Swimming: Transgender participation to be restricted in women's competition

On Sunday, swimming's world governing body FINA voted to restrict the participation of transgender athletes in elite women's competitions and create a working group to establish an “open” category for them in some events as part of its new policy.

Transgender rights have become a major talking point in sports as they respond to pressure to be more inclusive while ensuring there is no unfair advantage.

The debate particularly came under the spotlight after University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas became the first transgender NCAA champion in Division I history after winning the women's 500-yard freestyle earlier this year by a considerable distance.

Thomas has expressed a desire to compete for a place at the Olympics but the new FINA rule would block the sportsperson participation.

FINA's decision, the strictest by any Olympic sports body, was made during its extraordinary general congress after members heard a report from a transgender task force comprising leading medical, legal and sports figures.

The new eligibility policy for FINA competitions states that male-to-female transgender athletes are eligible to compete only if “they can establish to FINA’s comfortable satisfaction that they have not experienced any part of male puberty beyond Tanner Stage 2 (of puberty) or before age 12, whichever is later.”

The policy was passed with a roughly 71 percent majority after it was put to the members of 152 national federations with voting rights who gathered for the congress at the Puskas Arena.

David Gerrard, vice chairman of FINA's Sports Medicine Committee, said it was “the best outcome” for the sport and its athletes, and was backed by a robust process.

“To my mind, FINA’s approach to this was very enlightened, it was very balanced, it was informed,” New Zealander Gerrard, a former Olympic swimmer, told Reuters on Monday.

“It recognised the athlete’s voice, the scientific, objective evidence and the somewhat more subjective, human rights (and) legal issues which were argued very forcefully by the lawyers present.”

Gerrard said FINA had ample evidence to back its decision, citing experts at Sunday's congress who showed that male swimmers as young as 14 were posting times that would win Olympic gold in women's events.

“I hope that that model is something that's considered by other sports.”

Divisive topic

The issue of transgender inclusion in sport is highly divisive, particularly in the United States where it has become a weapon in the so-called ‘culture war’ between conservatives and progressives.

Advocates for transgender inclusion argue that not enough studies have yet been done on the impact of transition on physical performance, and that elite athletes are often physical outliers in any case.

The International Olympic Committee issued a 'framework' on the issue, leaving eligibility decisions up to individual sports bodies, but adding that “until evidence determines otherwise, athletes should not be deemed to have an unfair or disproportionate competitive advantage due to their sex variations, physical appearance and/or transgender status.”

Critics of male-to-female transgender participation in swimming point to sex-based differences in physiology, hence the reason why men and women’s disciplines are divided in the first place. Women tend to be inferior swimmers to men because of lower haemoglobin levels, oxygen supply and they do not develop as much muscular power.

Female-to-male transgender athletes are fully eligible to compete in men's swimming competitions due to the fact they have no inherent advantage.

Former swimmer Sharron Davies, who won Olympic silver at the 1980 Games and has been a vocal campaigner for a more restrictive policy, welcomed the decision.

“I can’t tell you how proud I am of my sport, FINA and the FINA president for doing the science, asking the athletes/coaches and standing up for fair sport for females. Swimming will always welcome everyone no matter how you identify but fairness is the cornerstone of sport.”