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USA Swimming unveils new rules for transgender athletes

The new policy could affect Lia Thomas, who transitioned and moved from the University of Pennsylvania men’s team to the women’s team.

Swimmer competing
The policy applies to all athletes who wish to swim in a competition category different than the biological gender assigned to them at birth [File: Davis Turner/Reuters]

USA Swimming, which governs the sport in the United States, has unveiled a new policy that would allow transgender athletes to compete in elite events, but included criteria that the organisation said would mitigate unfair advantages.

The Athlete Inclusion, Competitive Equity and Eligibility Policy, which is effective immediately, attempts to maintain a level playing field for cisgender athletes – those whose gender identity is the same as their sex assigned at birth – while being inclusive of transgender competitors.

“USA Swimming has and will continue to champion gender equity and the inclusivity of all cisgender and transgender women and their rights to participate in sport, while also fervently supporting competitive equity at elite levels of competition,” the national governing body said in a release.

It came after the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) which governs college and university sport in the US last month said it would defer to national governing bodies for each sport on how to regulate competition for transgender athletes.

Transgender rights have long been a controversial and politically divisive issue in the United States from sports to serving in the military and even what bathrooms people are allowed to use.

But the issue gained urgency for USA Swimming after the emergence of University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas, who competed on the men’s team for three years before transitioning and moving to the women’s team and shattering multiple records.

The new guidelines do not mention the 22-year-old by name, but is likely to affect her as it puts her eligibility into doubt. Thomas said she began her transition in May 2019 with hormone replacement therapy – a combination of estrogen and testosterone suppressants.

Under the new policy, athletes will be tested to make sure testosterone is below a certain level – 5 nanomoles per litre continuously for at least 36 months – in transgender athletes who wish to compete against cisgender female swimmers.

The policy will be also implemented by a panel of three independent medical experts, and will look to ensure that “prior physical development of the athlete as a male … does not give the athlete a competitive advantage over the athlete’s cisgender female competitors”.

The Independent Women’s Law Center (IWLC) and Independent Women’s Forum (IWF), two conservative women’s groups, condemned the new decision to make eligibility to participate in women‘s swimming contingent on testosterone levels.

Swimmer competing
Members of the Penn swimming team and diving team issued a statement supporting Lia Thomas [File: Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters]

“USA Swimming’s insistence that there is some way to eliminate the athletic advantage that post-pubescent males have over females denies science,” Jennifer Braceras, director of Independent Women’s Law Center, said in a statement on Tuesday.

“But it also ignores the fact that this is not only about fair competition – it is also about equal opportunity to compete at all,” she said.

Conservative US outlet Fox News quoted an anonymous swimmer on Penn team saying hormone requirements do not negate the advantages gained during male puberty, including larger hearts and lungs.

Members of the Penn swimming team and diving team issued a statement in response supporting Thomas.

“We want to express our full support for Lia in her transition,” they said in the statement released late Tuesday.

“We value her as a person, teammate, and friend. The sentiments put forward by an anonymous member of our team are not representative of the feelings, values, and opinions of the entire Penn team, composed of 39 women with diverse backgrounds.”

USA Swimming said the criteria will remain in place until world swimming’s governing body, FINA, which is in the process of developing its own gender eligibility rules, releases its policy.

Once an athlete’s request has been approved, USA Swimming said the athlete may not initiate the process to change back to a prior competition category for one year following the date the initial request was approved.

The policy applies to all athletes who wish to swim in a competition category different than the biological gender assigned to them at birth.

The issue from a competitive standpoint is somewhat less controversial for trans athletes assigned a female gender at birth looking to compete in men’s events. USA Swimming cited data showing that the top-ranked female athlete in 2021 would on average be ranked below 500th in male events that year.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies