The ruling that could end trans inclusion in sport

Jun 30, 2022 • 18m 50s

Trans athletes have effectively been banned from elite swimming. The decision and the document released by FINA could have an impact not just on swimmers, but on how other sports around the world handle participation and inclusion. So what does it say? How have the people it affects most – trans athletes – reacted?



The ruling that could end trans inclusion in sport

725 • Jun 30, 2022

The ruling that could end trans inclusion in sport


During and after my feminising transition, my bench press went from 110 kilos, one repetition max down to 70. 400 metres, I was a very good 400 metre runner, which was my best event at school. I could run a 50.8 and then I was running at 67 seconds. Now this is all documented, I have the times and all that. So, I knew there was a cost of that. I wasn't going to be as fast or strong or big or, you know, I wouldn't be able to do the things that I could before, but I was happy with that because I was my true and authentic self, and people saw me as who I was for the first time.

So it's interesting with this decision because there's so very few trans women who are actually playing, that it beggars belief they've come out with this decision.

[Theme Music Starts]

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

Trans athletes have effectively been banned from elite swimming, because of a decision last week, by the international governing body of the sport – FINA.

The decision and the document released by FINA could have an impact not just on swimmers, but on how other sports around the world handle participation and inclusion.

So, what does it say? How have the people it effects most – trans athletes – reacted? And what does the decision mean for other athletes starting their sporting journey?

Today, sports writer for The Saturday Paper Martin McKenzie-Murray and former women’s rugby player Caroline Layt.

It’s Thursday June 30.

[Theme Music Ends]

Archival Tape -- News Anchor (7 News):

“First, to breaking news: in a shock move, swimming's world governing body FINA has voted to effectively ban transgender athletes from competing in elite women's races…”

Archival Tape -- News Reporter (9 News):

“The international swimming body has made a landmark decision restricting transgender athletes from competing in the sport…”

Archival Tape -- News reporter (ABC News America):

“This is by far the toughest restriction against transgender athletes. Swimming's international governing board saying they consulted with scientists and policymakers and voted to essentially ban trans athletes from elite competitions, including the Olympics…”


Marty, you’ve been writing for The Saturday Paper, about this decision that FINA made. So to start with, I was wondering if you could tell me why this decision has come down at this moment in time? Why now?


FINA I guess in a way have gone first. And that's not to say that the first sporting body to have considered the issue of the eligibility of transgendered athletes. But I think up until now, because the issue has been so provocative and so inflammatory, there's been much bad faith involved in the argumentations as well. I think a lot of sporting bodies have prevaricated. But FINA now have, through a process of a few months and their working group, come to a fairly detailed policy.

Archival Tape -- FINA Spokesperson:

“It is a policy that we need to introduce in order to protect the competitive fairness of our events.”


So the policy effectively bans male to female transgender athletes who began their transition after the age of 12 or after a sudden early phase of puberty that they've defined.

Archival Tape -- News Reporter (7 News):

“Under the new policy, FINA requires transgender athletes to have completed their transition by the age of 12 in order to be eligible. Now, this decision took place at a FINA meeting in Budapest on the sidelines of the World Championships…”


The context for it, I think, can be split into two parts. One was an unworkable irresolution between two bodies. The International Olympic Committee, which in November last year released their framework on gender inclusion and effectively came to the conclusion that there should not be rejected, a presumption that the male sex conferred an athletic advantage.

So a couple of months later, in January this year, the International Federation of Sports Medicine, as well as its European counterpart, released a joint statement, and it criticised the IOC for saying this, criticised their framework and effectively said that their decision was myopic that it looked narrowly at one human rights issue but ignored all biological and medical data.

So that's a pretty unworkable dispute there. And FINA sought to set up a working group to resolve this. Now there's another part, another context that I think is important, and that's the swimmer Lia Thomas.

Archival Tape -- News reporter (ABC News America):

“23 year old Lia Thomas - the swimmer became the first known transgender athlete to win a Division one national title. Thomas, who began her transition as a sophomore at UPenn…”


Right so the US swimmer Lia Thomas - can you tell me more about her career, and how she’s been brought into this?


So in March this year, she became the first transgendered athlete to win a major American college title.

swimming race start sound

Archival Tape -- Live Sports Commentator:

“Twenty lengths of the pool, twenty points on the line for the winner here at the NCAA championship…”


She's a swimmer. She won the 500 yard freestyle.

Archival Tape -- Live Sports Commentator:

“Had to work for it, she was pushed over the first 350 metres. Thomas wins the NCAA championship…”


And her participation was predictably controversial.

Archival Tape -- Interviewer (GMA):

“There are some who look at the data and suggest that you're enjoying a competitive advantage. What do you say to that?”

Archival Tape -- Lia Thomas:

“There's a lot of factors that go into a race and how well you do. And the biggest change for me is that I'm happy. And sophomore year when I had my best times competing with the men…I was miserable.”


The domestic body governing swimming in the United States - it's the USA Swimming it's called - mandates that transgender athletes complete three years of hormone replacement therapy before competing.

The body that governs collegiate sport, the NCAA overrode that. So Lia Thomas was six months shy of the three years, and the NCAA overrode that and said that she could compete and she won.

And not only was that success unprecedented, she then declared her Olympic ambition. And I think that developed a certain sense of urgency with FINA.


And so what are the consequences then for this? What are the consequences of this decision then for trans athletes around the world? Because for, you know, it's the first, but it's not the only code we're seeing. This kind of happened in other other kind of sporting codes as well. So can you talk to me a little bit about the trickle down effect of something like this?


Well, the short answer is that we'll wait and see. But I think up until now, sporting bodies have, whilst they’ve wrestled with the issue, they haven't done so with much resoluteness. FINA now have. And so looking forward they've certainly established a more robust precedent I guess. And we saw within 48 hours of FINA’s decision, International Rugby League effectively adopt FINA’s policy.


Mm. And can you tell me a bit more about what we're hearing also from trans athletes about the decision?


Well, obviously it's contested.

I can't speak for trans athletes and speak for them as a monolithic whole, but it's interpreted largely as a human rights issue, and that this is grossly exclusionary.

Archival Tape -- Hannah Mouncey (Transgender Advocate):

“You're now expecting a ten year old to know that in 15 years time, if they want their swimming career to continue, they have to transition now…”

Archival Tape -- Dr Catherine Ordway (Sports Lawyer):

“I think the backlash in throwing a blanket ban over all transgender athletes is going to be felt across the world.”

Archival Tape -- Lia Thomas:

“Trans people don't transition for athletics. We transition to be happy and authentic and our true selves. Transitioning to get an advantage is not something that ever factors in…”


Caroline, thanks so much for speaking with me. You’ve been a competing athlete since the early 2000’s, representing NSW in Women’s Rugby Union. Before we discuss the recent decision by FINA, I was hoping you could begin by telling me what it is that you love about sport, about competing?


It's just all my friends, all my mates, you know, they're all sporting people, you know? And it's just that common bond that you have that ‘hey, we did this together’ and we did something special together. So, for me that's my whole social world, and I think that's what needs to be seen in this space is that, you know, trans people are just like anyone else and the kids, they need those connections too.


And so when FINA announced its decision last week effectively banning trans women from competing, what was your first thought?


Yeah, I thought it was reactionary. And I thought it was to do with Lia Thomas because she's had so much press, she's done well. And what's lost in the conversation around Lia Thomas is she wasn't swimming super fast times. So, a transitioned woman or transitioning woman who is taking oestrogen and anti androgens, their bodies will feminise and will slow their times down over a period of time. I'm not saying yes, you should transition one day and compete the next, there needs to be a time factor thing but, you know, after you have you have muscle loss, you gain weight gain, you know, with body fat redistribution, you know, our faces soften and because women - cisgender women - carry more body fat than men do.

So what they don't include is all the things that a transgender woman goes through, they just measure us against 14 year old boys.

So I just find this is very reactionary, and the scientists in that they use it's more opinion and they cherry pick what they want to say.

I just find it very disappointing and it's sort of a bit of a pile on not to allow trans rights to get to a point where we’re just treated as equal human beings.


After the break, Caroline’s story.



Caroline, I was wondering if you could take me back to the beginning of your career - how did you begin your journey in sport? What was it like when you started in the early 2000s?


Yeah, well in the early 2000s I actually came back because I was a track and field sprinter and that was 2002. My first competition was gay games, and then I started competing mainstream.

So I did some tests, I did a max Vo2 and a non-invasive physical with a sports doctor and sports scientist, and all was found to be in the female range. From there I was given clearance to compete - and I did that voluntarily, I told them I was trans. So I was competing in masters athletics. And then when I wanted to test myself in open sporting in the open age sporting competitions again, so then I went across to Rugby Union. My club coach and representative manager told me to keep it quiet, otherwise I wouldn't make the rep teams, even though he was aware because I told him.

So I basically flew under the radar for the first 12 months, no one knew I was trans. I won, for Sydney, a national championship. I was nominated for the Sydney Morning Herald Women's Rugby Union Player of the Year award, and was the leading try scorer in the Sydney competition, as well as taking out my club club's best and fairest and leading try scorer awards.

So that was a really good year. And then in 2005 I was outed by my Sydney rep coach for that year. He was a different coach to the ones we had in 2004. I told him, and he told the Australian coaches and selectors, and went around telling everyone.


What changed after that happened?


Um, well I was actually physically assaulted by seven team-mates. Yeah. At club training. So it was club team-mates who physically assaulted me. And umm…


I'm so sorry.


Oh, thank you. It was almost like I was deemed as deceptive, um, because I didn't tell anyone, but that I was also defective because I was trans. And I wish I could have been out, you know, but unfortunately I wasn't allowed to be because I knew that that would be the reaction.

And when I was playing, I suppose what us trans women call ‘stealth’, or ‘flying under the radar’ as a cis woman you know, I was always looking over my shoulder thinking ‘oh, what if these people knew I was trans’ you know? And that, it’s not a comfortable feeling neither when you're doing that, but it's, you're doing that to protect yourself. So and it proved correct because, you know, I had a really, it was pretty as horrible as that the whole 2005 season.


And so how did you get through that time, and did things get better?


Yeah. They did get better. What happened was the following year I transferred to Sydney Uni and we had a lot of LGBT players and that was wonderful. They really respected me and treated me just another player.

2006 to 2008 was a really golden period for me and the coaches and people around me, the support staff, the managers of the teams. It was just a really, really good period and it was almost like we saw off the people from my old club that were mean to me and some of those players from my old club actually played in the Sydney rep team with me from 2007, 2008.

They were completely different individuals, they were really nice. So I think it comes from the top down. If the top down are good with you - which is the coaches and managers, the organisation, all that, and if you're just treated as another player - then you'll thrive and the whole team will thrive. And that's what we did. We won two nationals in Rugby Union, but it was a really good time for me.


And so Caroline, when you think about FINA’s decision and what its impact could be more broadly – what does a decision like this mean for people’s ability to participate in sport?


Basically, they've just banned anyone that has gone through a male puberty. So that's just pretty much drawn a line in the sand, black and white, and saying, ‘well, you're past 12, you're out.’ It's limiting trans people anyway because very few trans kids are allowed to transition at that age, and there's very few people that play sport that are trans, very few swimmers.

So I don't know how many people that, you know, maybe down the track I hope that I am a dying species, you know, in the fact that I hope one day that kids can transition from a young age because we all feel the same way that, you know, we knew what you hear when we talk about our stories. I knew from when I was four or five, but unfortunately, we're not there yet.

So this is limiting, it's just pretty much limiting trans people from playing or swimming at a high level elite level, and it does, will filter down to community level too where we’ll be excluded too.


Mm. And as you mentioned, that filtering down of FINA’s decision - how do you think that might affect people who, like you were at one time, just starting their careers, even just at their local club?


Yeah, well I have a friend playing sport that's trans and they're just underground and do not want to come out because of this. And I don't want to say what sport or don't want to out them.


Mhm. Of course.


But, pretty much that's what telling trans people is like; go underground. You know, if you fly under the radar and no one knows and you can pass as a cis woman, just do it. Because, and I hate to say that because I think we should just be able to be out. And I lived the first 30 years of my life as a male because, even though I knew I was intrinsically a female from 4 years of age- because there was no education around these issues. Then I’ve lived another 20 years, pretty much in and out of coming in and coming out and, you know, going back into the closet, and it's only been since 2016 when I was actually when Caitlyn Jenner transitioned, and that's when I came out to everyone and I'm not going back into any closet.

So for me, my hope is that there is inclusion because there's a lot of kids out there that need to be able to play sport and a lot of trans kids that just should be able to play sport. There's kids now that are scared for their safety and they're being told that they can't play sport.

And these are even pre-pubescent kids. And to me, this is just, it's sort of going back to the 60s, the 50s, the 70s, the 80s, you know. And back then it was different because we didn't have the education about it, so I understand why it was like that. But now we do have the education about it, so why would we want to go back to those times?

I think just let people live and be who they are. You know, we're not taking your rights away. We just want a fair and equitable world, just like anyone else.


Well thank you so much for talking to me about it all. I imagine that it’s not easy with this much media scrutiny at the moment, and so I really appreciate it.


Thank you. Thank you, Ruby, thank you for having me. And I really hope one day that I’m not the only trans woman player, you know, that’s doing this, because I hope there’s other spokespeople and I can have a rest, because you know I’m 56, I’m getting older!



Also in the news today,

The NSW government has backed down from a years-long industrial dispute with rail unions. The government says it will make modifications to the state’s brand new train fleet, which the unions argued were unsafe.

Transport Minister David Elliott announced the government would make changes to the train fleet costing up to $264 million in a bid to avoid industrial action, which has been expected to cause widespread disruption for commuters.

And the 2021 census data has revealed that 1 million homes, that's ten percent of the housing stock, were unoccupied on census night last year.

The data has prompted renewed calls from advocates to implement policy changes that would discourage people leaving a property vacant amid an affordable housing crisis.

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am, see you tomorrow.

Trans athletes have effectively been banned from elite swimming, because of a decision last week by the international governing body of the sport, FINA.

The decision and the document released by FINA could have an impact not just on swimmers, but on how other sports around the world handle participation and inclusion.

So, what does it say? How have the people it affects most – trans athletes – reacted? And what does the decision mean for other athletes starting their sporting journey?

Today, associate editor of The Saturday Paper Martin McKenzie-Murray and former women’s rugby player Caroline Layt.

Guest: Associate editor for The Saturday Paper, Martin McKenzie-Murray

Elite athlete and journalist, Caroline Layt

Background reading: The debate over FINA’s decision on transgender athletes in The Saturday Paper .

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Elle Marsh, Kara Jensen-Mackinnon and Alex Gow.

Our technical producer is Atticus Bastow.

Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Scott Mitchell. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief.

Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

More episodes from Martin McKenzie-Murray, Caroline Layt

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725: The ruling that could end trans inclusion in sport