FINA, swimming’s world governing body, is putting a halt to transgender athletes competing in women’s elite races, such as at the Olympics. Citing the unfair competitive advantage conferred by male puberty, a Sunday press release states it will not allow biological males that have gone through the process to compete any longer in the women’s category.
As an alternative, FINA will instead set up a separate ‘open category’. This new category, which a ‘working group’ will spend the next six months trying to set up, will be open to all who identify as a gender different from their biological sex. FINA President Husain Al-Musallam said that this 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.”
Noting the ongoing concern about female athletes being edged out by their transgender peers, Al-Musallam added that “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.”
The policy, which was passed with 71% of the vote out of a total of 152 FINA members, went into effect on Monday 20th and has been hailed by the body as “only a first step towards full inclusion” for transgender athletes. The decision was made during an extraordinary general congress at the ongoing World Championships in the Hungarian capital of Budapest.
However, the new rules do not necessarily apply to all competitions. National federations or the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) can decide whether they will implement FINA’s policy. British Swimming, for instance, has said it will “take time to review [the policy’s] content” before making any further comment.
Former Great Britain swimmer Sharron Davies, who has forcefully argued against transgender participation in women’s elite swimming, told BBC Sport that she was “really proud of FINA.”
Along with 60 other Olympic medallists, she had written to the International Olympic Committee four years ago, urging them to approach the matter from a scientific point of view. FINA is the first governing body to do so, she said. “They’ve done the science, they’ve got the right people on board, they’ve spoken to the athletes and coaches. Swimming is a very inclusive sport, we love everyone to come and swim and be involved. But the cornerstone of sport is that it has to be fair and it has to be fair for both sexes.”
“Sport by definition is exclusionary,” she added. “We don’t have 15-year-old boys racing in the under-12s, we don’t have heavyweight boxers in with the bantamweights, the whole reason we have lots of different classes in the Paralympics is so that we can create fair opportunities for everybody,” she said, noting that “the only people who were going to be losing out were females—they were losing their right to fair sport.”
Athlete Ally, an LGBT advocacy group, condemned the new policy as “deeply discriminatory, harmful, unscientific and not in line with the 2021 International Olympic Committee framework.”
For transgender athletes with dreams of competing in the women’s Olympics, such as the controversial American swimmer Lia Thomas, FINA’s alternative vision of a separate ‘open category’ for transgender athletes will come as a serious blow. Transgender swimmers like Lia Thomas, if they choose to continue their careers under the new rules, will now only be eligible for a much more limited competitive field attracting fewer participants. According to a 2016 systematic review, an estimated 9.2 out of every 100,000 people have received or requested gender affirmation surgery or transgender hormone therapy; 6.8 out of every 100,000 have received a transgender-specific diagnosis, and 355 out of every 100,000 self-identify as transgender.
Out of those, the number of active or even aspiring professional swimmers is presumably minuscule.