Recent decisions have added fuel to the raging debate on trans participation in women’s sport.
Changes to their policies from the likes of cycling body the UCI and swimming counterpart FINA have ramped up the already heated debate on trans participation in female sport.
The row has shown no sign of abating, with many welcoming new restrictions placed on transgender women who aim to compete against their female-born rivals, while activists continue to accuse governing bodies of discrimination.
Here, we look at some of the main questions surrounding one of the most polarizing topics of the modern age.
How did we get here?
While the trans debate has hit the headlines again in recent days, it’s an argument which has been simmering intently in sport for much longer.
Released in November 2021, the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) Framework on Fairness, Non-Discrimination and Inclusion on the Basis of Gender Identity and Sex Variations was said to have been three years in the making, but arrived hot on the heels of weightlifter Laurel Hubbard’s appearance at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, where she became the first openly transgender athlete to compete at an edition of the Games.
In the US, University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas, who had competed on the men’s team until 2019, then started to smash records for the Ivy League institute’s women’s team as the trans debate reached even greater levels of rancor.
As with Hubbard, Thomas’ participation divided opinion among her peers and wider society, while in the UK transgender cyclist Emily Bridges also made headlines.
The IOC’s framework recommended removing testosterone limits altogether – despite previous requirements of trans athletes being below 10 nanomoles per liter 12 months before competing – while passing the buck to individual sporting federations to make their own rules.
Half a year since the release of that framework, many federations looking towards new seasons or major events such as World Cups and world championships are doing just that, and have started releasing their own policies which have in some instances banned trans participation from women’s sport altogether.
Which changes have been made?
Last week, cycling body the UCI changed its permitted level of testosterone to 2.5 nanomoles per liter (nmol/L) over a 24-month period, after its previous rules required transgender cyclists to have had testosterone levels below 5 nmol/L over a 12-month period before competing.
In the case of UK cyclist Bridges, that means that she won’t be able to enter competitions until 2023 at the earliest.
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Days later, members of global swimming body FINA voted in favor of banning all transgender athletes that have completed any part of male puberty. Furthermore, it intends to establish an ‘open’ category for trans athletes in the future.
As things stand, trans swimmers such as controversial UC college swimmer Thomas will not be able to head to the Paris 2024 Olympics or compete in Team USA’s women’s swimming squads, which Thomas has previously expressed is her dream.
In rugby league, the International Rugby League (IRL) went for a blanket ban for trans women in international matches until it determines a new policy which will be installed after the Rugby League World Cup in November, where trans players won’t be able to take part.
Reacting to FINA’s move, World Athletics chief Sebastian Coe, who has previously urged caution on deciding trans participation policies and warned that the future of women’s sports is “fragile”, has hinted that his body could follow suit.
The state of play in the US
In the US, some states such as Louisiana have passed laws that ban transgender athletes from being able to take part in girls’ and women’s sports.
While USA Swimming will now demand evidence that the concentration of testosterone in an athlete’s serum has been under 5 nmol/L over a 36-month period for trans swimmers to take part in competitions, college authority the NCAA – which has a 10 nmol/L limit in line with IOC previously policy – has said that it will not follow the national body’s lead, effectively paving the way for others such as Thomas to emerge next season.
Will FIFA go against the grain?
Football could be one sport to go against the recent trend of restricting trans participation in women’s sport, according to some reports.
On the same day as the recent FINA vote, it was claimed that global footballing authority FIFA is preparing to release a fresh framework that will drop testosterone thresholds for transgender women and propose that footballers should also be allowed to compete in their self-identified gender.
What has been said about the recent changes?
Speaking to the BBC, World Athletics boss Coe said that FINA’s move was a federation “asserting its primacy in setting rules, regulations, and policies that are in the best interest of its sport,” which is “as it should be.”
“We have always believed that biology trumps gender and we will continue to review our regulations in line with this. We will follow the science,” Coe vowed.
Speaking on the LBC radio station, UK Sports and Culture Minister Nadine Dorries said it is “just unacceptable that trans women compete in women’s sport” as she backed FINA.
Invited to speak at FINA’s congress, Australian swimmer Cate Campbell said the fact that men and women are physiologically different “cannot be disputed.”
“To remove that distinction would be to the detriment of female athletes everywhere,” she said.
On the other side of the argument, outspoken USWNT soccer star Megan Rapinoe claimed the bans are “cruel” and “disgusting.”
Rapinoe said she was “100% supportive of trans inclusion” and accused right-wing forces of misinforming people.
In her interview with TIME, Rapinoe insisted on being shown evidence that trans women are “taking everyone’s scholarships, [and] are dominating in every sport… winning every title.”
How will the situation develop?
While the recent trend is clear, how the situation pans out from here is less certain.
Some federations will tighten their rules and policies, others will likely wait for more “science” and conclusions to emerge from experts before making decisions such as the ones taken by FINA.
Political and societal pressure might encourage some bodies to review their already changed policies and either double down or retreat.
Later on, success perceived to be unfair at big events such as world championships and the Olympics may also result in a return to the drawing board.
What seems certain is that such a divisive topic will continue to trigger fierce debate, and shows no sign of dying down.