News   |    June 21st, 2022


The International Swimming Federation (FINA) have recently announced that transgender athletes won’t be able to compete in women’s elite races if they have gone through any part of the process of male puberty. In response, they aim to establish an open category at competitions for swimmers whose gender identity is different from their birth sex. 

The debate regarding transgender inclusion in female sports has rippled through every sporting community, and with a divided split in opinions it has proved a difficult challenge for governing bodies to provide a fair and equal platform for all athletes to compete. Following a vote, 71% of the 152 FINA members decided to agree and pass the new policy. 

The 34-page policy document says that male-to-female transgender athletes could compete in the women’s category – but 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”.

Interestingly, the policy does not apply to national federations or the US college championships and the NCAAs. Instead, each national federation – including British Swimming – will need to decide if it is to implement the Fina policy.

Brent Nowicki, the governing body’s executive director detailed how “Fina’s approach in drafting this policy was comprehensive, science-based and inclusive, and, importantly, Fina’s approach emphasised competitive fairness,” Moreover, Fina president Husain Al-Musallam says “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.”

Former Great Britain swimmer Sharron Davies has argued against transgender participation in women’s sports, as she expresses “Sport by definition is exclusionary – we don’t have 15-year-old boys racing in the under-12s, we don’t have heavyweight boxers in with the bantamweights, the whole reason we have lots of different classes in the Paralympics is so that we can create fair opportunities for everybody,”.

However, ‘Athlete Ally’ – an LGBT advocacy group called the new policy “discriminatory, harmful, unscientific and not in line with the 2021 IOC principles”.

The debate appears to be underpinned by two key components, a scientific basis and the discriminatory aspect. With this in mind, Dr Adrian Jjuuko, an activist, researcher and lawyer mentions how “The policy emphasises that no athlete is excluded from Fina competition or setting Fina records based on their legal gender, gender identity or gender expression. The proposed open category should not become a category that adds to the already existing levels of discrimination and marginalisation against these groups. I see this policy as only the first step towards full inclusion and support for the participation of transgender and gender-diverse athletes in aquatic sports, and there is a lot more to be done.”

Ultimately, this is just the start of the process to strive for equality, inclusivity and fair competition. With such a variation in opinions, evidence and regulations between not only governing bodies, but sports in general, unfortunately it may take a lot longer to find a system of competition that becomes accepted by all. We must remember that importantly, the most effective method to achieve this is through working together to find a solution.

Photograph: Patrick B Kraemer/EPA

Alfie Bobbins - Integral Sports Management.

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