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Lia Thomas, swimming and the transgender divide

“Trans women are women, so it’s still a woman who is getting that scholarship or that opportunity,” American swimmer Lia Thomas said in an interview last month with ABC News and ESPN.

As things stand, Thomas won’t get that opportunity at an Olympics or a world championships.

In one of the most concrete decisions taken by an Olympic sports body on the issue, the world swimming federation FINA voted to restrict the participation of transgender athletes in women’s swimming in elite events. In its revised policy formed basis a report from a task force of prominent medical, legal and sports figures, male-to-female transgender athletes can only compete if “they can establish … that they have not experienced any part of male puberty beyond Tanner Stage 2 (of puberty) or before age 12, whichever is later”. There is no restriction for participation of female-to-male athletes.

While participation of transgender athletes remains a contentious subject cutting across sport at the elite level with international federations asked to set their own eligibility rules, Thomas has been at the heart of its debate in swimming. It escalated in March this year when the Austin-born Thomas, competing for University of Pennsylvania, became the first known transgender champion in the history of the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) Division I. She clocked a season-best time of 4:33.24s to win the women’s 500 freestyle while also finishing 5th and 8th, respectively, in the 200 and 100 freestyle.

It set off a reaction chain, among the most prominent coming from fellow competitors—including Hungarian Reka Gyorgy who participated at the 2016 Olympics—writing to the NCAA objecting to the presence of Thomas in the women’s event. Yet, technically, Thomas had ticked every rule mandated by the NCAA to ensure her participation as a woman.

She had been part of Pennsylvania’s men’s team for three years—where Thomas had been ranked 12th among the NCAA in the 1000 freestyle in 2018 and 2019—before medically transitioning and starting hormone therapy in May 2019. As per the NCAA rules, transgender women were required to undergo 12 months of hormone therapy to be able to compete in women’s events. USA Swimming, however, laid out that timeframe for three years, which Thomas fell short of then in March. The NCAA, though, chose to stick to its rule for the season and allow Thomas to take part in the Atlanta meet.

It triggered a massive divide of opinion, not just in the US but also the larger swimming community over the alleged advantage a transgender athlete may have over cis women. For the person in the eye of storm, though, there was no room for debate.

“Trans women competing in women’s sports does not threaten women’s sports as a whole,” Thomas told ABC News and ESPN last month. “Trans women are a very small minority of all athletes. The NCAA rules regarding trans women competing in women’s sports have been around for 10-plus years. And we haven’t seen any massive wave of trans women dominating.”

Yet, the overwhelming voice after FINA’s vote on Sunday has been that of completely backing the world body’s bold decision.

“We can all just go back to the sport that we love … and know that we’re getting in the pool and it’s going to be a fair, level playing field and that’s what we want,” Emily Seebohm, Australia’s multiple-time Olympic medallist, told Sky News.

Ex-British swimmer Sharron Davies tweeted saying “fairness is the cornerstone of sport”. Former freestyle swimmer Karen Pickering, who was part of the FINA congress that deliberated and voted on the move, was quoted as saying by Guardian: “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.”

Not that Thomas has been walking the lonely path entirely. In February this year, a total of 322 former and present NCAA, American and international swimmers wrote an open letter to the NCAA in support of Thomas while also urging the body against adopting USA Swimming’s policy in the middle of their season.

Erica Sullivan, who won the 1500 freestyle silver at the Tokyo Games, wrote an opinion piece for the Newsweek in March titled “Why I’m Proud to Support Trans Athletes like Lia Thomas”.

“Like anyone else in this sport, Lia has trained diligently to get to where she is and has followed all of the rules and guidelines put before her. Like anyone else in this sport, Lia doesn’t win every time. And when she does, she deserves, like anyone else in this sport, to be celebrated for her hard-won success, not labeled a cheater simply because of her identity,” Sullivan wrote.

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