FINA votes to restrict transgender swimmers

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Swimming’s world governing body FINA announced on Sunday that it had voted to bar transgender athletes from competing in elite women’s events.

The policy, which takes effect Monday, requires transgender swimmers to have completed their transition at age 12 to compete in women’s competitions and to keep their circulating testosterone below levels of 2.5 nanomoles per liter. It effectively excludes most transgender women from top swimming events, including the Olympics. The International Olympic Committee relies on each sport’s federation to determine athlete eligibility.

FINA is working to establish an “open” category for swimmers whose gender identity differs from their sex.

The decision was adopted with 71% of the votes of the members of the 152 eligible national federations at a congress held during the world championships in Budapest.

“FINA’s approach to writing this policy was comprehensive, scientific and inclusive,” said Brent Nowicki, FINA Executive Director, told the BBC. “Most importantly, FINA’s approach has emphasized competitive fairness.”

The settlement comes three months after Lia Thomas of the University of Pennsylvania became the first openly transgender woman to win an NCAA Division I swimming title, finishing first in the 500-meter freestyle. Her rise has intensified the debate about the place of transgender swimmers in the sport. Thomas recently said she hopes to compete in the Paris Olympics in 2024.

Hundreds of swimmers signed a letter of support for Thomas and all transgender and non-binary swimmers. But some of Thomas’ teammates and their parents wrote anonymously that, while they support Thomas’ transition, they felt it was unfair for her to compete with other women.

FINA plans to use the next six months to create the open category for competitions.

“FINA will always welcome every athlete,” said FINA President Husain Al-Musallam. “Creating an open category will mean that everyone will have the opportunity to compete at an elite level. This has never been done before, so FINA will have to lead the way. I want all athletes to feel included in the opportunity to develop ideas during this process.

The ruling is a blow to transgender athletes and their supporters, including former Harvard swimmer Schuyler Bailar, the first transgender man to compete as a man in an NCAA Division I sport. He said in a text message that he was “devastated” by the announcement.

“This ruling requires trans girls to transition before age 12, but the United States has seen nearly 100 bills banning trans kids from playing youth sports and criminalizing transitioning resources for children, making it impossible for them to play sports in any capacity,” added Bailar, who is a friend and advisor to Thomas. “FINA’s decision does not preserve the integrity of women’s sport – it reinforces the harmful policing of women’s bodies and the continued degradation and otherness of trans people who already face massive discrimination in this world.”

Athlete Ally, an LGBTQ advocacy group that penned a letter of support for Thomas in February, also disagreed with the policy.

“FINA’s new eligibility criteria for transgender athletes and athletes with intersex variations are discriminatory, harmful, unscientific and inconsistent with IOC 2021 principles,” said its Tweeter Lily. “If we really want to protect women’s sport, we have to include all women.”

Sharron Davies, a former British swimmer, tweeted his support for FINA’s decision.

“I can’t tell you how proud I am of my sport…for doing science, asking athletes/coaches and advocating for fair sport for women,” she wrote. “Swimming will always welcome everyone, no matter how you identify, but fairness is the cornerstone of sport.”

Swimming joins other sports that have recently created stricter restrictions for transgender athletes. On Thursday, cycling’s governing body, the International Cycling Union, extended from one to two years the time that riders who change gender must wait before competing.

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