Column: FINA ban casts storm clouds on transgender athletes

Jun 20, 2022, 3:51 AM | Updated: Jun 22, 2022, 12:44 pm

Noe Ponti of Switzerland competes in his Men 200m Butterfly semifinal at the 19th FINA World Champi...

Noe Ponti of Switzerland competes in his Men 200m Butterfly semifinal at the 19th FINA World Championships in Budapest, Hungary, Monday, June 20, 2022. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

(AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

Swimming has fired the first major salvo against transgender women athletes, which will surely clear the way for other sports to impose similar bans ahead of the 2024 Paris Olympics.

Hopefully, that won’t bring an end to thoughtful, intelligent debate — backed by science, nuance and empathy — about ways for sports to be open to everyone, especially those who have already faced enormous discrimination, marginalization and political attacks.

With a ruling aimed squarely at Lia Thomas, the first transgender woman to win an NCAA national championship, world governing body FINA effectively barred athletes such as Thomas from competing in women’s swimming events.

Anyone who has not begun the transition from male to female by the age of 12 or the onset of puberty, whichever comes later, will no longer be allowed to compete against cisgender women during their careers.

Which pretty much brings an end to Thomas’ hopes of competing at the Olympics, not to mention transgender women in other sports who will likely face similar restrictions in the not-too-distant future.

FINA’s ruling was draconian, though it also made a nod toward inclusion by calling for the establishment of so-called “open” categories for transgender athletes.

But the organization gave little indication how those races would work — or if there would even be enough competitors to make them feasible.

“The ‘open’ category is incredibly othering and impractical,” said Schuyler Bailar, who became the first openly transgender swimmer in NCAA Division I as a member of the Harvard men’s team.

“Consider if Lia were to make the Olympic team — right now, she is the only known trans woman competing in women’s elite swimming. Who would she compete against?”

The new guidelines were hailed as a giant step forward by many women’s sports advocates, including 1984 Olympic swimming champion Nancy Hogshead-Makar.

“I’m thrilled that the leadership in our sport stood up for fairness for females,” Hogshead-Makar said when reached by phone on Monday. “We’ve tried to protect the category for girls and women to just females, while at the same time looking to restructure sports in all different ways to include transgender people without blowing up the women’s category.”

While most swimmers at the world championships in Budapest declined to comment on the issue, Australia’s Moesha Johnson seemed to express support for the ban on transgender women.

“If you’re a woman out there and you’re racing someone else, like, how would you feel doing that?” she said. “It’s just about fairness in sport.”

Hogshead-Makar is among those who believes that research clearly shows cisgender women are at significant disadvantage when competing against a transgender swimmer who went through puberty as a male — even more so than racing someone who’s using performance-enhancing drugs.

“Medically and scientifically, can it be fair? The answer is no,” Hogshead-Makar insisted. “So once you say it’s not fair, it’s sort of game over.”

Of course, this game is far from over.

If transgender women are going to be barred from female events, it’s imperative that governing bodies come up with ways for them to compete without being viewed as afterthoughts.

FINA insists that it’s committed to such a goal, but it’s difficult to envision just how that would work.

Would transgender swimmers be restricted to outside lanes that normally aren’t used in major meets? Would they have separate medals and their own record book? And what about transgender men, who have been largely overlooked in this discussion? Would the Olympics jump on board?

Hogshead-Makar conceded that any talk of separate divisions for transgender athletes is a work in progress.

“This is a two-step process,” she said. “This is just step number one, which is how we lock down the female category. With step two, we’ve got to figure out do we have another podium? Is there anything else we can do to make sure it’s fair?”

Hogshead-Makar insisted that her fight is not against transgender athletes. But she pointed out — and it’s hard to disagree — that Thomas seemed to have a big competitive advantage as a woman since she didn’t have nearly as much success swimming on the Penn men’s team for three years.

“There is no such thing as a women’s sports advocate who is not also a sports advocate,” Hogshead-Makar said. “We all want more people playing sports, people of all kinds. I think sports is a social good. There’s so much you get out of sporting experiences. So step two is very important to this discussion. But you can’t have that discussion while having the debate about step number one, which is fairness to (cisgender) females.”

Fair enough, but it’s hard not to feel a great deal of compassion for Thomas and all transgender athletes, who have come under far more scrutiny than their minuscule numbers should warrant — much of it driven by a political culture war.

A 2019 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 1.8% of the 15.3 million public high school students in the United States — about 275,000 — are transgender. Of course, the number of athletes within that group is even smaller, with a 2017 survey by Human Rights Campaign suggesting fewer than 15% of all transgender boys and girls play sports.

And when you’re talking about transgender athletes reaching world-class status, the number becomes microscopic. In female swimming, it’s one.

Lia Thomas.

Just three weeks ago, Thomas appeared on ABC’s “Good Morning America” to discuss her future after graduating from Penn. She talked of plans to attend law school, but also expressed a desire to keep competing.

Her sights were on the 2024 U.S. Olympic trials, which will determine the team that competes in Paris.

“It’s been a goal of mine to swim at Olympic trials for a very long time,” Thomas said, “and I would love to see that through.”

Now, that’s gone.

Bailar, who recently launched a company called LaneChanger that provides training on gender issues, said it was no coincidence that FINA essentially snuffed out Thomas’ hopes at a meeting Sunday in Budapest.

“This new policy is undoubtedly, absolutely, inarguably directed at Lia Thomas,” he said in an email. “There is quite exactly no one else it could be directed at. She is the ONLY one to whom it applies.”

While this is surely the end of Thomas’ Olympic dreams, let’s hope it’s just the beginning of another journey.

One that makes everyone feel included.


AP Sports Ciaran Fahey in Budapest, Hungary contributed to this report.


Paul Newberry is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963


More AP sports: https://apnews.com/hub/sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Associated Press

Ex-Packer Guion gets 1 year for domestic violence assault

GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) — Former Green Bay Packers defensive tackle Letroy Guion was sentenced to one year in jail after pleading no contest in a domestic violence assault at his home last fall. Brown County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Walsh also ordered Guion on Tuesday to serve three years’ probation and complete a domestic […]

1 year ago

Joe Jarzynka...

Associated Press

Durant eager for Suns debut vs. Hornets after knee injury

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Kevin Durant has been through quite a bit during his 15-year NBA career — but joining a new team midway through the season is a new one for the 13-time All-Star. The 34-year-old Durant doesn’t seem all that worried. Durant makes his highly anticipated Phoenix Suns debut on Wednesday night against […]

1 year ago

FILE - Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores stands on the sideline during the second half of an N...

Associated Press

Judge: NFL coach can press discrimination claims in court

NEW YORK (AP) — NFL Coach Brian Flores can pursue some of his discrimination claims against the league and its teams in court rather than through arbitration, a judge ruled Wednesday. The written decision by Judge Valerie Caproni in Manhattan was issued months after lawyers for the league tried to get the lawsuit moved to […]

1 year ago

Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Alex Stalock cools off in the first period during an NHL hockey game ...

Associated Press

Kane trade reinforces hard reality of Blackhawks rebuild

CHICAGO (AP) — After days of speculation, the harsh reality of the Chicago Blackhawks’ situation was reinforced by one move in a flurry of transactions ahead of the NHL trade deadline. Showtime is over, at least in Chicago, and a seemingly bright future is, well, way off in the distance. The reverberations of Chicago’s decision […]

1 year ago

FILE -  Yves Jean-Bart, president of the Haitian Football Federation, wearing a protective face mas...

Associated Press

Disgraced ex-Haitian soccer president announces he’s back

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Haiti’s former soccer federation president whose lifetime ban from sport over sexual abuse allegations was overturned last month announced Wednesday that he is reclaiming his position. Yves Jean-Bart’s defiant announcement could lead to a standoff with FIFA, which already has appointed an emergency management committee to lead the Haitian Football Association […]

1 year ago

FILE - Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers walks off the field after an NFL football game against the ...

Associated Press

Rodgers says decision on future will come ‘soon enough’

GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) — Aaron Rodgers says he will make a decision on his future “soon enough” as the four-time MVP quarterback ponders whether to play next season and if his future remains with the Green Bay Packers. Rodgers, 39, discussed his future while speaking on an episode of the “Aubrey Marcus Podcast” that […]

1 year ago

Column: FINA ban casts storm clouds on transgender athletes