IT was always going to be a difficult task for FINA, the global organisation that controls swimming, to reach a compromise.

How to be sensitive to emerging transgender athletes and their issues as opposed to the rights of women who are biologically defined as so, in the realm of competition? What is fair and just, morally and legally, for all those concerned?

In essence, 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.

The decision — the strictest by any Olympic sports body — was made during FINA’s extraordinary general congress after members heard a report from a transgender taskforce comprising leading medical, legal and sports figures.

Its 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 per cent majority after it was put to the members of 152 national federations with voting rights who had gathered for the congress at the Puskás Aréna in Budapest.

“We have to protect the rights of our athletes to compete, but we also have to protect competitive fairness at our events, especially the women’s category at FINA competitions,” said FINA’s president, Husain Al-Musallam.

“FINA will always welcome every athlete. The creation of an open category will mean that everybody has the opportunity to compete at an elite level,” he said.

“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.”

The new FINA policy also opens up eligibility to those who have “complete androgen insensitivity and, therefore, could not experience male puberty”.

Swimmers who have had “male puberty suppressed beginning at Tanner Stage 2 or before age 12, whichever is later, and they have since continuously maintained their testosterone levels in serum [or plasma] below 2.5 nmol/L” are also allowed to compete in women’s races.

As to be expected, FINA’s position has been dictated by biology.

Female-to-male transgender athletes — transgender men — are fully eligible to compete in men’s swimming competitions.

The issue of transgender inclusion in sport is highly divisive, particularly in the United States, where it has become a weapon in a so-called “culture war” between conservatives and progressives. That debate intensified after University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas became the first transgender NCAA champion in Division I history after winning the women’s 450-metre freestyle earlier this year.

Thomas wanted to compete for a place at the Olympics, but the new FINA rule would now cancel her eligibility.

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.

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 is discriminatory, harmful, unscientific and not in line with the 2021 IOC principles” the group said in a post on Twitter.

“If we truly want to protect women’s sports, we must include all women.”

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 [and] coaches, and standing up for fair sport for females.

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”.

Australian Olympic champions Emily Seebohm and Cate Campbell are among the highest-profile athletes to come out publicly in support of the decision.

“It is my hope that young girls all around the world can continue to dream of becoming Olympic and World Champions in a female category prioritising the competitive cornerstone of fairness,” Campbell said.

“However, it is also my hope that a young gender-diverse child can walk into a swimming club and feel the same level of acceptance that a nine-year-old immigrant kid from Africa did all those years ago.”

Former Australian swimmer Maddie Groves scathingly replied to Campbell on Twitter by posting: “So you ban them from competing with their peers? You’re okay with ostracising an already marginalised group? Real accepting.

“There are already gender diverse people in swimming and I’m guessing they’re not feeling very accepted (right now). Shame on everyone that supported this discriminatory and unscientific decision.”

However, there is already speculation the potential for discrimination within the policy guidelines will see the policy disputed through legal challenges in court rooms around the globe.

Transgender activist Taylor Lianne Chandler, who claimed to have had an intimate relationship with Olympics swimming icon Michael Phelps, was incensed by the policy.

Chandler, who has previously said she used testosterone blockers before having surgery to remove her male genitalia in her early 20s, posted on Twitter: “FINA just divided women into categories, not protecting all women! Trans rights are set back 100 years once again”.

However, Campbell and other FINA figures argue the policy helps support transgender inclusion in the sport.

“My role is to stand here today and tell trans people ‘we want you to be part of the broader swimming community’, but also to stand here and say ‘listen to the science’,” Campbell said.

“It pains me, that this part of my role, may injure, infuriate and potentially alienate people from an already marginalised trans community.

“Believe me, I have wrestled long and hard with myself, with what to say and do. I am aware that my actions and words, no matter what I say, will anger some people — whether they are from the trans-community or from the cisgender female community.

“However, I am asking everyone to take a breath, to absorb before reacting. Listen to the science and experts. Listen to the people who stand up here and tell you how difficult it has been to reconcile inclusion and fairness.

“That men and women are physiologically different cannot be disputed.”

Emily Seebohm was one of a very small number of athletes to speak out in support of a FINA transgender policy shift before the vote.

The four-time Olympian said the new category ensures there is inclusivity and fairness for everyone.

“I’m just thankful that finally we have a decision,” she said.

“We have a direction. We’re not saying no to transgender athletes, we are saying yes, we are going to make a category for you.”

She said swimmers found it hard to speak publicly about the divisive subject.

“I feel like it is such a hard topic. No-one wants to the first one to say anything,” she said.

“Because you are scared of cancel culture, right? That’s such a thing now. If you say one wrong thing, you’re done.

“I think it was a matter of once one Australian athlete said something, it was like let’s stand up. We all feel the same. It is just we were all too scared to be the first one to say anything.”

Former English swimmer Sharron Davies also supported the “fairness” of the decision.

She tweeted: “Swimming will always welcome everyone but fairness is the cornerstone of sport.”

Nadine Dorries, Secretary of State for Sport in the UK, also supported the decision, saying it is “unacceptable” that trans-women compete against other women.

“If you have been through puberty you cannot reverse the size of your feet, the length of your femur, the density of your bone, your muscle strength, the size of your hands,” she said.

Dr Christer Magnusson, a Swedish member of FINA’s medical committee, was among those who complained that the implication was that boys aged as young as 10 would have to decide to start transitioning.

The policy also drew criticism from FINA medical committee member David Gerrard from New Zealand.

“To ask or expect an 11, 12-year-old boy to make a decision that will affect the rest of his life is a big ask,” said Gerrard.

FINA’s panel of legal experts concluded that the policy of excluding most transgender swimmers would be legal.

Meanwhile, Rugby league banned transgender players from women’s international competition until further notice, following global swimming’s decision to restrict trans athletes’ participation at the elite level.

The International Rugby League (IRL) said it needed to further consult and balance transgender participation against “perceived risk” to other players.

“Until further research is completed to enable the IRL to implement a formal transgender inclusion policy, male-to-female (trans women) players are unable to play in sanctioned women’s international rugby league matches,” the IRL said in a statement.

The ban, which comes after FINA voted on Sunday to restrict transgender athletes in elite women’s swimming, was condemned by transgender advocates and sportspeople.

“It’s disappointing. We’re human beings the same as everyone else,” transgender woman Caroline Layt, who played elite women’s rugby league in Australia after transitioning, told Reuters.

Other sports have policies restricting transgender athletes in top women’s competition, including rugby union, cycling and Australian Rules football.

The International Olympic Committee, however, said in November that no athlete should be excluded from competition on the grounds of a perceived unfair advantage, while leaving it up to sports federations to decide.

The International Cycling Union said last week it had tightened its eligibility rules.

Other sports are reviewing their policies.

World soccer governing body FIFA said it is in a consultation process over transgender participation while World Athletics boss Sebastian Coe praised FINA for its stance.

A top medical official at FINA told Reuters he hoped other sports would follow the organisation’s lead.

“To my mind, FINA’s approach to this was very enlightened, it was very balanced, it was informed,” FINA’s Sports Medicine Committee vice chairman David Gerrard said.

However, U.S. soccer player Megan Rapinoe, a two-time World Cup winner and an Olympic gold medallist, said the FINA decision was “disgusting” and “cruel”.

“We’re (framing) everything through ‘God forbid a trans person be successful in sports’. Get a grip on reality and take a step back,” she told Time magazine.

The IRL said it would work with the eight nations competing at the women’s Rugby League World Cup hosted by England in November to obtain data to inform a transgender policy in 2023.

“The IRL will continue to work towards developing a set of criteria, based on best possible evidence, which fairly balance the individual’s right to play with the safety of all participants,” the organisation added.

Ian Roberts, the first elite rugby league player to come out as gay, said transgender athletes should be welcomed into the sport and likened concerns about their participation to the homophobia he experienced in the 1990s.

“I would have hoped we would have matured as a community and as a society beyond that. Equal is equal”, he opined.

Clearly, the issue is set for further discussion not only in sport, but other parts of society as the definition of gender and equality continue to evolve.


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