In the wake of American swimmer Lia Thomas winning an NCAA championship in March, FINA, the international organization that oversees the sport, ruled Sunday that transgender athletes can no longer compete in female events unless they underwent their transition before the age of 12. Even then, they would have to submit to testosterone testing.
Instead, FINA will look to create “Open” divisions for transgender competition if demand is there.
“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,” FINA president Husain Al-Musallam said in a statement.
This was the simplest and fairest solution to a problem that arrived before governing bodies knew quite what to do. FINA’s decision will likely trickle down throughout swimming and other sports.
Already World Athletics, which oversees track and field, said it will reexamine its policy, and president Sebastian Coe, himself a four-time Olympic medalist, supported FINA’s approach. Other sports are sure to follow, or at least should.
In the long run, creating a third division, and eliminating the perception that transgender athletes are a “threat,” or in any way controversial, political or tinged with negativity, should do more to promote acceptance than the current setup.
While the transgender athlete issue has, undoubtedly, been hijacked at times by bigots and pandering politicians, that doesn’t mean the problems weren’t legitimate, even to many who are well-meaning and inclusive.
Casting this as a zero-sum issue was counterproductive and wrong. This isn’t a litmus test on whether or not young people going through challenging — and sometimes dangerous — times in their life should be supported. You can be 100 percent committed to aiding their causes and still 100 percent supportive of FINA's decision.
And if it comes to the day when transgender athletes can excite fans and onlookers in their own competitions free from sporting controversy, they will likely do wonders in showing the same talent, dedication, work ethic and personality as other athletes. They have incredible stories to tell and races to run.
It was clear that Thomas, who was a good but hardly championship-caliber swimmer as a male, held undue advantages despite following all the current guidelines.
Taken to its logical conclusions, where there might be a dozen, or dozens, of transgender athletes competing in a race, female athletes would be boxed out of elite competition or even put at physical risk in contact sports such as soccer and basketball.
“Without eligibility standards based on biological sex or sex-linked traits, we are very unlikely to see biological females in finals, on podiums, or in championship positions,” FINA’s policy paper concluded. “And in sports and events involving collisions and projectiles, biological female athletes would be at greater risk of injury.”
Previously FINA, and other organizations, tried to handle this through the testing of testosterone levels. However, its research showed that obvious advantages can come through going through puberty as a boy — in swimming’s case things like height, arm length, hand and foot size and so on.
No one wants to stop anyone from swimming. FINA is in the business of encouraging it. Yet, not having a real competitive chance for a biological female could decrease participation as much as anything. Same with any other sport.
“My responsibility is to protect the integrity of women’s sport and we take that very seriously,” said Coe, of World Athletics. “ ... And I’ve always made it clear: if we ever get pushed into a corner to that point where we’re making a judgment about fairness or inclusion, I will always fall down on the side of fairness.
“You have to and that’s my responsibility,” Coe continued. “Of course, it’s a societal issue. If one of my colleagues here in my team suddenly becomes transgender, it doesn’t make a difference to me. They will continue to do the same job with skill and aplomb in exactly the way they were before they made that transition.
“This is not possible in sport. It is fundamental to performance and integrity and that, for me, is the big, big difference.”
Coe is correct, at least under current science. So good for FINA for stepping up and making the proper call. And good for others who will follow suit.
This had to be the solution.
Here’s hoping the same energy from both sides that went into arguing this issue is now spent on promoting access to competition and then celebrating the athletic achievement of both transgender and biologically female athletes.
That would be a win for everyone.