The news landed like a cannonball pool jump on a Sunday evening in mid-June: FINA, swimming’s international governing body, announced transgender athletes would no longer be allowed to participate in elite women’s competition — effective the following day.
Under the new policy, adopted at the FINA Extraordinary General Congress 2022 in Budapest, Hungary, transgender swimmers must have completed their transition by age 12 in order to compete in women’s competitions. The World Professional Association for Transgender Health recently lowered its recommended age to 14 for starting gender transition hormone treatment, with some surgeries not recommended until at least 15.
“This is not saying that people are encouraged to transition by the age of 12,” James Pearce, spokesperson for FINA President Husain Al-Musallam, told the Associated Press. “It’s what the scientists are saying, that if you transition after the start of puberty, you have an advantage, which is unfair. They’re not saying everyone should transition by age 11, that’s ridiculous. You can’t transition by that age in most countries, and hopefully you wouldn’t be encouraged to. Basically, what they’re saying is that it is not feasible for people who have transitioned to compete without having an advantage.”
NPR.org reports that the policy requires transgender women to show that “they have not experienced any part of male puberty beyond Tanner Stage 2 or before age 12, whichever is later.” (Tanner Stages refer to the physical changes individuals undergo during puberty.)
“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,” the policy reads.
Pearce confirmed to the AP that “there are currently no transgender women competing in elite levels of swimming.” That said, earlier this year, the University of Pennsylvania’s Lia Thomas became the first openly transgender woman to win a women’s swimming title at the NCAA Division I level. She also set six records at the Ivy League Championships and now is effectively banned from competing in world championships and the Olympics.
According to ESPN.com, Thomas called FINA’s new policy “deeply upsetting,” adding that “it is discriminatory and will only serve to harm all women.”
Anne Lieberman, director of policy and programs at Athlete Ally, which advocates for LGBTQI+ equality in sports, agrees.
“FINA’s new eligibility criteria for transgender athletes and athletes with intersex variations is deeply discriminatory, harmful, unscientific and not in line with the 2021 International Olympic Committee framework on Fairness, Inclusion and Non-Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity and Sex Variations,” she said in a statement. “The eligibility criteria for the women’s category as it is laid out in the policy police the bodies of all women and will not be enforceable without seriously violating the privacy and human rights of any athlete looking to compete in the women’s category.”
Late last year, the IOC released a “framework” that left eligibility criteria for transgender athletes up to individual sports. The IOC added 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.”
“Last year, New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard became the first transgender athlete to compete in the Olympics in a different gender category than assigned at birth,” Reuters.com notes. “Many sports bodies have allowed transgender women to compete in women’s events if they have lowered their testosterone levels to a certain point. [Earlier in June], the International Cycling Union tightened its rules by increasing the transition period for lower testosterone from 12 months to two years and halving the maximum level to 2.5 nmol/L [nanomoles per liter]. The FINA ruling could increase pressure for similar moves inside other sports.”
Days after the FINA announcement, the International Rugby League banned players who transition from male to female from sanctioned international events, pending further research.
For now, FINA’s policy is the strictest in any Olympic sport, although the association also announced it will create a working group to establish an “open” category for all swimmers in some events.
According to Reuters.com, the FINA policy “came out of a working group that had three components — an athlete group, a science and medicine group, and a legal and human rights group, which FINA says studied ‘the best available statistical, scientific, and medical evidence concerning sex differences in sports performance, and any associated male sex-based advantage.’ FINA said the Science Group was comprised of ‘independent experts in the fields of physiology, endocrinology and human performance, including specialists in sex differences in human performance and in transgender medicine.’”
David Gerrard, vice chair of FINA’s Sports Medicine Committee, defended FINA’s decision, calling it “the best outcome” for both swimming and swimmers. He added, however, that “it is an issue that we’re going to have to confront, and the debate is going to continue. But when it comes to fairness and when it comes to safety, you’ve got to draw a line in the sand.”