IWD2022 – How The Meaning Of Inclusion Has Been Manipulated To Turn Women’s Sport From Fair To Foul Play

2022-03-08 Reading Time: 19 minutes
IWD2022 transgender men women
Male advantage is real in swimming ... and an Open category is on the way - image, cartoonized photo by Patrick B. Kraemer

International Women’s Day Essay – IWD2022 – offers not only a chance to celebrate women but to speak up (see VIDEO of UPenn swimmer doing just that) in support of women and raising awareness and bringing change on the challenges they face.

Girl Power In The Pool - celebrating swimmers, advocates and those they advocate for on International Women's Day
Girl Power In The Pool – celebrating swimmers, advocates and those they advocate for on International Women’s Day

This year, SOS, mindful of what is worth celebrating and safeguarding, is looking at a debate that has engulfed college season in the United States and will spill into world swimming unless regulators get the rules right.

In the transgender swim story of Lia Thomas, a teammate has finally spoken out, noting “There is no longer a fair an equitable playing field” (see video a few paragraphs down).

The challenges women face in many realms come in many shapes and sizes in many circumstances and systems the world over, none more warped nor savage nor excoriating than the life-and-death challenges facing Ukrainians in the illegal war in which Vladimir Putin and his patriarchal Russian regime are ripping Ukraine apart.

Ayuna Morozova

The stories of Ayuna Morozova and the efforts being made to get people from all walks of life, sport included, to safety give us heartbreaking insight into the cost of one man’s mission to forge, beat and bash world geography and economics in the image of his psychopathic ego regardless of having no mandate or right in law to do so.

In a wavelet of that ocean is sport and within that a drop called swimming where no question, barring the perennial one, is more burning this season than the threat posed by the inclusion of transgender athletes in women’s sport.

Inclusion is the key word, its meaning much manipulated and warped in sport. There is no better moment than IWD2022 to run this first of a three-part series focusing on three current-affair topics that show a tendency for inclusion to mean rights for those whose inclusion represents an invasion of space at the cost and even harm of those who have no issue with creating space for the new in sport but want to exercise the right to be exclusive where to be inclusive would mean (and does mean) accepting obvious injustice and foul, nor fair, play.

In part 1, we focus on the impact of transgender athletes in women’s sport before turning to inclusion in the context of war and suspension and where sport fits in international law and human rights legislation, before we conclude with a return to doping and how the inclusion of those who cheat and even cheat again amounts to the exclusion of those who play by the rules.

A brief reminder of the meaning of inclusion, three key variations:

  1. the action or state of including or of being included within a group or structure.
  2. the practice or policy of providing equal access to opportunities and resources for people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalized, such as those who have physical or mental disabilities and members of other minority groups.
  3. Inclusion is seen as a universal human right. The aim of inclusion is to embrace all people irrespective of race, gender, disability, medical or other need. It is about giving equal access and opportunities and getting rid of discrimination and intolerance.

None of which adds up could possibly add up to a green card for automatic entry into women’s sport for anyone on the grounds that they identify as a woman in my opinion. I believe I’m not alone. Take this from the Guidance for Transgender Inclusion in Domestic Sport from the UK’s Sports Councils (England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales) :

generic women swimmers dive

What the review is recommending: As a result of what the review found, the Guidance concludes that the inclusion of transgender people into female sport cannot be balanced regarding transgender inclusion, fairness and safety in gender-affected sport where there is meaningful competition. This is due to retained differences in strength, stamina and physique between the average woman compared with the average transgender woman or non-binary person assigned male at birth, with or without testosterone suppression.

The gender debate in sport points to a history that highlights the brisk of warp in women’s sport, swimming included – image courtesy of Patrick B. Kraemer

For those who want only the latest development on the first season in swimming that has seen a transgender athlete dominate an entire NCAA season and court more publicity worldwide than U.S. college swimming has ever known, here in the video below is where the work of advocate Nancy Hogshead-Makar has led to. The report includes a swimmer from the University of Pennsylvania making clear that teammates of Lia Thomas support the transition of teammate Lia Thomas from biological male to identifying as a woman but believe she does not belong in women’s sport. The swimmer feels “100 discriminated against” and so do “most of my teammates”. The swimmer concludes: “There is no longer a fair an equitable playing field”:

Report by Rich McHugh at News Nation:

IWD2022 – How U.S. College Sports Bosses Managed To Use One Transgender Athlete To Wipe Abuse From The Headlines

The perennial matter mentioned in the introduction is that which women in sport should be devoting their energies to when they’re not working out: abuse, of the sexual and gender-specific psychological kind first and foremost. Battles have been won, the war rages on every time we hear these kind of stories, to mention but a few:

Nancy Hogshead Makar
Nancy Hogshead Makar (courtesy of Champion Women)

Abuse has been the key campaign focus of Safe Sport advocates such as Nancy Hogshead-Makar, featured in our IWD coverage in previous years, for decades and it has taken decades to get from “governance turns a blind eye in a culture of ‘just go home, shut up and save yourself the embarrassment” to “governance forced into action but survivors speaking out not appreciated by lawyers advising governors to be defensive to a degree that can quite easily be seen as piling abuse upon abuse”.

There has only been one headline knocking the sex abuse headline off news agendas of late: the misogyny, intentional or otherwise, of the Ivy League and the NCAA, UPenn serving as willing accomplice, inherent in a decision to allow an athlete who raced as a man in U.S. College swimming just two seasons ago, to compete as a woman towing all the advantages in sport there can be from growing up as a man across what until lately has been a hard red line of simple, straightforward, biologically logical between the two key defining and diving categories in sport: women and men.

In the undercurrent of a tsunami of coverage on the transgender swimmer Lia Thomas, a swimmer at UPenn who raced in men’s competition in 2019-20 but is racing on the women’s team this season, flows a bitter debate over inclusion and fairness. There is a distinct pattern in that debate:

Those, including folk in Ivy League ivory towers, for Lia Thomas and any in similar situations who would have us believe that gender is a construct of society and must have as little as possible, if anything at all, to do with the genitals and chromosomes we’re born with. Among them are extreme people like the history professor who takes to Twitter on a regular basis and calls the swimming media “fascists”, “white supremacists”, “transphobic haters” and … well, best leave the rest to the poison chalice from whence it came.

Suffice it to say that they respond to any suggestion that Lia Thomas racing among women is unfair (and patently so) like Putin has to the suggestion of jaw not war: the mind is made up and all who disagree are fair game for abuse and slaughter.

Those, including a great many women of lived experience, including women who excelled at the highest levels of sport, scientists such as Ross Tucker, men and women, coaches, parents, who point to male advantage in sport of anyone, regardless of gender identity choices, who grew as a boy through puberty to a man, and conclude, reasonably in my opinion, that to have such people in women’s swimming takes a wrecking ball to a fundamental principle of sport: Fair Play.

Those being abused on social media time and time again include Hogshead-Makar and fellow former world No1 athletes, legends all, tennis ace Martina Navratilova and Olympic decathlete champion before transition, Caitlin Jenner, who has made her views on transgender athletes in women’s sport well known.

They, alongside UK advocate Sharron Davies, Dr Emma Hilton and many others, offer a solution: inclusion through a new category “open” or similar, in which transgender athletes may compete but cannot take places and prizes away from women. So,

  • Version 1: inclusion as space invaded
  • Version 2: inclusion with space created.

That’s a fairly simple construct to understand and well within the mental faculties of folk who believe “sex is a construct of society” and scream abuse at anyone who dares to suggest otherwise even when we are debating in the context of performance sport, where Sex Matters (without a shadow of a doubt).

What such folk fail to do, however, is run their thought through the Primum non nocere test. First, Do No Harm. Non-maleficence is one of the principal precepts of bioethics that all students in healthcare are taught in school and is a fundamental principle throughout the world. It also applies beyond healthcare and asks us to give thought to the potential consequence or harm of a decision or pathway about to be taken.

Do no harm. I believe the inclusion of transgender athletes in women’s swimming has done and will continue to do harm.

Here is where I believe that test takes us: while one side of the debate points to excellent science and argument that tells us Lia and the like do not belong in women’s swimming (so, regulators, please create new space for them do that so that Fair Play survives along with women’s sport), the other side behave as though they are the spawn of the mad math professor who watches a child burn its hand on a radiator and screams “you absolute idiot, turn the tap off and let me show you how this equation proves you can never actually touch the radiator; think about it as you pull yourself together – half of a half to infinity always leaves something over. Got it? Now stop whinging and wash that red paint off your hands!”.

The polite way of saying it is that deeper understanding of the issues in play is required to make sensible decisions based on what is fair for all, not one athlete or several to the detriment of many thousands.

For obvious reasons, much is made of the silver gained because the gold was lost to the doper, the trans athlete or anyone else who ever finished behind a rival most others look over the lane line at and thought “wtf, no way!” yet find themselves in the position of that child nursing a burnt hand, with no guardian ready to acknowledge the blister, no nurse to turn to.

What suited the GDR – and how Brigitte Berendonk told the story of systematic doping and State Research Plan 14:25 … abuse in sport has taken many forms – Main Photo Courtesy NT/CL Archive

The deceit and damage ripple far beyond gold/silver, of course. Start at the entry point: qualification for NCAAs, for example. Lia in means someone is out. Race day: Lia in the final means someone out. Lia wins: as it was in the days of the GDR, three biological women do not get the medal/colour of medal many believe justice would have seen them win, and so on down the chain.

Small beer, some might say. Well, not for the woman affected, nor her family, her coach, her college program and teammate. Take it to national level at trials or championships. Same scenario and one that spills into international waters. Once there, let’s recall that impact of the GDR once more and why that story is highly relevant in a realm of sport that has made rogues feel at home alongside others chasing loopholes, breaking rules and harming others for personal gain, perversion or pennies.

The GDR winners were girls, biological females, but banned-substance androgyny made them almost impossible to beat 1973 to 1989. They did not grow from boy to men, did not have natural male advantages that no amount of testosterone injections and pills can deliver – and yet, they were almost a cert for the podium, if not gold.

Fast forward to 2022, a war that evokes memories of the 1930s is on the wing and the world is not so changed for us to think GDR mark III is impossible to imagine. I say III because II was the China Crisis of the 1990s and the next way of providing certain winners in women’s sport via the tried and tested path of exploiting male advantage in women may well include boys who will be women just in time for ‘success’.

To those who know their swimming, how many champions can you name who became champions before the world had ever heard of them, before even keen observers of the sport had ever heard of them. Now follow the red thread back to the China Crisis and then the GDR: where would their paperwork have come from showing transition phases and associated procedures? Ah! The same doctors who doped them, of course.

Women’s Sport: Get On Your Knees & Start Prayin’!

Sarah Sjostrom – by Patrick B. Kraemer

There are smart folk all over the United States, Ivy League included, with the NCAA and UPenn in the mix. The question being asked, however, appears to be ‘what don’t we need or wish to know’, as opposed to ‘what do we know and what do we need to know’ to make sure Fair Play is paramount in women’s sport.

Little point in having access to all the brainpower in the world if you’re determined not to know more than you need to meet your goal of ignoring all the evidence on why biological Sex Matters in performance sport because you’ve been programmed to base decision purely on politics and societal trends at the very entry level of inclusion.

College sports bosses in the U.S. have pulled the wool over their own eyes and betrayed the right of every woman to a safe and fair space in sport. They have sent a message to the world: ‘If you have daughters talented in sport, don’t send them to us if you think sport is about winning. We’re not interested in that, not even on race day…’

Why would you even want race day at all in that case, I asked one tweeter who was railing against Nancy Hogshead-Makar’s campaigning on women’s rights. The tweeter wrote: “I’ve come to the conclusion that human rights are more important than sports. And yes, I’m a former swim Mom for 18 years. And still love the sport.”

I replied: “But then why not just enjoy sport and leave out the competition … why do you think your view of the world means that half the athletes in the world should accept unfair competition, in which the imperative is not just to do one’s best but also to be the best?”

It so often feels in the trans debate in sport that the very people who say they want an all-inclusive happy world in which everyone is as close to Shangri-La as it’s possible to get are actually the people living in La-La Land on steroids.

Ideology over logic, over fairness, over integrity. Ignorance tops any attempt to understand the key drivers of performance sport. Those have nothing to do with gender identity. In sport, gender = women, men; Gender Identity/Transition = new category required.

That amounts to a dizzyingly degree of stupidity: how does it make any sense to allow women’s sport to be impacted by a campaign for greater diversity and understanding as to why the inclusion of difference is “progressive” when that very same campaign includes telling half the world’s athletes ‘we don’t recognise why you are different, we don’t believe you merit your own sports category and, by the way, your biological status is insignificant to us, along with Fair Play and all the science about the physical and psychological benefits those who develop in puberty and on to being a man over women in sport.

Elephant in the Room … photo by Craig Lord, courtesy of “The Mystery of Banksy”, an unauthorised celebration of the work of the British street artist

It is exasperating to listen to the dead-end justifications of the Ivy League, some based on nothing more than ‘see how nice we are to everyone’ when actually they are being distinctly hostile to women in sport and their parents. Evidence more than suggests that the biological women and their parents have been gagged and threatened with sanction should they dare mention that the following are not the same: a biological woman and a twentysomething trans athlete who grew as a male for the first two decades of his life before it was her life.

It’s as if the Zoo keeper tells the elephant keeper: “Our new ‘Operation Elephant In The Room’ is to have several newborn elephants five years from now … please note clause 5: 5a, ‘no male and female elephants shall be housed or be in each other’s presence in the same enclosure for the next seven years. 5b: artificial insemination is a forbidden practice”.

In other words, women in sport: get on your knees and start prayin’!

I’m Every Woman – Except That Isn’t So

“I’m a woman, so I belong on the women’s team,” Lia Thomas told Sports Illustrated. “Trans people deserve that same respect every other athlete gets.”

Lia’s two sentences do not belong in the same thought. First sentence: No, you are not a woman in sport as they are women in sport. Second sentence: absolutely right. In which case, how do you think it fair to go from outside the best 400 among men in college swimming to No1 in women’s swimming while towing many male development characteristics highly significant to performance in sport? How is any of that respectful to women swimmers who never had the development benefits you had?

Those are the kind of questions I would put to Lia if I were to interview the UPenn athlete, as some who disagree with me have suggested I do because my ‘article’ (it was an editorial/commentary) lacked balance. Sometimes, I replied, there is no balance to be had, as in “the world is round”. I don’t feel I need to interview anyone of ‘flat-world’ persuasion unless the purpose was to hunt them down and ask them how bad they felt about depriving women of their rights.

It would feel a little unfair given that Lia Thomas is where she finds herself because college sport guardians have not only guaranteed constant exposure in headlines and pictures around the world but, in my view, set Lia up for a fall somewhere down the line.

Have you ever actually spoken to Lia Thomas, said one tweeter calling me Transphobic scum. No, I replied, partly because answers like “I’m a woman, so I belong on the women’s team” would result in a line of questioning that I’d rather spare Lia Thomas, to be honest. But if they and she or them and us and I and he and maybe we, or whatever other pronouns you want to use, really insist, I could start with menstruation.

Hannah Miley – image by Georgie Kerr, courtesy of British Swimming

Here’s some excellent insight from Hannah Miley and Rebecca Adlington on what periods mean from women in sport and what energies and efforts have gone in and are going in to educate young girls and their coaches on the impact of menstruation cycles in performance sport.

So, Lia, how was it for you? How many sessions did you have to go easy on and how long did it take you to recover during those first 10 years of regular periods when media man was asking you questions like “Given you’ve had such a bad day, do you feel like you’ve let the whole country down?”. Or how about ‘do you feel blessed Lia to have grown up in a nation where some of the help only recently available to women in sport when it comes to menstruation was already a part of our country’s swim development going way back to the days of George Haines and Lynn Burke.

Truly significant moments in swim history. Would Lia wish me to ask her about all of that and much more relating directly to lived female experience? Probably not – and I would probably not wish to ask.

And yet, if Lia is “a woman” and expects to be treated no differently than other women athletes, she would have to sit in on such interviews, Lia would hear such things raised at press conferences. Lia would be there when journalists ask ‘one for all of you … what was it like growing up with …’. Cue embarrassed giggles and a reminder that one of the medallists can’t be asked the same common-experience questions.

If anyone thinks college season’s been a bit rough on Lia Thomas, pray she never makes it to the big International occasion.

I make such points against the backdrop of prevailing discussion and growth in awareness of mental health and how lived experience is truly significant to development in performance sport behind the purely physical.

Much is made of the depression and potential for suicide among transgender people. If we are to empathise and take care with such things, as I believe we should, would it not follow that we apply the same approach to the impact of trans athletes on women’s sport? Or are carrots only to be assigned to one side of the debate, sticks to the other?

Such matters have been given no thought whatsoever, it seems, by the regulators at the Ivy League and at the NCAA where USA Swimming policies were adopted but then set aside to allow Lia Thomas and other transgender athletes to make not to the ball.

The pathway taken is portrayed as one of enlightenment, “progressive” in nature. I see it differently. Harm can only come to women’s sport and the individuals who are at war with the community of people they want to be a part of. Within weeks, the UPenn team situation went from “all girls happy together – go, go, go!” to secret chats with media and posts on social media that suggested trouble at the mill.

In the past couple of weeks, we’ve read from one swimmer’s mother about gagging orders, women swimmers told to shut up and get on with it, with a smile on their faces, or face the consequences.

We’ve also read some bile from people using such tags as #TransRightsAreHumanRight, without a hint of irony over the inherent loss of rights that represents for others, nor the many reasons why Trans rights do indeed include sport but not rights to access a women’s’ performance sport category that has long been based on gender = birth sex not gender identity.

Talk of “gender as a social construct” just simply does not wash, in performance sport, say many opposed to trans athletes in women’s sport. This exchange highlighted the divide:

The Political Divide

In the United States, the trans challenge to women’s sport has been framed in political leanings left and right and at the extremes of that, the language and lexicon of debate is vicious and personal. In a Two-Tribes atmosphere, neither side helps itself nor the others.

A week ago, Republican Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds signed a bill banning biological males from women’s sports, which runs counter to the trend of national policy from White House through the ranks. Reynolds issued a statement that included:

“This is a victory for girls’ sports in Iowa. No amount of talent, training or effort can make up for the natural physical advantages males have over females. It’s simply a reality of human biology. Forcing females to compete against males is the opposite of inclusivity and it’s absolutely unfair.”

Anyone with an understanding of performance sport knows it. If there is a dividing line in Reynolds’ choice of words it’s where “males” is used when talking about any athlete who identifies as a woman and has a right to do so. Some see ignoring the wishes of the person stating their identity in gender terms even when those run counter to biological sex is discriminatory and harmful and a red flag to a bull.

In the background of that debate are the use of terms that have made mainstream media and are used fairly regularly in the United States but raise eyebrows under the spotlight.

In its otherwise balanced report on the Reynolds statement, The Daily Wire writes: “Progressive groups quickly reacted to the news with condemnation.”

“Progressive”? That may well work in terms of the man who now identifies as a woman and wishes to be known as Lia the librarian, Stella the superstar CEO, Astrid the Astronaut, and so on and so forth. That society accepts them as they wish too be accepted can certainly be viewed as progressive in terms of bringing an end to discrimination against minorities of any kind.

Lia Thomas, right, and her coach at UPenn Mike Schnur – screenshot courtesy of the Daily Mail

But none of that works in any realm where you run it through that Primum non nocere test. In the Lia Thomas situation, harm has been done, in my view, and will continue to be done as long as Lia is allowed to race in women’s swimming; as long as there is a risk of that model being poured into pools beyond the relative backwaters of the Ivy League swim program.

“State elected officials need to stop targeting trans youth and their families,” GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis told The Daily Wire. “As a parent, my heart goes out to all the young people in Iowa who were just cruelly kicked out of school sports by [this] unjustified law.”

Why must they be kicked out, one wonders? Are the folk who run institutions of learning so lacking in vision and courage and support for difference that they can find no way of inclusion except that which is unfair and invasive? Must inclusion mean war?

When President Joe Biden urged lawmakers to enact the Equality Act, criticizing the “onslaught of state laws targeting transgender Americans and their families”, he noted: “As I said last year, especially to our younger transgender Americans, I’ll always have your back as your President so you can be yourself and reach your God-given potential.”

As stated, Lia on the Moon, Lia on Mars merits such support. But this does not: Lia hurtling to gold in a time not far from her best as a young man and now not outside the pace of the best 800 or so 400m male swimmers in the world but two seasons on right up there as a world top 10 among women.

As Wendy Murphy at The Boston Herald writes: “As a male swimmer, Lia was ranked 462 and was not very good. As a female swimmer, Lia is ranked No. 1 in the country and has been breaking records. In fact, Lia’s slowest time is faster than all the women’s fastest times. In a recent 500 freestyle race, Lia finished ahead of the second-place female swimmer by more than 14 seconds.

“Lia is nearly 6-feet, 4-inches tall and is stronger than all of her female teammates. Her chest span is comparatively enormous. Although Lia has been taking testosterone blockers and complying with NCAA rules that allow Lia to compete against women, most agree that Lia has significant physical advantages over her competition.”

At this point, as I draw this to a close, best point out that I am not American and have no dog in the fight of what has been a bitter divide in the United States. As with decisions taken on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, partisan decisions are still possible, though the climate remains fragile and sensitivities abound.

From Europe, I write on the trans athlete maelstrom in college swimming with a sense of both remoteness and proximity. The latter comes from knowing the sport as the son of a coach, as a swimmer and lifeguard then later as a writer and journalist: whether its science or cognitive knowledge, gut instinct or feel for water and the efficiency of swimmers in it, I don’t believe Lia (or any trans athlete) belongs in women’s swimming.

The way forward is to create space. Women need a category that needs no asterisk, no explanation, no different approach to interviews on subjects common to women because a woman no longer needs to be a woman, they simply need to identify as one. The next category is Men, then there would be an Open group (arguments about ‘not enough people’ are misplaced: there are more transgender athletes in the world than there are people with dwarfism but we would not dream of telling anyone born with dwarfism, “sorry, no Paralympics for you – just too few of you”).

In the United States, the debate is never far away from screaming red and blue lines back and forth at each other. I’m about to quote from a conservative media outlet, the Washington Examiner and a commentary by Christopher Tremoglie. Knowing that some will scream ‘citing extremists’ at me, I took a quick look at a paper I’d heard of before. It had some stupid climate-change denial stuff in there and there may well be other material that I might find unpalatable.

So, to anyone hoping to score a point by putting me in the political pigeon holes and constructs of their own mind, don’t bother. It’s irrelevant. The only reason I followed the link sent to me was to read Tremoglie explain why he says “Lia is not, nor ever will be, a woman”.

After his explanation, he writes:

“Lia Thomas is a microcosm of the larger problem regarding transgender people in society – a sense of entitlement. Initially, the transgender rights movement sought to achieve equality and acceptance. People fought to not be discriminated against or have their civil rights violated. Yet, those days are gone. It has morphed into a toxic crusade advocating priority and privilege. It encourages acts such as Lia Thomas announcing (and believing) that Lia is a woman – when it is categorically not true.

“Furthermore, while Lia seeks respect, Lia has directly benefited from disrespecting Lia’s teammates…

“The case of Lia Thomas represents an important cultural issue. Transgender people should not be victims of any form of discrimination, harassment, or violation of their civil rights. At the same time, transgender propaganda must not be allowed to recreate science or tear down societal norms, but this is exactly what is occurring. Declaring pronouns, creating numerous genders, making up words in the English language, and vilifying anyone who disagrees with such things is not equality or respect. It is societal repression.

“Lia Thomas is not a woman; Lia Thomas is transgender.”

Christopher Tremoglie – Photo: Lia Thomas, screenshot courtesy of Washington Examiner

Fair comment on a situation where Fair Play has been put on ice and inclusion is a one-way street to misery in women’s sport.

FINA rule makers are making policy against the backdrop of Lia Thomas’ appearance eight years after I first raised a red flag and noted on SwimVortex that the transgender train was on the track hurtling through the night, invisible by day. It was only a matter of time. And time just ran out.

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