The global swimming governing body, Fina, has just voted to ban trans women from elite swimming. The ban affects any trans woman, except for the small number who were given adolescent inhibitors before the age of 12 and thus never went through endogenous adolescence.
The decision, made in response to recent swimmer Lia Thomas’s success at the NCAA, replaces the men’s category with an “open” category in which trans women are required to compete.
Proponents of her case have been working to make the actual transcript of this statement available online. They argue that the performance gap is so large that a cisgender woman is unlikely to ever win a trans woman. This proposal, if it is valid, I will completely agree.
This is why we have weight classes in sports such as rowing: it allows a wider range of people to be able to compete. However, the data highlighted in this case usually refer to the performance gap between cisgender men and women and do not take into account the loss of performance at all during the transition.
Data on the performance of trans women is at best sparse and often people cite individual examples of successful trans women like Lia Thomas to justify their position. I think it’s ironic then that her recent results are really a great counter-example to this claim that trans women will dominate the competitions in which they compete. It is true that Thomas won the NCAA 500-yard freestyle final, but did not set a record. She was more than 9 seconds behind Katie Ledecky’s record time of 4: 24.06.
In fact, Thomas’s time was comparable to that of the 2021 winner. Her finishes in the other NCAA finals she competed in, in the 100 and 200 freestyle finals in which she finished eighth and fifth respectively, are often not mentioned. It is clear from her results that she is a talented swimmer, but the suggestion that she has some incredible advantage over other swimmers is funny.
Fina argues that they have found an approach that “the emphasis[es] competitive justice “. But that can only be true if you ignore the fact that trans women like Thomas will now have to fight against men with whom they could never compete effectively. For example, she set a record for the 500 freestyle in 2019, before moving on, with a time that would put her in the top 8 in the NCAA Men’s Championship that year. Since the transition, her time has slowed down by more than 14 seconds, despite her regular training. If she had to compete against men, her victory in the NCAA this year would not even put her in the finals of the Intermediate Division (Division II).
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Any suggestion that it is fairer for Thomas, an elite athlete before and after her transition, to compete with men who win 25 times faster than her, rather than to compete with women who are one second behind, is a hoax. It can only be justified by the argument that trans women have no right at all to expect competitive justice.
The comments of Fina’s representatives are full of congratulations. They called the move “just a first step towards full integration”, “comprehensive, science-based and inclusive” and said it[s] competitive justice “. But these allegations are false.
Instead, politics creates a situation where trans women are allowed to compete only by name. never fair. Allegations of inclusion are offensive when politics make it virtually impossible for trans women to compete at the elite level. This decision will be used to justify anti-trans policies in other sports in the future and continues to provoke toxicity in the debate on trans inclusion in sport. We can do better.
Kylie MacFarquharson is a DPhil student at Oxford University who has traveled to Oxford nationally