The swimming’s world governing body FINA has voted to restrict the participation of transgender athletes in elite women’s competitions while vowing to create a working group to establish an “open” category for them.
Transgender rights have become a major talking point as sports seek to balance inclusivity while ensuring there is no unfair advantage.
“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,” President Husain Al-Musallam told an extraordinary congress of his organisation, the International Swimming Federation (Fédération Internationale de Natation, or FINA).
“FINA will always welcome every athlete. 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 decision, the strictest by any Olympic sports body, was made during FINA’s extraordinary general congress after members heard a report from a transgender task force comprising leading medical, legal and sports figures.
The new eligibility policy for FINA competitions states that male-to-female transgender athletes are eligible to compete only if “they can establish to FINA’s comfortable satisfaction that they have not experienced any part of male puberty beyond Tanner Stage 2 (of puberty) or before age 12, whichever is later”.
The policy was passed with a roughly 71 percent majority after it was put to the members of 152 national federations with voting rights who had gathered for the congress at the Puskas Arena in Budapest, Hungary.
“I do not want any athlete to be told they cannot compete at the highest level,” Al-Musallam said.
“I will set up a working group to set up an open category at our meets. We will be the first federation to do that.”
The vote came after members heard presentations from three specialist groups – an athlete group, a science and medicine group, and a legal and human rights group – that had been working together to form the policy following recommendations given by the International Olympic Committee last November.
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The new FINA policy also opens up eligibility to those who have “complete androgen insensitivity and therefore could not experience male puberty”.
Swimmers are also allowed to compete in women’s races if they have had “male puberty suppressed beginning at Tanner Stage 2 or before age 12, whichever is later, and they have since continuously maintained their testosterone levels in serum (or plasma) below 2.5 nmol/L”.
Female-to-male transgender athletes (transgender men) are fully eligible to compete in men’s swimming competitions.
Advocates for transgender inclusion argue that not enough studies have yet been done on the impact of transition on physical performance, and that elite athletes are often physical outliers in any case.
The debate intensified after University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas became the first transgender NCAA champion in Division I history after winning the women’s 500-yard (457.2m) freestyle in the United States earlier this year.