Transgender women athletes’ future in competition uncertain as sports organizations change rules, issue bans

Transgender women athletes’ future in competition uncertain as sports organizations change rules, issue bans

Just 18 months after transgender athletes competed for the first time at the Olympics, international sporting federations are reconsidering whether transgender women should be allowed to keep participating in elite women’s competitions, as debate rages in sports and politics circles over who has the right to play.

Some sports organizations introduced bans this week, citing a need to ensure fairness in women’s competition — even though experts say the science is far from decisive on whether athletes who have transitioned from male to female have any competitive advantage over their cisgender female competitors.

The International Swimming Federation (FINA) will now only allow transgender women who began transitioning before the age of 12 to compete in high-level international competitions, including swimming, diving and water polo. FINA’s rule also affects athletes with a condition known as 46 XY DSD (also referred to as intersex), who have genitalia that is not clearly male or female, but who identify as female.

A day after FINA’s rule came into effect, the International Rugby League went even further, banning all transgender women from international matches while it reviews and updates its rules on participation. A spokesperson told CBC News there are no transgender players at the international level.

World Athletics, which oversees track and field, race walking and other athletics events, has hinted it may follow suit when it reviews its own rules later this year.

“If there is a conflict between fairness and inclusion in the female category, we will always choose fairness,” a spokesperson for World Athletics told CBC News, adding that FINA’s decision was “in the best interests of its sport.”

South African Olympic champion runner Caster Semenya is shown before the women’s 5,000-metre race in Regensburg, Germany, on Saturday. Semenya, who is a 46 XY DSD athlete, has faced years of public scrutiny over her sex and gender. World Athletics, which governs her sport, will decide later this year whether intersex athletes can continue to compete at an elite level. (Stefan Puchner/DPA/The Associated Press)
The new policies come after the International Olympic Committee last year announced it would not set a blanket rule for all sports — telling federations they should come up with their own policies.

Until now, most organizations, including FINA and World Athletics, have allowed transgender and intersex women to compete as long as they meet rules for suppressing testosterone levels.

The fight over who competes
The decision to ban many transgender women athletes has drawn a mixed response in Canada and around the world.

“The new FINA gender inclusion policy perpetuates the harmful and marginalizing practice of gender policing in women’s sport. This harms all women,” Canadian Women & Sport said in a statement on Monday.

FINA votes to restrict transgender participation in elite women’s competition
Some female athletes have expressed concerns that transgender and intersex women have a physiological advantage in competition and say banning them from elite sports will level the playing field.

Australian Olympic swimming champion Cate Campbell on Sunday told FINA’s congress that she believed its decision would “uphold the cornerstone of fairness in elite women’s competition.”

Australian Olympic swimming champion Cate Campbell, pictured at the Tokyo Summer Olympics in July 2021, is one of few athletes to publicly voice support for FINA’s new rules for transgender women athletes. (David Goldman/The Associated Press)
Critics, however, believe bans like FINA’s are motivated more by ideology than science, coming amid a political push in the United States and U.K. to block trans women athletes from competing (18 U.S. states have banned trans girls and women from participating in female school sports).

“Transgender athletes are not dominating, nor have they ever dominated in sports,” Chris Mosier, a Team U.S.A. triathlete and trans advocate, told CBC News via email.

FINA’s transgender athlete restrictions make waves in Canada
U.S. college swimmer Lia Thomas is a rare exception. In March, she became the first known transgender athlete to win a National Collegiate Athletic Association swimming championship — and faced an immediate backlash over her success.

“It is very obvious [FINA’s] policy is a reaction to public pressure because of one swimmer who worked hard, followed all the rules and had moderate success for one season,” Mosier said.

American triathlete Chris Mosier, pictured in New York in May 2019, criticized FINA’s new rule as a ‘very obvious’ reaction to public pressure over Lia Thomas’s NCAA success. (Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)
FINA confirmed there are no transgender women athletes currently competing at the elite level.

“We’re talking about maybe a handful, less than five, male-to-female trans athletes that have become the centre of attention [in the U.S.] — and so what’s happening politically, and also in the media, outstrips the numeric consideration of what constitutes a threat on women’s sport,” said Carole Oglesby, a board member of research-based advocacy organization WomenSport International.

The science so far
FINA’s decision to ban trans women who transitioned after the age of 12 is based on changes that male bodies undergo during puberty, when a surge of testosterone causes a growth spurt and greater muscle mass.

In its new policy, FINA said its scientific advisers “reported that there are sex-linked biological differences in aquatics, especially among elite athletes, that are largely the result of the substantially higher levels of testosterone to which males are exposed from puberty onwards.”

FINA has not made its scientific advice public.

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