Transgender women can’t compete at the elite level, according to FINA.
The International Swimming Federation said that transgender women who went through male puberty could not compete in women’s events.
On Sunday, the world governing body for swimming made it harder for transgender women to compete at the highest levels of women’s international competition. This added to the growing divide among parents, athletes, and coaches at all levels about gender and sports.
The vote by FINA, the group in charge of international water sports competitions, says that transgender women can’t compete unless they started taking medicine to stop their bodies from making testosterone before one of the early stages of puberty or by age 12, whichever came later. It makes one of the strictest rules against transgender people playing sports at an international level. Scientists think that the fact that transgender women go through male puberty gives them a permanent physical edge over athletes who were born female.
World swimming would also make a new “open” category for athletes who identify as women but don’t meet the requirements to compete against people who were born female.
More than 70% of FINA’s member federations voted to adopt the policy, which was made by a group of athletes, scientists, and medical and legal experts who got together in November to work on it. The policy will start on Monday, just a few days after the world swimming championships in Budapest.
Husain al-Musallam, the president of the federation, said in a statement, “We have to protect the rights of our athletes to compete, but we also have to protect the fairness of our events, especially the women’s category at FINA competitions.”
At the world swimming championships, there are no transgender women competing, and only one transgender woman, a Canadian soccer player, is known to have won an Olympic medal.
The move, though, came just three months after Lia Thomas became the first transgender woman to win an N.C.A.A. Division I swimming championship. She won the 500-yard women’s freestyle, which brought attention to the issue. She hasn’t said much about winning, but she did tell Sports Illustrated recently, “I’m not a man. I’m a girl, so I should be on the girls’ team.” She has also said she wants to try to make the 2024 U.S. Olympic team. She wouldn’t be able to compete there under the new rule.
During Thomas’s championship season, the national governing body for swimming, U.S.A. Swimming, changed the rules so that transgender women could compete if they had taken medication for 36 months that kept their testosterone levels low enough. The rule made the organization the same as many other governing bodies in sports like track and field and cycling, which use testosterone levels to decide who can compete against athletes who were born female.
The rules set by FINA only apply to international competitions, but they could help other sports federations figure out how to deal with the issue. The CEO of U.S.A. Swimming, Tim Hinchey III, did not answer a message on Sunday.
Advocates on both sides of the issue said that the international swimming body’s decision could help the growing movement to stop transgender women from competing in any sport, even for fun, and hurt efforts to give everyone, no matter what gender they were given at birth, full access to sports.
Sports federations have tried to make rules that try to find a balance between science and fair play, which has upset people at all levels of sports.
“It’s a shame that FINA made this decision,” said Joanna Harper, a medical physicist who has written a lot about gender and sports and given advice to the International Olympic Committee and other international sports organizations. “Trans women are not and will not take over sports for women.”
Alejandra Caraballo, a Harvard Law School professor and expert on transgender issues, said that the FINA rule would give other groups permission to pass similarly strict bans. It would also require athletes to show medical records and blood tests from the last 10 years or more, which would be invasive.
“This is a very unfair policy that tries to solve a problem that doesn’t exist,” Caraballo said. “It’s because of Lia Thomas that there’s a moral panic right now.”
Anne Lieberman, who is in charge of policy and programs at Athlete Ally, a group that supports the rights of L.G.B.T.Q. athletes, said that the rule was “deeply discriminatory, harmful, unscientific, and out of step with the I.O.C.’s guidelines on fairness and inclusion.” She said that the rules couldn’t be followed without breaking the privacy and human rights of any female athlete who wanted to compete.
Athletes can take their case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland, which is the best sports court in the world.
In the past, the court has agreed that international sports federations have the right to make rules about how athletes are grouped based on their testosterone levels. In 2019, the court upheld the rules of the world track and field federation that said athletes born with both male and female genitalia couldn’t compete unless they took medicine to lower their testosterone levels.
In November, the International Olympic Committee gave the rules for women’s sports eligibility to the groups that run each sport. But it also said, “Until evidence shows otherwise, athletes shouldn’t be thought to have an unfair or disproportionate competitive advantage because of their sex differences, physical appearance, or transgender status.”
This year, FIFA, the organization that runs soccer around the world, said that transgender women would still be able to play. Since October 2020, World Rugby has made it impossible for transgender women to play in international games.
Michael J. Joyner, a doctor at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., who studies the physiology of male and female athletes, says that peer-reviewed studies show that top-level transgender women still have a big advantage over top-level biological women even after testosterone suppression.
On average, men have wider shoulders, bigger hands, longer torsos, bigger hearts and lungs, and denser muscles.
In an interview with The New York Times this year, Dr. Joyner said, “There are social parts to sports, but physiology and biology are at the core.”
Ross Tucker, a sports physiologist who works with World Rugby, has said that Thomas is the perfect example of what can happen if sports don’t put any limits on transgender women competing.
Still, there hasn’t been a lot of research done on transgender athletes at the top level. Even though studies have shown that testosterone is important for physical strength and stamina, they have not been able to figure out exactly how it affects performance.
World Athletics, the world governing body for track and field, has put strict rules on runners who want to compete in some women’s events. Last year, World Athletics corrected its own research, admitting that it could not find a link between high testosterone levels and better performance among elite female athletes.
It’s not clear if Thomas’s performance was the reason why FINA made such a strict rule about who can swim.
Thomas, who ran for the University of Pennsylvania, was praised as a brave and courageous athlete this year, but her performance also caused some people to criticize her. People on her own team didn’t like her being there, and a group of swimmers from Princeton went to the Ivy League commissioner to try to stop her.
Some states have passed laws that make it illegal for transgender women to compete. Some states, like Texas, have moved to make it illegal for doctors to help younger children transition, which would make them not meet the FINA rules.
Now, the question is whether or not the strict rule made by the swimming federation will have a trickle-down effect. Harper supports putting limits on the amount of testosterone transgender women can have in certain sports on an international level. However, she said she was worried that even local organizations would feel they had a right to ban transgender athletes. She used the example of a 60-year-old transgender woman who was not allowed to play lawn bowling in a tournament.
“This makes sense on an international level,” she said of the restrictions. She said that the risk is that the people who make these decisions at the recreational level “will look at FINA and put these rules on middle school kids.”