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FINA Ban Transgender Swimmers from Elite Events

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Overnight, FINA took a stand against including transgender swimmers in ‘elite events’ such as the Olympics. If a transgender swimmer has been through any part of the process of male puberty, they will be barred from competing in women’s elite events.

This was in response to male to female transgender swimmers dominating various events they had competed in worldwide and an outcry from the sporting community in general.

FINA is ‘looking into’ creating a separate ‘open’ competition for transgender athletes.

The new policy was passed with 71% of the vote from 152 FINA members. It was also described as ‘only a first step towards full inclusion’ for transgender athletes.

The policy, which goes into effect Monday, requires transgender swimmers to complete their transition by 12 years old to compete in women’s competitions and maintain their circulating testosterone below the levels of 2.5 nanomoles per liter. It effectively bars most transgender women from top swimming events, including the Olympics; the International Olympic Committee defers to each sport’s federation to determine athlete eligibility.

“FINA’s approach in drafting this policy was comprehensive, science-based, and inclusive,” Brent Nowicki, FINA’s executive director, told the BBC. “And importantly, FINA’s approach emphasized competitive fairness.”

FINA plans to use the next six months to create an open category for competitions.

“FINA will always welcome every athlete,” FINA President Husain Al-Musallam said. “The creation of an open category will mean that everybody has the opportunity to compete at an elite level. This has not been done before, so FINA will need to lead the way. I want all athletes to feel included in being able to develop ideas during this process.”

Mark Latham put out a statement which in part said, “at last a sporting body with the guts to protect women’s sport from unfair competition. Hopefully other sporting codes will follow suit”.

As is to be expected, there have been mixed reactions to such a strong stand by FINA.

Swimmers such as former Harvard swimmer Schuyler Bailer said he was ‘devastated by the announcement.’

Athlete Ally, an LGBTQ advocacy group, also disagreed with the decision.  The group had penned a letter of support to transgender swimmer Lia Thomas, who had a successful campaign for the University of Pennsylvania and stated she wanted to compete in the 2024 Paris Olympics. That now seems impossible unless the Paris Olympics approves the Trans Category.

In March, Thomas became the first known transgender swimmer to win the highest US national college title with victory in the women’s 500-yard freestyle.

Thomas swam for the Pennsylvanian men’s team for three seasons before starting hormone replacement therapy in spring 2019.

Sharron Davies, a British former swimmer, tweeted her support of FINA’s decision.

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

Davies stated, “sport by definition is exclusionary – we don’t have 15-year-old boys competing in the under 12’s, we don’t have heavyweight boxers in with the bantamweights. The whole reason we have so many different classes in the Paralympics is so we can create fair opportunities for everybody”.

“So that is the whole point of having classifications in sport, and the only people who were going to be losing out were females – they were losing their right to fair sport.”

Swimming joins other sports that recently have created tighter restrictions for transgender athletes. On Thursday, cycling’s governing body, the International Cycling Union, lengthened from one to two years the time riders who are transitioning genders must wait before competing.’

There was significant outrage at the 2018 Commonwealth Games with the inclusion of NZ weightlifter Laurel Hubbard in the women’s heavyweight division. Last year Hubbard became the first openly transgender athlete to compete at an Olympics in a different sex category than that to which they were born. This again caused discussion, ranging from support to absolute outrage at the unfairness of a born male competing against women.

What did the panel of experts say?

Dr Michael Joyner a physiologist and leading expert in human performance.

“Testosterone in male puberty alters the physiological determinants of human performance and explains the sex-based differences in human performance, considered clearly evident by age 12.

“Even if testosterone is suppressed, its performance-enhancing effects will be retained.”

Dr Adrian Jjuuko an activist, researcher, and lawyer.

“The policy emphasises that no athlete is excluded from Fina competition or setting Fina records based on their legal gender, gender identity, or gender expression.

“[The proposed open category] should not become a category that adds to the already existing levels of discrimination and marginalisation against these groups.

“I see this policy as only the first step towards full inclusion and support for the participation of transgender and gender-diverse athletes in aquatic sports, and there is a lot more to be done.”

Dr Sandra Hunter an exercise physiologist specialising in sex and age differences in athletic performance.

“By 14 years or older, the difference between boys and girls is substantial. That’s due to the advantages experienced due to the physiological adaptations in testosterone and the possession of the Y chromosome.

“Some of these physical advantages are structural in origin such as height, limb length, heart size, lung size, and they will be retained, even with the suppression or reduction of testosterone that occurs in the transition from male to female.”

Summer Sanders, former Olympic and world champion in swimming

“This is not easy. There must be categories – women’s, men’s, and of course, a category for trans women and trans men.

“Fair competition is a stronghold and staple of our community – this approach safeguards the integrity of the existing sports process in which millions of girls and women participate annually.”

The discussion of transgender sport continues and remains divided inside and outside sporting circles.

There is an issue of being inclusive, but at what cost to women’s sport.

Whether transgender women athletes should compete in women’s sports involves a complex balance of inclusion, sporting fairness, and safety – essentially, whether trans women can compete in female categories without giving them an unfair advantage or presenting a threat of injury to competitors.

There are concerns, however, as highlighted in Fina’s decision, that athletes retain an advantage from going through male puberty that is not addressed by simply lowering testosterone levels.

There will continue to be debate over this decision, but for the moment, it appears this is a victory for fair competition in women’s swimming.

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