For transgender athletes, an ongoing search for inclusion and honesty

Should the primary goal of elite sports be competitive honesty? Or does maintaining integrity mean that inclusivity is as important as an equal playing field?

The issue, which has roiled the water of pools everywhere with the success of Lia Thomas, the transgender swimmer of the University of Pennsylvania, burst to the surface again Sunday. FINA, the world governing body of swimming, essentially bans transgender women from the highest levels of international competition for women.

FINA’s proposal is to create a so-called open category of competition to “protect competitive honesty.” But a separate category is “isolating, destructive and has the potential to turn transgender and non-binary competitors into a spectacle on an international stage,” said Anne Lieberman, director of policy and programs at Athlete Ally, which seeks transphobia and homophobia in sport to end. , said in an email Wednesday.

Trying to balance inclusivity and honesty, especially regarding the qualifications of transgender and intersex athletes (competitors with the typical male pattern of X and Y chromosomes) is one of the most complex and divisive issues in sports.

Reasonable arguments are made on both sides. Going through puberty as a man provides physical benefits that persist even after testosterone levels are suppressed, such as wider shoulders, larger hands, longer torso, denser muscles, and greater heart and lung capacity.

In January, the International and European Sports Medicine Federations issued a joint statement saying in part that higher testosterone concentrations “provide a baseline benefit for athletes in certain sports” and that “maintaining the integrity and honesty of sport”. benefits “must be recognized and diminished.”

However, there has been relatively little scientific research involving elite transgender athletes. And studies have not quantified the exact effect of testosterone on performance. The rail and field governing body, which has imposed strict regulations on permitted levels of testosterone, last year corrected its own research. It acknowledged that it could not establish a causal relationship between elevated testosterone levels and performance benefits for elite female athletes.

FINA left itself vulnerable to critics who claimed to be acting hastily and recklessly, taking revenge against Thomas and trying to find a solution to a problem that did not exist. The Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ civil rights organization, accused the governing body of swimming for “the avalanche of misinformed, prejudicial attacks directed at one particular transgender swimmer.”

Only one famous transgender athlete has won an Olympic medal in a women’s competition, the Canadian footballer Quinn, who was assigned a woman at birth and identifies as non-binary. And only two openly transgender female athletes appear to have won NCAA titles – Thomas and CeCe Telfer, who won the 400-meter hurdles race for Division II Franklin Pierce University in 2019.

Even in victory, Thomas did not deliver a surprising performance at the NCAA Championships in March. Her winning time in the 500-yard freestyle race was nine seconds off the collegiate record set by Katie Ledecky for Stanford in 2017. Thomas finished fifth in the 200 freestyle and last in the final of the 100 freestyle.

“It is very unfortunate that FINA has made this statement,” Joanna Harper, a medical physicist who has extensively researched and written about transgender athletes, told The New York Times on Sunday. “Trans women do not take over women’s sports, and they will not.”

Will other international sports federations follow the lead of swimming? Some predict that track and field may be the following, attracted by FINA’s solution to the tricky issue of what levels of testosterone should be allowed. The rule of swimming forbids transgender women to compete, unless they started medical treatments to suppress testosterone production before going through one of the early stages of puberty, or at the age of 12, some time later took place. There is a lot of debate in the medical community about such an early intervention.

Would the Court of Arbitration for Sport – a sort of Supreme Court for International Sport – override FINA’s decision, if challenged? History suggests otherwise.

South African champion runner Caster Semenya lost her attempt before that court to overturn the track and field testosterone rules, effectively ending her Olympic career. CAS ruled in 2019 that the rail policy was “discriminatory” but also “necessary, reasonable and proportionate” to ensure fair play in women’s events.

Two senior CAS arbitrators, including the lead arbitrator in the Semenya case, were among FINA’s legal and human rights experts and were satisfied that the federation’s policy met the “necessary and proportionate” standard, Doriane Lambelet Coleman, a Duke law professor who specializes in sex and gender and who helped draft FINA policy, said in an email Wednesday.

Last November, the International Olympic Committee warned against accepting, without proof, that athletes have an unfairly competitive advantage “because of their sex variations, physical appearance and / or transgender status.” But this was only a guiding principle. The IOC has delegated the provision of qualification rules to international sports federations.

A complicated situation could become even more messy. Say, for example, USA Swimming ignores FINA’s policy when the 2024 Paris Olympics arrive. That could have left Thomas in the awkward position of earning a place on the American Olympic team, but not being fit to compete in Paris. FINA’s policy would govern the policy of USA Swimming.

Only one thing seems certain, Tommy Lundberg, a Swedish researcher who has studied transgender athletes, told The Times in 2020. “It will be impossible,” he said, “to make everyone happy.”


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