Swimming’s world governing body, Fina, has voted to bar transgender women from elite female competitions if they have experienced any part of male puberty, in a seismic decision that sets it apart from most Olympic sports.
The decision, decided by 71% of the vote of 152 national federations at the world championships in Budapest, followed a report from a Fina scientific panel that found trans women retained a significant advantage over cisgender female swimmers even after reducing their testosterone levels through medication.
In a new 34-page policy document, Fina said that male-to-female transgender athletes could now compete in the women’s category only “provided they have not experienced any part of male puberty beyond Tanner Stage 2 [which marks the start of physical development], or before age 12, whichever is later”.
Commenting on the policy the Fina president, Husain al-Musallam, said: “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.”
Fina has promised to create a working group to establish an “open” category for trans women in some events as part of its new policy.
“Fina will always welcome every athlete,” added Musallam. “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.”
The vote makes swimming the second Olympic governing body, after World Rugby in 2020, to introduce a ban on scientific grounds. Most other sports have used testosterone limits as a basis for allowing trans women to compete in the women’s category, a stance that has promoted inclusion but has been criticised on unfairness grounds.
There has been widespread unease in the sport after Lia Thomas, who had been a moderate college swimmer as a male competitor, was able to win a NCAA national college title in the US this year. Others have argued that Thomas is a trailblazer whose success and identity should be celebrated, not restricted. However this vote means that Thomas will no longer be able to compete in the women’s category at the Paris Olympics as intended.
The British former swimmer Sharron Davies welcomed the news, tweeting: “I can’t tell you how proud I am of my sport, Fina and Fina president for doing the science, asking the athletes/coaches and standing up for fair sport for females. Swimming will always welcome everyone no matter how you identify but fairness is the cornerstone of sport.”
Karen Pickering, another former international swimmer for Britain, added: “I was at the Fina congress for the presentation, discussion and vote and I can vouch for the care and empathy displayed for any athletes who won’t now be able to compete in the category their gender ID may align to … but competitive fairness to women’s category must be protected.”