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Michael Phelps, whose biological differences have propelled him to the highest echelons of sport, says that when it comes to trans inclusion, sports “should be played on an even playing field”.
In an interview with Christiane Amanpour for CNN, Phelps discussed his experience of mental health struggles as an athlete, as well as the controversy around Novak Djokovic.
Towards the end of the interview, Amanpour asked him about Lia Thomas, the University of Pennsylvania swimmer.
Amanpour said Thomas was doing “exceptionally well”, but incorrectly added that she was doing “much better, according to the records, than [cisgender] female contestants”.
A little over a week ago, Thomas placed fifth in the women’s 100-yard freestyle at twin dual meets with Yale and Dartmouth, having been beaten by three cisgender women and a trans man.
On the same day, she was beaten a second time by Yale swimmer and trans man Iszac Henig, who has delayed starting testosterone while swimming on the Yale team.
Asked what he “made of the particular situation”, Phelps gave a cryptic answer, and confusingly compared being trans to doping.
He said: “I can talk from the standpoint of doping. I don’t think I’ve competed in a clean field in my entire career.
“I think this leads back to the organising committees again. Because it has to be a level playing field, I think that’s something we all need. That’s what sports are.
“I don’t know where this is going to go, I don’t know what’s going to happen.
“I believe we all should feel comfortable with who we are in our own skin, but I think sports should be played on an even playing field.”
Despite his comments about Lia Thomas and ‘level playing fields’, Michael Phelps has a host of biological advantages
While Michael Phelps repeated his point about Lia Thomas and “level playing fields” multiple times, it could be argued that those who have competed against the most decorated Olympian of all time were not playing on one.
There is huge natural variation among cisgender athletes, from hormone levels to anatomy, and Phelps has certainly been blessed by the swimming Gods.
According to The Telegraph, Phelps is 6’4″ but has a huge 6’7″ wingspan, and his shorter legs, double-jointed ankles and large size 14 feet essentially give him flippers.
Researchers have also discovered that the Olympian produces around half the lactic acid of his competitors, giving him almost superhuman stamina.
While Phelps has been celebrated as a scientific marvel, the transphobia surrounding trans women athletes and testosterone is forcing other cis athletes out of sport altogether.
In one of the most high-profile incidents, Caster Semenya, a cis female athlete with naturally high testosterone levels, was barred from competing at the Olympics if she refused to take medication to adjust her hormone levels, under World Athletics rules.
In 2020, Semenya decided to take her case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
That year, she said: “I refuse to let World Athletics drug me or stop me from being who I am.
“Excluding female athletes or endangering our health solely because of our natural abilities puts World Athletics on the wrong side of history.
“I will continue to fight for the human rights of female athletes, both on the track and off the track, until we can all run free the way we were born. I know what is right and will do all I can to protect basic human rights, for young girls everywhere.”