Swimming Australia backs FINA’s restrictions on trans swimmers

swimmers swimming lanes fina transgender women olympic swimming pool
Image: Jim de Ramos/Pexels

Swimming Australia has backed governing body FINA’s contentious move to effectively ban transgender women from elite female competitions and restrict them to a yet to be established “open category”.

FINA announced the new policy affecting most transgender female swimmers after a vote at the governing body’s congress in Hungary.

Under the new policy, trans women can only compete if “they can establish to FINA’s comfortable satisfaction that they have not experienced any part of male puberty beyond Tanner Stage 2 or before age 12, whichever is later”. The Tanner scale is a medical measure of physical development.

The trans swimmers must additionally maintain a testosterone level of below 2.5 nmol/L to be eligible for women’s elite competitions.

As part of the policy, FINA also promised to establish a working group to create an “open” category allowing all transgender women in separate events.

Transgender men can compete in men’s swimming competitions under FINA rules.

FINA’s new policy was approved and voted for by around 71 per cent of the 152 national federations at the congress.

FINA says new policy based on scientific panel’s determination

FINA claimed their appointed scientific panel reported transgender women retain an advantage over cisgender female swimmers after reducing testosterone levels.

The governing body’s decision is the strictest ruling on trans participation from an Olympic sports body.

President Husain al-Musallam said, “We have to protect the rights of our athletes to compete.

“But we also have to protect competitive fairness at our events, especially the women’s category at Fina competitions.”

Musallam said FINA will be the first sporting federation to establish an “open” category.

“FINA will always welcome every athlete,” he said.

“The creation of an open category will mean that everybody has the opportunity to compete at an elite level. This has not been done before, so FINA will need to lead the way.”

FINA said there are currently no transgender women competing in elite levels of swimming.

Australian swimming champ Cate Campbell addresses FINA

At the FINA congress, Australian swimming champion Cate Campbell addressed members on her “difficult” decision to support the new restrictions.

Campbell said she encourages transgender athletes to be part of the swimming community.

“We see you, value you and accept you,” Campbell said.

“My role, however, is also to stand up here, having asked our world governing body, FINA, to investigate, deliberate and uphold the cornerstone of fairness in elite women’s competition.

“It pains me that this part of my role may injure, infuriate and, potentially, alienate people from an already marginalised trans community.

“Believe me, I have wrestled long and hard with myself, with what to say and do. I’m aware that my actions and words, no matter what I say, will anger some people — whether they are from the trans community or from the cisgender female community.

“If inclusion is one of the cornerstones of sport, then the other would be fairness. Fairness in regards to competition, especially elite, professional competition.

“The incongruity that inclusion and fairness cannot always work together is one of the reasons why it’s so difficult to talk about this topic.

“Usually, they are terms of absolutes which work together. Yet science now tells us that, in this issue, they are incompatible.”

Broader swimming community must be ‘place of safety and acceptance’

Cate Campbell said in her view, the FINA decision is “ultimately, this not about winners and losers.”

“It is about investigating and developing a policy which accurately represents the science and draws a line to protect the fairness of the female category distinction in elite sport,” she said.

Campbell added she wants “the broader swimming community to be a place of safety and acceptance for the gender-diverse.”

“I call on all the federations sitting within this room to examine your own policies to ensure the world of swimming remains inclusive.

“It is my hope that young girls all around the world can continue to dream of becoming Olympic and World Champions in a female category prioritising the competitive cornerstone of fairness.

“However, it is also my hope that a young gender diverse child can walk into a swimming club and feel the same level of acceptance.”

But fellow Australian swimmer Maddie Groves criticised Campbell’s comments. She queried if Campbell was “okay with ostracising an already maligned group”.

“There are already gender diverse people in swimming and I’m guessing they’re not feeling very accepted [right now],” Groves tweeted.

“Shame on everyone that supported this discriminatory and unscientific decision.”

FINA’s new rules would prevent high profile US transgender swimmer Lia Thomas from competing in FINA events, including the Olympics.

Earlier this year, Thomas made global headlines as the first openly transgender woman to win a top National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) swimming title.

Hormone therapy reduces trans women’s athletic capacity

Australian transgender advocate and former sportswoman Martine Delaney said FINA’s new policy effectively excludes trans women from elite swimming.

“Blanket bans are not the answer. A blanket ban is an inherently discriminatory response,” she said.

“FINA claims its decision is based on science. Yet I see no evidence it has taken into account the science showing how hormone replacement reduces athletic capacity in trans women.

“For example, hormone replacement drastically reduces both muscle mass and the body’s capacity to remove lactic acid.”

Delaney said “dealing with individual athletes, rather than banning entire groups, ensures fairness and should be the policy groups like FINA adopt.”

“I was part of the development of the AFL’s trans player policy and while it is not perfect, it does not rule out entire groups of people,” she said.

“Instead, more fairly, it deals with individuals on a case-by-case basis.”

Swimming Australia is supportive of the policy, which a spokesperson said came out of a “comprehensive process… consulting scientific, medical, legal and human rights experts, as well as athlete representatives.”

“Swimming Australia endorses a competitive environment that is fair and equitable for all athletes at the High Performance level,” the spokesperson said.

“We believe this new policy reflects that position.

“We also firmly believe in inclusivity and the opportunity for all athletes to experience the sport of swimming in a manner that is consistent with their gender identity and expression.

“It is both our responsibility and commitment to continue to learn and educate ourselves on the appropriate balance in this space.

“Work will now continue on our domestic policy to provide guidance to our broad swimming family at the community level.”

Swimming decision creates new inequalities for trans people

However Transgender Victoria CEO Mama Alto said the “disappointing” FINA decision sets a worrying precedent for exclusion of transgender women.

“In terms of how FINA’s decision creates a precedent, whilst FINA has now made this decision for elite sports competitions, it’s vital that community sports takes a different approach,” Alto said in a statement.

“This decision is made in the context of elite, professional, global competition – such as at Olympic level.

“For community sports, it’s about so much more than just competition: it’s about participation, inclusion, community-building, health and wellbeing.

“So it’s essential that community sports don’t follow this exclusive precedent, which is designed for elite level competition.”

Alto went on, “In terms of how FINA’s decision impacts elite professional competitions, FINA’s decision will actually create further inequalities.

“Access to puberty blockers at this age during a gender transition or affirmation journey is a difficult and inaccessible process, with inconsistencies around the world.

“This decision will create inequality, disadvantage and barriers to trans people based on that access – based on their financial, geographic and sociopolitical situation – and that’s a tragic outcome.

“Ultimately, this decision impacts the inclusion – and hence, safety, dignity and equality – of transgender people.”

FINA policy ‘not in line with IOC principles’

LGBTIQ+ sports advocacy group Athlete Ally said FINA’s “deeply discriminatory, harmful, unscientific” new policy was “not in line with the 2021 IOC principles”.

Last year, the International Olympic Committee announced guidelines on transgender participation. But the IOC then tasked federations with creating their own “sport-specific” rules.

The IOC declared “until evidence determines otherwise, athletes should not be deemed to have an unfair or disproportionate competitive advantage due to their sex variations, physical appearance and/or transgender status”.

Athlete Ally policy director Anne Lieberman said, “The eligibility criteria for the women’s category as it is laid out in the [FINA] policy polices the bodies of all women.

“[It] will not be enforceable without seriously violating the privacy and human rights of any athlete looking to compete in the women’s category.”

US group the Human Rights Campaign also warned demanding prospective athletes who are transgender transition by age 12 is “an unrealistic and effectively impossible requirement”.

The HRC said some states, including Alabama and Arkansas, are also attempting to ban transgender children “from accessing the very same age-appropriate, medically necessary gender-affirming care that would allow them to comply with this policy.”

Top cycling body announces own trans policy change

The FINA decision comes just days after a very different decision by cycling’s governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI).

The UCI also announced changes to rules that still allow transgender women to compete.

UCI announced that for transgender female cyclists from July 1, it would lower the previous limit of testosterone and implement a longer waiting period.

Previous rules required transgender women to have had testosterone levels below five nanomoles per litre (nmol/L) for 12-months prior to competition. The UCI has changed the permitted level to 2.5 nmol/L for a 24-month period.

“The latest scientific publications clearly demonstrate that the return of markers of endurance capacity to ‘female level’ occurs within six to eight months under low blood testosterone,” the UCI said.

“The awaited adaptations in muscle mass and muscle strength/power take much longer.”

The UCI said studies had shown that it can take as long as two years for muscle strength and power to adapt to a “female level”.

Additionally, the 2.5 nmol/L level “corresponds to the maximum testosterone level found in 99.99% of the female population,” the UCI said.

“Given the important role played by muscle strength and power in cycling performance, the UCI has decided to increase the transition period on low testosterone from 12 to 24 months,” the body said.

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Jordan Hirst
Jordan Hirst

Jordan Hirst is an experienced journalist and content creator with a career spanning over a decade at QNews. Since 2012, the Brisbane local has covered an enormous range of topics and subjects in-depth affecting the LGBTIQA+ community, both in Australia and overseas. Today, the Brisbane-based journalist covers everything from current affairs, politics and health to sport and entertainment.

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