The participation of transgender athletes in competitive sports continues to be a controversial issue, specifically the inclusion of transgender women and girls in women's sports.
Some argue that transgender women who compete in a female category of sport have an unfair advantage in competition due to sex differences and human physiology. Others view banning transgender women as discriminatory, especially if they have undergone hormone replacement therapy that has been shown to negate the physical advantages they might hold over cisgender women.
Whereas some sports have created standards and policies to deal with the discrepancy, others have not.
On Sunday, swimming's world governing body, FINA, announced a new policy effective Monday that restricts transgender athletes’ participation in elite women’s competitions.
The regulation comes as University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas won the women's 500-yard freestyle event in March 2022. She also made history as the first known transgender person to capture a Division I national title, but under this new rule, she would be ineligible to compete in elite women’s competitions.
Here’s everything you need to know about the new FINA policy and other policies around transgender athletes:
What was FINA’s ruling about transgender swimmers?
On Sunday, FINA voted to restrict the participation of transgender athletes in elite women's swimming competitions.
The new rules state that those who transitioned before the age of 12 will be the only swimmers permitted to compete, effective on Monday. However, transitioning before puberty is not recommended by medical experts. Last week, the World Professional Association for Transgender Health lowered its recommended age for trans kids to begin hormone therapy to age 14 from age 16.
Any swimmer competing in women’s races will also be required to maintain a testosterone level under 2.5 nanomoles per liter (nmol/L). According to the Mount Sinai Health system, normal testosterone levels for women are between 0.5 and 2.4 nmol/L.
Additionally, FINA mentioned it would create an "open" category in some events as part of the new policy, but that would be in the works over the course of the next six months.
A total of 71.5% of FINA members voted in favor of what they called the rising "gender inclusion policy" at the organization's general congress, which also featured presentations from three specialist groups, an athlete group, a science and medicine group and a legal and human rights group.
Are there any other sports that restrict the participation of transgender athletes?
Track and Field
World Athletics, the international governing body for track and field, has certain guidelines for transgender women.
For athletes who would like to compete in international events between 400m and one mile in distance, they first have to lower their testosterone levels to below 5 nmol/L, which World Athletics calls “the highest level that a healthy woman with ovaries would have.”
These levels have to last for six months and stay at that level while they compete.
Wrestling is another sport that has some guidelines for participation of transgender athletes.
According to USA Wrestling, individuals who transition from male to female before puberty are regarded as girls and women (female) and those who transition from female to male are regarded as boys and men (male).
Individuals who transition from female to male after puberty are eligible to compete in the male category without restriction as long as the athlete has declared that he is male.
For individuals who transition from male to female, there are a few steps that must be taken:
- -The athlete has to declare her gender identity is female, a declaration lasting minimum four years for sporting purpose
- The athlete must have a testosterone level below 10 nmol/L for at least 12 months prior to the first competition throughout the period of desired eligibility
- The athlete may be monitored with testing
Laurel Hubbard, a transgender woman from New Zealand, competed in the women’s over-87-kilogram division at the Tokyo Olympics by meeting those qualifications. She became the first openly transgender woman to compete in the Olympic Games.
As of last week, the International Cycling Union now requires athletes transitioning from male to female to be on low testosterone for two years instead of one. The permitted testosterone level was also lowered from 5 nmol/L to 2.5 nmol/L.
The International Rugby League recently announced it would bar transgender athletes from participating in women’s international rugby matches. “Until further research is completed to enable the IRL to implement a formal transgender inclusion policy, male-to-female (transwomen) players are unable to play in sanctioned women’s international rugby league matches,” the IRL said in a statement.
The IRL said it is planning to use the upcoming 2022 Women’s Rugby World Cup and the 2022 Men’s Rugby League World Cup in November to help institute an official policy.
World Triathlon announced it will allow transgender women to compete, but tougher eligibility rules were imposed. Athletes will have to prove their testosterone levels have been less than 2.5 nmol/L continuously for 24 months, and at least 48 months must have passed since the athlete competed as a male in any sporting competition.
What is the NCAA’s stance on transgender student-athletes?
The NCAA Board of Governors created a new policy in January that appoints the governing body of each sport to make the decision of transgender participation, a consistent approach with the Olympics.
The sport-by-sport approach to transgender participation "preserves opportunity for transgender student-athletes while balancing fairness, inclusion and safety for all who compete," the NCAA stated.
However, starting with the 2022-23 academic year, the NCAA encourages divisions to be flexible as long as transgender student-athletes meet the new standards, which include:
- Transgender student-athletes must document sport-specific testosterone levels starting four weeks before their sport's championship selection.
- Transgender student-athletes must first provide documented levels at the beginning of their season and second documentation six months later, effective in the 2022-23 academic year.
What is the IOC’s stance on transgender athletes?
Last November, the IOC issued updated guidance on transgender athletes. Previously it had focused on testosterone levels, which resulted in some athletes undergoing “invasive medical examinations” that caused them “severe harm,” according to the IOC. The new advice recommends that an athlete’s eligibility be based on actual evidence of a performance advantage.