Swimming’s international governing body FINA banned transgender people from the women’s category on Monday in a controversial decision followed by athletics and football. Shashank Nair delves into the difficult question of how FINA thinks about introducing an “open” category to include trans women.
The International Swimming Federation (FINA) has voted against allowing transgender athletes to compete in women’s competition, except that the transgender athlete must complete the transition by age 12.
274 members voted for the policy, of which 196 voted for it. The regulation only applies to elite competitions run by FINA. The BBC and British media have reported on athletics and FIFA as two other major sports organizations are set to follow suit.
FINA President Hussein Al Musallam announced that a working group is being formed to create an “open category” in some FINA competitions. Regarding the “open category”, Musallam said, “Creating an open category will mean that everyone will have the opportunity to compete at the elite level.” He then added, “This hasn’t happened yet, so FINA will have to pave the way.”
IAAF athletics boss Seb Coe later told the BBC: “We see an international federation asserting its primacy in setting rules, regulations and policies that are in the best interests of its sport.
This is how it should be. We have always believed that biology is more important than gender, and we will continue to revise our rules accordingly. We will follow the science.”
The move was also widely criticized by gender activists for being excluded.
Why were these changes made?
Transgender athletes in sports, especially transgender women in women’s competition, are at the center of these changes. In case studies, it has been shown that a transgender woman who experiences male puberty and then turns into a woman maintains testosterone levels, resulting in higher structural benefits in sports compared to a cisgender (a person whose sense of identity and gender matches their gender when birth) of a woman.
Ross Tucker, a sports scientist, explained on his podcast The Real Science of Sports that testosterone exposure leads to different body development after puberty in men and women. He said that in at least 13 case studies, men who later became women did not completely get rid of the effects of testosterone because they became women.
“In a number of physiological systems that are related to performance — muscle mass, muscle strength, body performance, body fat, heart and lung size — testosterone creates things that are never completely eliminated,” Tucker, Ph.D., told the Real Science of Podcast. sport. . He then added: “The difference between men and women in power, strength and muscle mass can be 30-40%. Suppression of testosterone in a year can remove 5-10%. As a result, a fairly large advantage is retained, and if you retained the biological advantage, then you retained the performance advantage.”
What is the position of the IOC and other major sports organizations?
It is the importance given to testosterone and the timing of its exposure to the human body that has divided world organizations to the point that the International Olympic Committee and the International Swimming Federation have almost opposite policies regarding transgender athletes.
For example, World Athletics has stated that after transgender women lower their testosterone levels for 12 months, they should be allowed to compete. Under U.S. swimming law, trans athletes must complete three years of hormone replacement therapy before they are allowed to compete.
The IOC’s trans-inclusion framework essentially gave the leading sports organizations the power to decide how they would include their transgender athletes. It also stated that sports organizations should not automatically assume that trans female athletes are inherently more successful than cisgender female athletes, and that transgender women should not have their testosterone levels reduced to compete.
FINA, at its Extraordinary Congress, called on its medical, legal and sports advisors to speak. Each councilor had several delegates who talked about why FINA came to this decision. And then the affiliates voted for this historic measure.
Why is Leah Thomas so important to this decision?
It can be said that Leah Thomas was the reason the world swimming organization took this measure. Thomas previously competed in the men’s swim division at Pennsylvania State University and was part of their team for three years. In 2019, she began hormone replacement therapy in accordance with NCAA and Ivy League regulations.
In 2022, after two years and six months of therapy, she entered the NCAA 500-yard swimming championship and placed first, defeating Tokyo Olympic silver medalist Emma Veyant.
In March, Leah Thomas told Sports Illustrated: “The very simple answer is that I am not a man. I am a woman, so I belong to the women’s team. Transgender people deserve the same respect as any other athlete.”
Reka György, who competed for Hungary at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, complained that she missed her last race in the NCAA. According to the Guardian, she said that Thomas essentially took her place and it hurt her, her team and the other women in the pool. Thomas said that she wanted to compete in the 2024 Paris Olympics and judging by her timing, she could have won medals for the US. It is important to note that before she became a woman, Liz Thomas was already an NCAA swimmer.
Why are the words “competitive fairness” so important in this FINA decision?
The benefits of testosterone in Liz Thomas’s body before she became a woman provided her with the ideal conditions to become an elite athlete. This is despite NCAA rules regarding hormone replacement therapy and a three-year hiatus.
This is why the term “competitive integrity” was used in the Extraordinary Congress. This was the main reason why transgender women were banned from elite competition unless their transition happened before age 12. However, the age of 12 is not a scientifically defined and random number because puberty does not occur in the human body at a set age. . The transition also requires three stages – social, medical, associated with hormones, and surgical.
“Which of these three are they referring to? If the patient has undergone surgery by then, it is next to impossible,” said Dr. Alireza Hamidian Jahromi, co-director of the Center for Gender Affirmation Surgery at Temple University Hospitals in Philadelphia.
“All athletes must have their chromosomal sex certified by their member federation in order to be eligible to compete in FINA competitions,” the latest ruling states. Add to that the mystery of how this certification will work (“Member federations must validate their athletes’ chromosome sex certificates when registering their athletes for FINA competitions”) and suddenly everyone has to prove their gender through their own federations and chromosome test. along the lines of a doping test.
What is the “other” category and what does it entail?
The second part of the FINA ruling was to introduce an “open category” within the next six months. This will be the category that transgender athletes will be a part of. While scientifically there are many positives to this idea, including the possibility for trans athletes to participate with each other, there are also problems.
There is a problem with numbers. There are simply not enough elite transgender athletes. Liz Thomas can, in fact, live her entire life without ever competing in the Olympics because there are not enough elite transgender female swimmers in the world. This ruling is invalid.
It also fails on the privacy issue, where an athlete can decide their gender status without being pressured. Tucker spoke about the downside in a BBC article on transgender athletes in sports and said: “There is still a lot of stigma attached to being transgender and I’m not sure that trying to force or create a platform through sport will help overcome that. . In any case, certain barriers can be created.”
Transgender issue in other sports
While FINA adopted its constitution banning transgender athletes from women’s competition, in other sports, athletes in both team and individual sports competed at the highest level and tackled a difficult issue.
Canadian athlete Quinn won the gold medal in soccer when their team beat Sweden in the final of the 2021 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Quinn became the first transgender athlete to win a medal at the Olympics.
In the women’s +87kg weightlifting category, Laurel Hubbard made history by becoming one of the first openly transgender athletes to compete in the Olympics. While she failed to register a lift at 43, this would likely be the last time she competed in high-level weightlifting – something she hinted at when she said age was catching up with her. Hubbard turned into a woman at the age of 35.
In the new Olympic discipline of skateboarding, Allana Smith persevered and excelled. Smith from Fort Worth, Texas came in last at their Women’s Street event, but participation was a real prize for the 20-year-old. “I wanted to come out of this knowing that I was EXCUSEDLY being myself and genuinely smiling,” Smith wrote on Instagram.
In October 2021, World Rugby became the first international sports governing body to impose a ban on the participation of transgender women in global competitions such as the Olympic Games and the Women’s Rugby World Cup, although it is up to each country to decide whether to continue to allow transgender women to participate in internal competitions. rugby competition. The decision was debated for nine months, at the end of which World Rugby stated that in the sport of collision with multiple injuries, “safety and fairness for women competing against trans women in contact rugby cannot be guaranteed at this time.”