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The world swimming governing body, Fina, just voted to bar transgender women from elite swimming. The ban affects any trans woman except the small number who were given puberty blockers before the age of 12, and so never went through endogenous puberty.
The decision, made in response to the recent success of trans swimmer Lia Thomas at the NCAA, replaces the men’s category with an “open” one, in which trans women are required to compete.
Those who support these moves sometimes argue that segregation between trans and cisgender women in sports is regrettable, but necessary for fairness. They argue that the performance gap is so large that a cisgender woman would be unlikely to ever win against a trans woman. This proposition, if true, I would entirely agree with.
This is the same reason we have weight categories in sports such as rowing: it allows a greater range of people to be able to be competitive. However, the evidence pointed to in this case is usually about the performance gap between cisgender men and women, and does not account at all for the loss of performance throughout transition.
The evidence for the performance of trans women is sparse at best, and often people point to single examples of successful trans women like Lia Thomas to justify their position. I think it’s ironic then that her recent results actually make an excellent counterexample to this claim that trans women will dominate events they compete in. It is true that Thomas won the NCAA 500 yard freestyle finals, but she didn’t set any records. She was more than 9 seconds behind Katie Ledecky’s record time of 4:24.06.
In fact, Thomas’ time was comparable with the 2021 winner. Often not mentioned are her finishes in the other NCAA finals she participated in, the 100 and 200 freestyles in which she came eighth and fifth respectively. It’s clear from her results that she is a talented swimmer, but the suggestion that she has some incredible advantage over the other swimmers is laughable.
Fina argues that they have found an approach that “emphasis[es] competitive fairness”. But this can only be true if you ignore that trans women like Thomas will now be required to race against men with whom they could never effectively compete. For example, she set her record for the 500 free in 2019, before she transitioned, with a time that would have put her in the top 8 at the NCAA men’s championships that year. Since transitioning, her time has slowed by more than 14 seconds, despite her regular training. If required to compete against men, her winning time at the NCAA this year wouldn’t even have put her in the finals of the intermediate (Division II) championships.
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Any suggestion that it’s fairer for Thomas, an elite athlete before and after her transition, to compete with men who win with times 25 seconds faster than her, than for her to compete with women who are behind by a second, is a farce. It can only be justified by arguing that trans women have no right to expect competitive fairness at all.
The comments of Fina representatives are full of self-congratulation. They call the move “only a first step towards full inclusion”, “comprehensive, science-based and inclusive”, and say that it “protect[s] competitive fairness”. But these claims are false.
Instead, the policy creates a situation where trans women are allowed to compete in name only; never fairly. Claims of inclusion are insulting when the policy makes it impossible in practice for trans women to compete at an elite level. This decision will be used to justify anti-trans policies in other sports in the future, and continues to toxify the debate on trans inclusion in sport. We can do better.
Kylie MacFarquharson is a DPhil student at the University of Oxford, who has sailed for Oxford at a national level