World swimming governing body FINA has voted to limit the participation of transgender athletes in elite women’s competitions and set up a working group to create an “open” category for them at some events as part of its new policy.
Transgender rights have become a major talking point as sport seeks to balance inclusivity while ensuring no unfair advantage is gained.
The debate intensified 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.
Thomas has expressed a desire to compete for a place in the Olympics but the new FINA rule would block their participation.
FINA’s decision, the strictest of all Olympic sports organizations, was made during its Extraordinary General Congress after members heard a report from a transgender task force made up of medical, legal and sporting leaders.
The new eligibility guideline for FINA competitions states that male-to-female transgender athletes are only eligible to compete if “they can demonstrate to the convenient satisfaction of FINA that they have not passed any part of male puberty beyond Tanner Stage 2 (the puberty) or before age 12, whichever is later”.
The directive was adopted with a majority of around 71% after being presented to members of 152 national associations with voting rights who gathered for the Congress in Hungary.
“We must protect the rights of our athletes to compete, but we must also protect competitive fairness in our events, particularly in the women’s category of FINA competitions,” said FINA President Husain Al-Musallam.
“FINA will always welcome every athlete. Creating an open category means everyone has the opportunity to compete at an elite level. That has never happened before, so FINA has to lead the way. I want that all athletes feel.” involved in order to be able to develop ideas in this process.”
The new FINA guideline also opens up eligibility for those who have “complete androgen insensitivity and therefore have not been able to experience male puberty”.
LGBTQIrs in whom “male puberty was suppressed from Tanner stage 2 or before age 12, whichever is later, and they have maintained their serum (or plasma) testosterone levels below 2.5 nmol/L continuously since then to have”. may also take part in women’s races.
Female-to-male transgender athletes (transgender men) are fully eligible to compete in men’s swimming competitions.
The issue of trans inclusion in sport is highly contentious, particularly in the United States, where it has become a weapon in a so-called “culture war” between conservatives and progressives.
Proponents of transgender inclusion argue that insufficient studies have been conducted on the effects of transition on physical performance and that elite athletes are often physical outliers anyway.
The International Olympic Committee has issued a “framework” on the subject, leaving the decision on eligibility to individual sports federations, but adding that “until evidence proves otherwise, athletes should not be viewed as having an unfair or disproportionate competitive advantage based on their gender differences, appearance and/or transgender status”.
Athlete Ally, an advocacy group for LGBTQI+ people in sport, condemned FINA’s decision.
“FINA’s new eligibility criteria for transgender athletes and athletes with intersex variations are discriminatory, harmful, unscientific and not in line with the IOC 2021 Principles. If we really want to protect women’s sport, we must include all women,” it said it in a post on Twitter.
Former swimmer Sharron Davies, who won Olympic silver at the 1980 Games and has been vocal in support of more restrictive policies, 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 fighting for fair sport for women. Swimming will always welcome everyone, no matter how you identify, but fairness is the cornerstone of the sport.”