When the Daily Mail starts taking an interest in swimming then that’s a little strange. After all it’s not a newspaper known for its in-depth coverage of the sport beyond the once-every-four-years Olympic interest and the occasional bit of gossip about Adam Peaty and his dance partners. And when that interest is in a relatively low key NCAA conference meet than something really must be up.
It is of course the debate about trans inclusion sparked in swimming by the participation of Lia Thomas in the Ivy League swimming championships after a season swimming for the Penn women’s team, after several seasons in the men’s squad prior to her transition.
This isn’t a column about Lia, however, who has every right to identify and live her life in whichever manner she feels best and who does not deserve some of the unsavoury coverage she is getting, but inevitably she has become emblematic of the debate around trans inclusion in women’s sport.
That debate is set to overshadow the forthcoming NCAA championships as a consequence of governing bodies failing to properly address the issue before an individual was unfairly singled out. This almost laissez-faire attitude has perhaps been driven by a hope that there wouldn’t be many trans swimmers and hence that they could therefore manage it on an ad-hoc basis
But this is a question of colliding rights not numbers. Do the rights of trans women swimmers outweigh the rights of women to fair competition? Because ultimately while we shouldn’t expect trans women suppressing their testosterone to maintain their historic performance levels, nor should we expect that the physiological advantages gained through male puberty to be entirely removed. The science is clear on this point.
It is in this area of retained advantage that the debate gets most heated, because sport is all about natural advantages. Often the inclusion arguments manifest in the so called “Phelps gambit” that Michael Phelps’ natural advantages of short legs and a long torso, or having long arms are akin to the retained advantage that trans women swimmers have and hence there is no reason to take them into account in deciding competition categories.
This of course neatly overlooks the fact that while Phelps clearly had physiological advantages over his rivals, the extent of them by comparison with his elite male swimming peers is substantially less than the difference between him and his nearest elite female equivalent. Not to mention that Phelps’ records are now being beaten by swimmers with different and supposedly inferior physical attributes. Meanwhile his one remaining world record in the 400IM is over 9% faster than the women’s mark set by the outstanding Katinka Hosszu, another once in a generation talent who has had all the same opportunities in training, competition and a top tier collegiate career in the US, while only being 0.5% faster than the next ranked male.
Can the innate male advantage be mitigated? The UK’s Sports Councils were quite clear in their recent guidance that it couldn’t be eliminated in meaningful competition and hence recommended that governing bodies could choose between safety and fairness or inclusion but could not achieve both.
As one of the first governing bodies off the blocks, USA Swimming has to all intents and purposes come down on the side of fairness by requiring trans athletes to prove they have no advantage, a standard that seems like it will be difficult to meet, even if the mechanism for assessment has yet to be confirmed.
It may be that numbers of trans swimmers will remain low, in line with the relatively small proportion of trans people in society. Certainly predictions of huge waves of trans woman athletes taking over women’s sport may be wide of the mark, and while there conceivably will be some, the notion that there is a long queue of men cynically transitioning in order to win medals seems far fetched.
But the threat to women’s sport is still real. Not every trans woman is going to beat every biological woman, in the same way that Katie Ledecky would beat huge swathes of the male swimming population in a 1500m freestyle race, but for every spot a trans woman swimmer takes on a team, or lane they take in a final, or scholarship they are awarded, or funding they are allocated, a biological woman misses out.
In the UK we have become accustomed to hearing that decision makers will “follow the science” but like COVID this is one sphere where political and societal pressure may yet trump the scientific evidence. Governing bodies are at liberty to choose inclusion over fairness for their sports if they so decide, but at the very least they should be honest that they are making that choice and that such a decision harms women.