The International Governing Body for Swimming FINA in a controversial ruling on Monday has banned transgender participation in the Women's category, with Athletics and Football set to come after that. Shashank Nair examines the complicated issue of how FINA plans to introduce an 'open' category to include trans-women
The International Swimming Federation (FINA) in a 274-196 vote, has voted against allowing transgender athletes to compete in women's competitions, except for those persons that have completed their transition before the age of 12. Currently, this ruling is only applied to elite competitions organised by FINA. BBC and British media reported that two other important spots bodies, Athletics and FIFA are to follow the Federation's cue.
Husain Al-Musallam, the FINA President announced that to set up an open category' in some FINA competitions, a Working Group was being formed. Musallam said about the 'open category', "The creation of an open category will mean that everybody has the opportunity to compete at an elite level." He then added, "This has not been done before, so FINA will need to lead the way."
Seb Coe Track and Field's IAAF boss told BBC: "We see an international federation asserting its primacy in setting rules, regulations and policies that are in the best interest of its sport.
This is as it should be. We have always believed that biology trumps gender and we will continue to review our regulations in line with this. We will follow the science."
Gender activists have criticized this move citing exclusion.
The reason for these changes
At the core of this change are the transgender athletes in sports, particularly transgender women who compete in women's competitions. Case studies have shown that transgender woman who has undergone male puberty and then transitioned into a female have maintained their testosterone levels. This leads to higher structural gains in sports than those of the cisgender (persons with a sense of identity and a gender same as their birth sex) women.
In his podcast, Real Science of Sport, sports scientist Ross Tucker explained that the effects of testosterone on the bodily development of men and women after puberty are different. According to at least 13 case studies, the effects of testosterone on men who later became women were not completely eliminated because they became a woman.
"In a number of physiological systems that are relevant to performance – muscle mass, muscle strength, body performance, body fat, heart and lung size – testosterone creates things that are never fully undone," said PHD Tucker on the Real Science of Sports podcast. He then added, "The difference between men and women for power, strength and muscle mass can be 30-40%. Testosterone suppression for a year can take away 5-10%. The result is quite a large retained advantage – and if you've retained biological advantage, then you've retained performance advantage."
The position of the IOC and other major sports bodies
The major sporting bodies are on different pages regarding transgender policies. In fact, International Olympic Committee and the International Swimming Federation have almost opposing opinions on the same, due to the significance accorded to testosterone and the timing of when it affects the human body.
For instance, World Athletics has said that transgender women ought to be allowed to participate in competitions once they have reduced their testosterone for 12 months. While USA Swimming says that they can only be allowed to compete if they undergo hormone replacement therapy for three years.
The IOC's Trans-Trans-Inclusion Framework gave leading sports organizations the right to decide how to integrate their transgender athletes.
It also says that sports bodies should not presume that trans women athletes are innately better than cisgender women athletes, or that to compete in events transgender women do not need to lower their testosterone levels.
FINA in their Extraordinary Congress asked their medical, legal and athlete counsels to speak. Each counsel had a couple of delegates who spoke on why FINA came to the decision after which the member organisations voted for this historic measure.
Lia Thomas's importance to this ruling
Lia Thomas can be seen as the reason for this historic measure by the world body of swimming. Previously, Thomas used to compete men's category of the swimming event for Penn State University and for three years was part of their team. She started undergoing hormone replacement therapy in 2019, according to the NCAA and Ivy League rules.
In 2022, she participated in the 500-yard NCAA Swimming Championship and was placed first, defeating Emma Weyant who was the Tokyo Olympics, silver medallist.
Lia Thomas told Sports Illustrated in March: "The very simple answer is that I'm not a man. I'm a woman, so I belong on the women's team. Trans people deserve that same respect every other athlete gets."
Reka Gyorgy, who competed for Hungary in the 2016 Rio Olympics, complained to the NCAA about missing out on her final race. As per the Guardian, she said that her spot was taken up by Thomas and that she was hurt by it, and so was her team as well as the other women in the pool.
Thomas said she wants to compete in the 2024 Paris Olympics and, considering her time, she might be able to win medals for the US. It should be noted that Lia Thomas was an NCAA Swimming Athlete before becoming a woman.
The importance of the words 'competitive fairness' in FINA's decision
Before becoming a woman, the properties of testosterone in Lia Thomas' body gave her the perfect setup to become a great athlete. This happened despite the NCAA's rules regarding hormone replacement therapy and the three-year interval.
Hence, This is the reason for Extraordinary Congress to use the term competitive fairness. This was also the major reason for barring transgenders from important competitions unless the transition happened to them before the age of 12. This age is not a scientifically proven number, but rather a random number as there is no set age for puberty to happen. There are three stages to transition – social, medical involving hormones and surgical.
"Which of these three do they mean? Should the patient have undergone surgery by that time, which is almost impossible," said Dr Alireza Hamidian Jahromi, co-director of the Gender Affirmation Surgery Center at Temple University Hospitals in Philadelphia.
The issue of certification
The latest ruling read, "All athletes must certify their chromosomal sex with their Member Federation to be eligible for FINA competitions". Add to this the confusion of how this certification can happen, ("Member Federations must confirm their athletes' certifications of chromosomal sex when registering their athletes to compete in FINA competitions") and soon everyone will have to prove their gender through their own federations and chromosome tests modelled on a doping test.
The 'other' category and what it entails
The second part of FINA's ruling was to bring in an 'open category' within the next six months. This is a category that includes transgender athletes. Scientifically this concept has many advantages, including the fact that trans athletes can participate with each other. But there are problems.
There are not enough elite transgender athletes. Since there are not enough elite transgender women swimmers in the world, Lia Thomas could spend the rest of her life without participating in the Olympics. The ruling, therefore, fails on this account.
It is also a failure on the grounds of privacy where athletes can decide the status of their gender without pressure. In a BBC article on transgender athletes in sports, Tucker spoke about the other side, "There is still a lot of stigma attached to being trans and I'm not sure that trying to force or create a platform through sport would help overcome that. If anything, there might be certain barriers that are created."
The question of trans in other sports
When the FINA approved barring transgender athletes from participating in women's competitions, athletes competed at the highest level in other sports, both team and individual sports, and struggled with strategic issues.
Quinn, a Canadian athlete won a gold medal in football when their team defeated Sweden in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics final thus becoming the first transgender athlete to win a medal at the Olympics in this process.
In the new Olympic category of skateboarding, Allana Smith stood up. From Forthworth, Texas, Smith was the last person at their event to reach the Women's Street, but attending was the real gift for the 20 - year - old. "I wanted to walk out of this knowing I UNAPOLOGETICALLY was myself and was genuinely smiling," Smith wrote on Instagram
World Rugby became the first international sporting governing body in October 2021 to ban transgender women from competing in global competitions such as the Olympics and the Women's Rugby World Cup, although each country could decide whether to allow transgender women to participate in domestic competitions. For nine months the World Rugby deliberated this decision after which they said that in a sport which involves collision and multiple injuries, "safety and fairness cannot presently be assured for women competing against trans women in contact rugby."