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FINA vote restricts transgender athletes in women’s competitions

FINA's new policy comes three months after the University of Pennsylvania’s Lia Thomas became the first openly transgender woman to win an NCAA Division I swimming title. (Joseph Prezioso/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)
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Swimming’s world governing body, FINA, announced Sunday that it voted to restrict transgender athletes from competing in elite women’s events.

The policy, which goes into effect Monday, requires transgender swimmers to have completed their transition by 12 years old to compete in women’s competitions and to maintain their circulating testosterone below the levels of 2.5 nanomoles per liter. It effectively bars most transgender women from top swimming events, including the Olympics. The International Olympic Committee defers to 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 ruling passed with 71 percent of the vote from members of the 152 eligible national federations at a congress held during the world championships in Budapest.

“FINA’s approach in drafting this policy was comprehensive, science-based and inclusive,” Brent Nowicki, FINA’s executive director, told the BBC. “And importantly, FINA’s approach emphasized competitive fairness.”

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

Hundreds of swimmers signed a letter in support of Thomas and all transgender and nonbinary swimmers. But some of Thomas’s teammates and their parents wrote anonymously that, while they support Thomas’s transition, they felt her competing against other women was unfair.

“The new FINA release is deeply upsetting,” Thomas said Monday in a statement. “It is discriminatory and will only serve to harm all women.”

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

“FINA will always welcome every athlete,” FINA President Husain Al-Musallam 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. I want all athletes to feel included in being able 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 male in an NCAA Division I sport. He said in a text message that he was “devastated” by the announcement.

“This decision demands that trans girls must transition before 12 but the U.S. has seen nearly 100 bills banning trans children from playing youth sports and criminalizing transitional resources for children, rendering it impossible for them to play sports in any capacity,” added Bailar, who is a friend and adviser to Thomas. “FINA’s decision does not preserve the integrity of women’s sports — it enforces the harmful policing of women’s bodies and the continued degradation and othering of trans people who already experience massive discrimination in this world.”

Athlete Ally, an LGBTQ advocacy group that penned a supportive letter for Thomas in February, disagreed with the policy as well.

“FINA’s new eligibility criteria for transgender athletes and athletes with intersex variations is discriminatory, harmful, unscientific and not in line with the 2021 IOC principles,” its tweet read. “If we truly want to protect women’s sports, we must include all women.”

Sharron Davies, a British former swimmer, tweeted her support of FINA’s decision.

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

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