Bans on transgender women in international swimming and rugby this week opened the door for athletics to consider following suit, which could lead to a wave of policy changes in the Olympic sport.
Sunday’s announcement by swimming federation FINA was quickly followed by a statement of support from World Athletics Championships President Sebastian Coe, who was in Hungary for the World Aquatics Championships. He said FINA’s decision was in the best interests of swimming and that his own federation, which oversees athletics and other running sports, will review its guidelines for transgender and intersex athletes at the end of the year.
“If we’re ever cornered enough to make a fairness or inclusive judgment, I will always side with fairness,” Coe said.
Experts saw this as a signal that World Athletics officials could use FINA precedent to bar all transgender and intersex athletes – the latter referred to in clinical terminology as differences in gender development – from competing in women’s events.
FINA’s new policy bans all transgender women from elite competitions unless they have started medical treatment to suppress testosterone production before the onset of puberty or before the age of 12, whichever is later. USA Swimming introduced its own guideline earlier this year with the idea that it would eventually follow FINA’s lead, but this week said it would take time to see how FINA’s guideline affected their own.
Should athletics adopt a similar rule to FINA, Caster Semenya, an athlete with gender differences, would still be barred from racing at her chosen 800-metre distance.
It could also rule out 200-meter silver medalist Christine Mboma of Namibia, who is also an athlete with gender differences and is expected to fight for the title at the World Championships in Oregon next month. Currently, World Athletics rules do not apply to such athletes in the 200-meter dash.
“I think that by the end of this year (World Athletics) will have announced a policy that is very similar to swimming,” said Ross Tucker, science and research adviser for World Rugby. “And they will say that if ever a person has gone through male puberty and received the benefits associated with testosterone, they cannot compete in women’s sports.”
The International Rugby League has also barred transgender women from women’s matches pending further study allowing sports regulators to develop coherent inclusion policies. And the International Cycling Union last week updated its eligibility rules for transgender athletes; It extended the period that transgender athletes on women’s teams must drop their testosterone levels to two years instead of one.
FIFA, which operates football, said it is currently reviewing its gender suitability regulations in consultation with expert stakeholders.
Individual sports are taking the lead as the International Olympic Committee’s framework, which was introduced last November and went into effect in March, made all sports accountable for their own rules when it comes to testosterone. It replaced an IOC guideline that had allowed transgender women who had been on hormone replacement therapy for at least 12 months to compete against other women in the Olympics.
The new policy, which is non-binding, recommends that testosterone levels should not determine whether someone is eligible to compete – a stance World Athletics has not taken.
Tucker said he expected that perhaps the “big four or five” international sports federations would follow FINA’s lead, but not everyone else – in part because many are smaller establishments that don’t have science and legal teams to do the research for thorough research implement guidelines. FINA had tasked three groups, Athletes, Science and Medicine, and Law and Human Rights, to work on its policy.
The decisions of FINA and other organizations are likely to be challenged either in court or in the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which means that federations adopting a rule need scientific study and legal means to back up the policy.
“Swimming wasn’t easy, and it certainly wasn’t cheap,” Tucker said.
Coe said FINA “spent $1,000,000[on legal fees]. We’re not FIFA, but we’re not deprived. But there are other sports that are really scared that if they go that route, they’ll bankrupt themselves.”
Athletes at the World Aquatics Championships in Hungary have largely avoided commenting on the new transgender policy this week.
“I think the question is, if you’re a woman out there racing with someone else, how would that make you feel? It’s all about fairness in sport,” said Australia’s Moesha Johnson, who finished fourth in the 1500m.
The FINA decision also upset the national swimming federations.
Swimming Australia said it advocates fair and equitable competition for all athletes, adding in a statement: “We also strongly believe in inclusivity and the opportunity for all athletes to experience the sport of swimming in a way that is consistent with their gender identity and expression . ”
In the US, the NCAA, which governs college sports, had sought clarification from USA Swimming about transgender swimmer Lia Thomas, who competed on Penn’s women’s team.
USA Swimming has established a policy that requires evidence that an athlete has maintained testosterone levels below 5 nanomoles per liter for a minimum of 36 months. But the NCAA chose not to adopt that rule outright, which would have made Thomas unsuitable for the national championships in March, where she won the 500-yard singles title.
When it released its policy, USA Swimming said it would remain in effect until FINA adopts its own policy. In a statement Wednesday, USA Swimming said it would “take our time now to understand the implications of this international standard for our existing policies.”
Thomas has said she would like to watch the Olympics; If she does, her time would likely see her secure at least a place in the Olympic trials for the Paris 2024 games.
The Thomas case could ultimately be seen as a turning point in international competition given the relative scarcity of transgender athletes in elite sport, Tucker said.
“People aren’t really good at understanding an issue until it’s right in front of them as a physical thing,” Tucker said, “they almost have to smack their nose before they think something’s real. And Lia Thomas made that happen.”
AP Sports writers Ciaran Fahey and Graham Dunbar contributed.
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