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World swimming’s trans decision

World swimming’s trans decision


Swimming’s world governing body, Fina, has decided to bar transgender women from elite female competitions. Could other sports now follow?

It took four minutes and 33 seconds for Lia Thomas to swim her way into NCAA history with her victory in the women’s 500 yard freestyle. Lia Thomas is now the first openly transgender D-1 athlete to become an NCAA national champion…


US swimmer and trans woman Lia Thomas says she didn’t transition to win medals. She did it because she wanted to be happy.

When she won the 500 metre freestyle in the US college sport championship last March, it set off a fierce debate about sport, sex and gender.

After following NCAA guidelines of a year of hormone therapy to change gender categories, Thomas started her senior year on the women’s team. But her success in the water was met with outrage leading up to the NCAA championships. Her critics say she jumped in the rankings between the men’s and the women’s team…

ABC News

Lia Thomas knew her win would be controversial. 

Before the competition in March, 16 of her teammates sent an open letter to their university and the Ivy League of eight private research universities, calling for her to be barred from women’s competitions.

They said the fact that she was assigned male at birth would give her an unfair physical advantage over her peers. 

When she eventually won, none of her fellow athletes joined her on the podium. 

Lia Thomas says her win was fair. Here she is talking to ESPN.

Trans women competing in women’s sports does not threaten women’s sports as a whole because trans women are a very small minority of all athletes. And the NCAA rules regarding trans women competing in women’s sports have been around for 10-plus years and we haven’t seen any massive wave of trans women dominating.

Lia Thomas, ESPN

She wants to keep competing, and to inspire other trans athletes. She told ABC she has her sights set on international championships. 

It’s been a goal of mine to just swim Olympic trials for a very long time. And I would love to see that through.

Lia Thomas, ABC News

But new regulations might now get in the way of that.

The international swimming federation says it’s protecting the basic rights of women and girls. The federation, Fina, says transgender women who want to compete as women will now be required to have completed transition by the age of 12. In other words, the vast majority of them will be ineligible to compete in female categories.

BBC Today Programme

Fina is world swimming’s governing body, and it’s  responsible for the eligibility criteria for international competitions – including the Olympic Games. 

71% of their members voted in favour of the restrictions, which means Lia Thomas and other trans women won’t be able to take part in Olympic trials. Fina’s decision also means that trans women won’t be able to set world records in women’s swimming. 

No such rules were set for trans men.

The restrictions won’t apply to national or regional competitions, such as the NCAA or British Swimming, because they set their own rules.

But experts believe there will be a knock-on effect following Fina’s decision – both regionally and internationally. 

In fact, other sporting bodies have already followed suit.

The sport of rugby league is the latest to ban transgender players from women’s international competition, adding that the decision will stand until further research is completed into the issue.

BBC Today Programme

The President of World Athletics, Seb Coe, has also hinted that it might take similar measures. Here he is speaking to the BBC…

We haven’t wanted to stigmatise, but when push comes to shove, if it’s a judgement between inclusion and fairness, we will always fall down on the side of fairness. That for me is absolutely… it’s non-negotiable and the integrity of women’s sport is really, really important here.

Seb Coe, BBC Today Programme

The science on transgender athletes is still evolving.

Most sports have a testosterone cap for trans women athletes, but those who defend the new restrictions say that doesn’t go far enough. Here’s Dr. Michael Joyner of the Mayo Clinic speaking to ABC…

What are the physical aspects that trans women may not be able to roll back with hormone therapy?

Obviously issues related to body size, airway size, hand size, foot size, perhaps bone density and so forth. But I think the main thing is the interactions of exercise, training and skeletal muscle. 

Dr. Michael Joyner, ABC News

Others have argued that physical differences exist between all women athletes, including those who were born female. They say this shouldn’t be cause for a blanket ban on trans women. 

Joanna Harper is a scientist at Loughborough University who has been looking at how transitioning from male to female can affect performance. Here she is  speaking to the BBC.

I think we have to be very careful with anyone who’s gone through male puberty in terms of allowing them into women’s sports. But certainly the data that I have seen suggested there is a substantial performance loss with testosterone suppression. And I think that in most sports that will be sufficient not to eliminate all the advantages, but to ensure meaningful competition between trans women and cis women.

Joanna Harper, BBC

Fina did hint at an alternative solution. It said it would aim to establish an “open” category for some events, to ensure that all swimmers have the chance to compete.

But Joanna Harper isn’t convinced that will really get to the root of the problem.

I’m not fundamentally opposed to it. I’m just not sure that there’s enough athletes to create real competition and especially in terms of team sports, you know, trying to get enough athletes where you can have two countries with teams competing against each other – very, very difficult.

Joanna Harper, BBC

There is no magic bullet in the debate between fairness and inclusion. 

But Fina’s decision is a watershed, which will lead to difficult choices for other sports.

Today’s episode was written by Patricia Clarke and mixed by Katie Gunning.