Swimming ban increases pressure on sports to clarify trans policy

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Sporting administrators around the world have agonised over whether transwomen athletes should be allowed to take part in elite competition. Moves by two sports in the past week to effectively ban most transwomen have increased pressure on policymakers to clarify their positions on an issue that resonates far beyond the sporting arena.

Following months of research and input from legal, scientific and athletic perspectives, Fina, the governing body of elite swimming, ruled last weekend that transwomen would not be allowed to compete in women’s events if they had experienced male puberty.

Rugby League announced two days later that it too would bar transwomen from international competition, pending further research into the potential risks of allowing them to participate.

The decisions have drawn the ire of transgender rights advocates and sparked further debate among sports executives over the criteria for eligibility in elite events, as several more federations mull their own policies for trans athletes.

“The fundamental circle to square is this debate of inclusivity versus fairness,” said one sporting official briefed on transgender policy formation. “When the two clash, we want to encourage participation but it has to be trumped by fairness. It’s hellishly, hellishly difficult.”

The ban in swimming — the first by a marquee Olympic sport — came after Lia Thomas in March become the first known transgender woman to win a US national collegiate swimming title.

A host of other international sport federations, including for football, badminton, cycling, hockey, athletics and lacrosse, have this month updated or said they intended to review rules governing gender eligibility.

Sports administrators are seeking to juggle a small but growing body of research on performance advantages by sex with efforts to preserve a spirit of inclusiveness.

Olivia Hunt, policy director for the US National Center for Transgender Equality, said the new Fina policy “really highlights the need for transgender and nonbinary athletes and their supporters to be more active in advocating for their rights to participate.” 

She alluded to the backlash against Thomas, adding that “the swimming world’s outrageous reaction over the past few months to a single transwoman doing well in a single event makes it clear there are policymakers whose decisions are guided by a desire to ensure trans youth are excluded.”

Sebastian Coe, World Athletics president, said at an event in Hungary last week that the Fina ban was “in the best interests of its sport”, adding: “If we ever get pushed into a corner to that point where we are making a judgment about fairness or inclusion, I will always fall down on the side of fairness.”

Sports stakeholders say the flurry of policy formation on trans participation has come at the behest of the International Olympic Committee, which in November released a framework urging international sports federations to determine eligibility criteria for themselves.

An IOC spokesperson said that the individual sports bodies “are well placed to define the factors that contribute to performance advantage in the context of their own sport.”

Among sporting organisations which have updated their policies, the basis of their eligibility criteria vary widely. The international governing body for cycling, UCI, determined last week based on a handful of studies that transwomen must undergo a transition period of at least 24 months, up from 12, in order to “reverse” the physiological advantages inherent to biological males.

Principally, according to research cited by UCI, it takes at least two years to adapt muscle strength and power to levels common among biological females.

By contrast, team sports and especially contact sports cite different research. World Rugby determined in 2020 that the sport’s “unique context of combining strength, power, speed and endurance in a physical, collision environment” makes it unsafe for trans women to participate in women’s rugby, although it committed to funding further research on the topic. In other sports, other factors such as height, heart size and arm length have become discussion points.

Joanna Harper, a transwoman long-distance runner and PhD candidate researching trans athletes at Loughborough University in the UK, said available studies were not yet comprehensive enough to set widespread policy formation.

“To a certain extent, sports federations need to wing it, to do the best they can with the data that exist, and understand that as we get more and better data they’ll be able to make better policy,” she said.

Some sports have indicated they may take a more inclusive approach to transwomen’s participation, including World Lacrosse which is set to discuss the matter at a board meeting next week. USA Swimming said they were “being deliberate in our review” of Fina’s effective ban.

Governance of transgender representation in sport is linked to but nuanced from earlier regulations on athletes with differences in sex development, also known as DSD or intersex.

Though there are myriad differences between the circumstances facing trans and intersex athletes, sporting bodies and advocates say there is room for improvement on treating both constituencies more humanely.

The IOC framework includes provisions for sport federations to avoid “gynaecological examinations or similar forms of invasive physical examinations” to determine an athlete’s sex or gender.

Hunt, the NCTE policy director, said that “intersex athletes as well as trans and nonbinary athletes deserve to participate in sport under policies that focus on fairness and inclusion for all athletes — including them.”

Harper also made the point that sport may be seeking to solve a problem that barely exists, given how few self-identifying transgender athletes are even close to competing in elite level sports.

“No transwoman has competed in international level swimming, ever. Why are they so worried about this?” Harper asked. “They’re trying to fix a problem that doesn’t exist.”

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