Trans athletes participation in sport: what's the debate?

by Lucy Middleton | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 22 June 2022 16:30 GMT

So Sato, 25, a deaf and transgender pole vaulter, works out during a camp training with other deaf athletes in Utsunomiya, north of Tokyo, Japan July 10, 2021. REUTERS/Issei Kato

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Trans women who have gone through male puberty will not be able to swim internationally, locking out record-breaking Lia Thomas

  • Trans athletes barred from international swimming and rugby

  • An issue of "fairness", say sporting bodies

  • Swimmer Lia Thomas unable to compete at Olympics

By Lucy Middleton

LONDON, June 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Trans women have been barred from competing in female categories for elite-level swimming and rugby league fixtures, with the prospect of other sports like athletics following suit.

FINA, which governs swimming globally, said on Sunday that trans women who have gone through male puberty will no longer be allowed to compete in female categories - the most restrictive rules to be issued by an Olympic sports body.

Instead, FINA is considering a new 'open' category to "protect the competitive fairness of our event", said its President Husain Al-Musallam. Trans men will still be able to compete without restrictions.

On Tuesday, the International Rugby League (IRL) said it would also stop trans women playing until further research was completed.

In a fierce global debate about trans inclusion in sports, trans rights campaigners say excluding trans athletes is discriminatory and harmful. Critics say trans women have an unfair physical advantage in female competition.

WHY HAS CONTROVERSY GROWN?

As more people come out as trans, the participation of trans athletes in women's sport has increasingly been questioned, including by well-known stars such as tennis champion Martina Navratilova and marathon runner Paula Radcliffe.

U.S. trans swimmer Lia Thomas, who previously competed for her university's men's team before starting her transition in 2019, faced an intense backlash in March after she broke several women's collegiate swimming records.

She had hoped to reach the U.S. Olympic team trials in 2024, but FINA's new policy means she cannot now compete internationally.

Trans cyclist Emily Bridges was barred from a British championship in March as the cycling's governing body, ICU, said she was still registered as a male cyclist, having set a national junior men's record in 2018.

In 2021, weightlifter Laurel Hubbard became the first openly trans woman to compete in the Olympics but she left without a medal.

WHAT DO SPORTS AUTHORITIES SAY?

It is unclear how many trans athletes currently particpate at elite-level in sport and authorities are grappling with how to formulate their rules.

World Athletics, soccer's FIFA, World Netball and the International Hockey Federation have all said they will be reviewing their policies in the wake of FINA's announcement.

This month's restrictions follow November's change to International Olympic Committee (IOC) rules, which now allow each individual sport to determine whether trans athletes can compete.

Previously, the IOC advised sporting bodies to let trans athletes compete if their testosterone levels remained below a certain threshold for at least a year.

The IOC's new guidance says athletes should not automatically be deemed to have an unfair advantage "due to their transgender status" until evidence states otherwise.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which runs inter-college sport in the United States, announced in January that it was aligning its rules with the IOC, with a sport-by-sport approach on whether trans women can compete.

Multiple U.S. states, including Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Mississippi, Montana, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia have enacted legislation since 2020 banning trans women and girls from women's sports leagues in schools and colleges.

Cycling's UCI has said it will tighten its rules in July, halving the maximum limit on testosterone levels and increasing the transition period from one to two years. 

WHAT DO SCIENTISTS SAY?

Research into trans athletes across different sports is still relatively new and under examined.

Trans women's muscular advantage falls by about 5% after a year of testosterone-suppressing treatment, according to a review of existing research by the University of Manchester and Sweden's Karolinska Institute.

Tommy Lundberg, who co-authored the study, said male athletes gain their 30% muscular advantages during puberty, but there are no studies of trans adolescents who could take puberty blockers or cross-sex hormones before puberty finishes.

Britain's Loughborough University found that hormone therapy reduced trans women's haemoglobin levels, which affects endurance, to equal that of non-trans women within four months.

But strength, lean body mass and muscle area remained higher after three years of medication to block testosterone, it said.

Joanna Harper, a researcher at Loughborough University who is also trans, said trans women may encounter difficulties with their larger frames being powered by reduced aerobic capacity, which would impact speed and recovery.

WHAT DO TRANS ACTIVISTS AND ATHLETES SAY?

LGBTQ+ activists have described the bans as "discriminatory", and said they are likely to lead to less participation from trans athletes at all levels.

Trans people already engage in less exercise than their non-trans peers, Loughborough University research has shown.

Canadian trans cyclist Veronica Ivy, who was the first trans athlete to win the UCI masters world track cycling championships in 2018, said FINA's policy was "unscientific".

"When you're trying to single out trans women, you need to study trans women athletes ... FINA has not done that," she said.

British trans racing car driver Charlie Martin slammed FINA's decision as "simply wrong". She said an 'open' sports category was not a solution as trans women would be "placed in limbo, effectively ending their professional careers".

American rugby union player Naima Reddick said IRL's policy did not acknowledge the "diversity of bodies that already exist amongst women and especially women who play rugby".

"Cis (non-trans) women, like trans women, come in all shapes and sizes," she said.

This article was updated on Wednesday, 22 June 2022 after FINA’s and IRL's policy changes.

Related stories:

Swim federation restricts transgender participation in women's competition 

Rugby league joins clampdown on transgender athletes in women's sport 

How will swimming's new transgender rules work?