The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The key question raised by Lia Thomas’s swimming success: What is the purpose of women’s sports?

The University of Pennsylvania's Lia Thomas competes in a preliminary heat in the 500-yard freestyle at the NCAA women's swimming and diving championships in Atlanta on March 17. (John Bazemore/AP)
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“Grossly unfair,” say the parents of college swimmers who have been competing against trans athlete Lia Thomas, who won the 500-yard freestyle at last weekend’s NCAA Division I Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships.

“Women deserve fairness without caveat,” the parents wrote in an open letter, “and they should not be asked to shoulder the mental health of others at their own expense. A male body cannot become a female body. A woman is not a disadvantaged man.”

Many of Thomas’s teammates at the University of Pennsylvania agree. “Biologically, Lia holds an unfair advantage over competition in the women’s category, as evidenced by her rankings that have bounced from #462 as a male to #1 as a female,” they wrote, in an earlier letter.

“No, it wasn’t fair,” agreed Caitlyn Jenner, who won the 1976 men’s Olympic decathlon before transitioning four decades later, “it’s not a fair fight.”

But Jenner then added a critical caveat: “But she played within the rules.”

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Indeed. And yet, I’ve now written two columns about Thomas, and it is striking how many people — almost all of them liberal — have spontaneously erupted when I told them what I was writing about. All made the same complaint: It’s not fair.

There’s little question that Thomas has retained some of the many biological advantages conferred by male puberty, such as height, heart and lung capacity, and strength. But the obvious rejoinder is that of course biology isn’t fair; it never was, and never can be.

Every woman in the pool at the NCAA finals won the genetic lottery: Most women simply can’t swim that fast, no matter how hard they work. The stark fact of biological advantage is as true of the distinctions between elite women’s swimmers as it is of the divide between them and the rest of us. Katie Ledecky, the NCAA record-holder in the 500, is simply more gifted than everyone who swam in the finals last Thursday, including Thomas, who fell nine seconds short of Ledecky’s 2017 finish.

So why does Thomas’s biology bother so many of us, while Ledecky’s does not?

The progressive answer that we’re just trapped by convention, mired in outmoded definitions of gender. As society catches up with the emerging consensus, people will shed their faulty intuitions and recognize that trans women obviously belong in the women’s division. This is essentially the logic of comparing Thomas to Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier.

Yet there is something wrong with that analogy. We aren’t going to be educated out of our feeling that there are major differences between biological men and women. The male/female performance gap appears at puberty in most sports, and quickly becomes so large that most cisgender women would never be able to compete at more elite levels if we weren’t segregated into our own leagues. Women’s sports exist to benefit us, not to keep us from hogging men’s glory.

And this, in short, is the crux of difference between Thomas’s advocates and her critics: “Biology is unfair.” … “Yes, and women’s sports exist to allay that unfairness.”

Both arguments have obvious merit. Yet ponder them long enough and you eventually realize that only one of them supports the case its proponents are trying to make. Because taken to its logical conclusion, “biology is unfair, but that doesn’t give you the right to exclude better athletes from competition” isn’t a great argument for including Thomas in the women’s division. It sounds more like an argument for abolishing women’s sports in favor of one, open league.

Does that sound too reductive? Sure, we might argue, biology is one reason sports are separate, but winning isn’t the only purpose of sport; it also teaches teamwork, self-discipline and important social values such as inclusion. All of which is true, and yet … if women’s sports didn’t exist, would we now create them for the purpose of letting women experience the joys of all-female teams? Would we do it to allow trans athletes such as Thomas to compete as their authentic selves?

Highly unlikely. Whatever various social purposes women’s sports serve, their justification is biology.

Which is why Thomas’s participation feels unfair, even though she is following the rules: It seems to violate the primary purpose of the league. Her defenders have offered moving homilies to inclusion and warnings about the suffering of trans athletes who might be excluded. All are points worth considering. But they still haven’t explained why we would ever organize sports around internal identity rather than external biology.

I confess that that idea makes no sense to me, which is why, on balance, I think women’s sports should probably be reserved for cisgender women, or trans women who transitioned before puberty. I am still persuadable on this point; we are all learning as we go. But of one thing I am fairly certain: Unless and until someone answers this fundamental question, advocates of inclusion will never convince the public that pitting a trans athlete against a cisgender woman is anything like a fair fight.