‘Victory for fairness’ or ‘simplistic’: Athletes divided on transgender move

Top current and former Australian athletes have branded international swimming’s effective ban on transgender women competing in female categories as a “victory for fairness” in elite sport, while others have branded it “discriminatory” and simplistic.

Two-time Olympian Jane Flemming, three-time Olympic gold medallist Emily Seebohm and the Australian Olympic Committee, all welcomed the move by FINA, which was passed by a 71.5 per cent majority of the group’s extraordinary general congress.

Flemming and Seebohm also welcomed news that FINA would set up a new open category in which trans swimmers could compete.

“This decision has protected the female category of sport, particularly in elite sport where the volumes of testosterone have a greater impact overall,” Flemming told The Sydney Morning Herald & The Age.

“It is just the start and will probably now set a precedent for the rest of women’s elite sport. It is a victory for fairness in that the decision has now provided a fairer platform for biological females.”

The new policy bans trans women from competing in female categories unless they have completed the transition process by the age of 12. Flemming said specifying an age was risky, given the differences in individual development.

But both she and Seebohm welcomed talk of creating new categories for trans athletes and urged governing bodies to start work on those policies as soon as possible.

“I’m really supportive of the open category that they are suggesting that they are going to bring into competition because it gives a chance for everyone to be involved in our sport,” Seebohm told Sky News Australia.

“I love my sport; I want to share it with everyone so let’s get everyone involved and let’s keep it fair.”

But another Olympian, Maddie Groves, condemned the move as “discriminatory and unscientific”, while Australia’s first out elite transgender runner, Ricki Coughlan, said FINA’s approach was simplistic.

“There’s great diversity among transgender women and this fails to take that into account,” Coughlan told the ABC.

“I think a sport ought to be able to have an understanding of the physical parameters that women bring to their sport or sporting code and apply those tests to any transgender women who put their hand up to participate in elite sport.”

Australian political leaders, including Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, deferred to individual sporting bodies on the matter when quizzed on Monday, while the AOC backed FINA’s move, saying fairness was an important value in sport.

“The AOC believes that sport is for all and everyone has a right to participate in sport. However, sports are bound to ensure participation is fair and safe,” the AOC said in a statement.

“Each sport is different and needs to determine how it balances inclusion and fairness according to the nature of its competitions. While inclusivity must be respected, fairness in competition is a core value of sport.

“There are categories in all forms of sport and [their purpose] is to exclude those that have an unfair advantage.”

“FINA has made a decision based on the circumstances in aquatic sports to achieve that balance. They have undertaken a thorough process of review in this complex area.”

Swimming, cycling and athletics are the three sports that have found themselves at the centre of the transgender debate in recent years.

Cycling UK faced a boycott within its female ranks over the issue of trans women such as Emily Bridges, who broke the national junior 25-mile record as a male before transitioning, competing in women’s events.

Bridges, 21, was eligible under Cycling UK rules, to compete in her first race in the female category at the British National Omnium Championships in April, before the global governing body, the UCI, blocked her participation. The move forced Cycling UK into an embarrassing rethink.

In swimming, American swimmer Lia Thomas became the global face of the trans debate after winning the 500-yard freestyle in the NCAA (college level) championships in March. Thomas has also indicated she wanted to swim in an Olympics in future.

In athletics, the international governing body has introduced strict rules requiring athletes to keep their testosterone levels under a certain limit for at least 12 months before being allowed to compete internationally.

Flemming rejected claims the FINA policy was unfair and said competitive sport was, by its nature, “exclusion”.

“I don’t think anyone thinks that sport should be excluding anyone from any kind of sport, but it’s a matter of where it’s participated in,” she said.

“It’s important to understand that sport is about exclusion. There are categories in all forms of sport and [their purpose] is to exclude those that have an unfair advantage. You can’t compete in the 80 kg weightlifting category if you’re 100 kg and you can’t compete in the under-14s if you’re 15 or over. There are categories in sport all the time to include and exclude certain groups of humans to make it fair.”

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