the human being she wants to be. 

Some would counter that by saying 'we support you doing that, of course, but you should shelve your cycling ambitions.' That's not on Bridges' agenda right now and given everything she's been through if you're expecting that fight to eventually break her, you may be surprised.

"I just want to make things better for other people, so I have to keep going. I've got the opportunity and I've got to keep going and I feel like I've got the strength to keep going, to make things better for the people that come after me," she says.

"That's the goal to kind of make people feel more comfortable in who they are and to hopefully make cycling and sport a more welcoming place.

"Not just for trans people, not just for LGBT people, but for everyone - because sport is, from what I've seen, not an inclusive space."

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Responding to Bridges' comments in this interview, a British Cycling spokesperson said: "We are determined to ensure that cycling is a welcoming and inclusive place for all, and we are working hard to find a better answer to the challenge of balancing inclusion and fairness in competition which is shared by many other sports. In doing this we have called on a coalition of organisations and voices, both within and outside of sport, to come together so that we can provide all athletes with the clarity and certainty they deserve.

"We believe that it is important that there is consistency between our Transgender and Non-binary Participation Policy and the policies and guidance held by other governing bodies and key stakeholders. For this reason, we are currently undertaking a full and thorough review of our policy and will share further details on the framework for this in the coming weeks.

"We sincerely apologise for the uncertainty caused by the suspension of our policy, particularly for the transgender and non-binary communities and women in our sport, and we will be actively engaging with these communities as part of our policy review."

In response to Bridges' comments about the SCEG policy, a Sports Council spokesperson said: "The updated guidance for transgender inclusion in domestic sport was published by the five UK Sports Councils following a rigorous consultation with over 300 people, including transgender athletes, and a thorough review of all relevant research.

"This guidance is intended to support domestic UK sport, but not sport at an international or elite level, where guidance or regulations are covered by international federations or other bodies.

"While the guidance concluded that transgender inclusion, fairness and safety cannot be balanced in gender-affected sport, but rather need to be prioritised, it does not take decisions for sports and governing bodies. They must set their own rules around eligibility.

"We want sports to be creative, flexible, and accommodating in their approaches, developing meaningful inclusion policies that consider the needs of all groups. Above all, we urge respectful discourse on this matter, and that sports consider their duty of care to all athletes."