Sport’s governing bodies are at loggerheads about transgender participation, but Australia can take the lead

Swimming’s blanket ban on transgender women competing in international women’s events is the polar opposite of the International Olympic Committee’s framework suggesting inclusion first and review on a case-by-case basis.

Sport’s governing bodies now feel pressured into picking sides in what has become a culture war, although experts warn that Australian anti-discrimination policies would prevent such blanket bans from being adopted here.

The international governing body for aquatic sports, FINA, announced its “inclusionary policy” this week bit it has left others describing it as “exclusionary”.

The policy allegedly cost the organisation $US1 million ($1.45 million) to research and was reportedly designed to withstand any legal or human rights challenge.


Delegates at the Extraordinary Congress being staged on the sidelines of the World Championships in Budapest did not get to see the 24-page document until 14 minutes before they were asked to vote on it.

Just over 71 per cent of the 274 delegates voted in favour of the policy, 15 per cent voted against, and just over 13 per cent abstained.

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Transgender women can only compete in international competition if they transition before experiencing ‘any part of male puberty beyond Tanner Stage 2 or before age 12’.

According to the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH), that requirement is “unethical”.

Dr Jamison Green is the chair of WPATH’s ethics committee and a former president of the organisation.

“Where [FINA’s] current policy sits is outside the field of practice,” Dr Green told The Ticket.

“People don’t transition medically before they are 12, that just doesn’t happen. That would be unethical.”

Lia Thomas win at intercollegiate swim titles puts spotlight on policy

Despite being established more than 40 years ago with a mission to help devise evidence-based public policy, only two sporting bodies have sought WPATH’s advice — the National Collegiate Athletic Association in America (NCAA) and World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

FINA’s policy was handed down after the focus on NCAA swimmer Lia Thomas, who in March became the first transgender woman to win a title at the intercollegiate championships. Her winning time for the 500 yards freestyle was more than nine seconds behind the record, and her times in other distances would not currently qualify her for the Olympics or World Championships.

Two women hold trophies while standing in front of a blue backdrop
Lia Thomas’s performances at the US college championships kicked the debate into high gear.(Getty Images: Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire.)

“The federations that have issued their regulations that are exclusionary at this point are failing, and I think they are going to have to revise those regulations at some point and I hope it’s soon because this is really harming generations of people,” Dr Green said.

“This filters down and young children are the ones who are going to suffer from this exclusion.

“They won’t be able to be part of their community, they won’t be able to share experiences with their peers, they won’t be able to learn the skills that are needed to survive, and it’s not just who’s the strongest and the fittest, it’s about how do we get along.

“That’s one of the things sports teaches us, and it’s very, very important to humanity.”

Cate Campbell comments criticised

Cate Campbell, Olympic gold medallist and chair of the Australian Olympic Committee’s athlete’s commission, delivered an emotive speech to FINA delegates ahead of the vote that was widely praised in swimming circles.

“Usually, inclusion and fairness go hand-in-hand. To create a place that is inclusive is to create a space that is fair. Transgender, gender-diverse and non-binary athletes’ inclusion in the female category of elite sport is one of the few occasions where these two principles come into conflict.

“The incongruity that inclusion and fairness cannot always work together is one of the reasons why it is so difficult to talk about this topic.

“Usually, they are terms of absolutes which work together, yet science now tells us, that in this issue, they are incompatible.

“I stand before you, as a four-time Olympian, a world champion and a world record holder. I stand before you, as a beneficiary of fair, elite competition. Yet my job today is not to explain the nuances of FINA’s transgender policy. Nor is it to defend the conclusions reached by medical and legal professionals of much greater intellect than mine.

“My role is to stand before you, as an athlete who has enjoyed many, many years in this sport and who hopes to continue to enjoy a few more years. To stand here and tell the transgender and gender-diverse community that we want you to be part of the broader swimming community.

“We see you, value you and accept you.”

Campbell goes on to say that men and women are physiologically different, which cannot be disputed and supports the recommendation of a separate category for transgender women.

Transgender woman Kirsti Miller, who has competed in numerous sports pre- and post-transitioning, says the situation is a lot more nuanced.

“Well, they didn’t see us, or accept us, or value us, because none of us were in the room when they voted on us,” Miller said.

“I would have adored to have been there and they could’ve asked me anything. I don’t call anyone transphobic for asking questions.”

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