When Will Men Deciding What’s Best For Women Get It? Fairness In Swimming Is About Biological Sex Not Gender Choice

2022-01-20 Reading Time: 10 minutes
Whatever the threat to a level-playing field, shiny suits or aliens, Michael Phelps has a right to fair Play in this sports world or our caricature parallel universe in which fellow men leap to his rescue. Why don't they leap in support of the sanctity of women's sport? - images, Phelps by Patrick B. Kraemer; Finnius Rex by C. Lord; The Committee of Five present their work, June 1776, detail of John Trumbull's 1819 painting Declaration of Independence

Editorial and resources – The chief tragedy in the NCAA statement that passes the ball to USA Swimming when finding a way out of poor transgender / sex category rules pouring injustice into its pool this season is the scream in the void of the missing word: women.

An ocean of questions might start with: how could any authority worth its intellectual salt, let alone ethical backbone, in the land where The Committee of Five presented its work on the Declaration of Independence in June 1776, issue a statement that has a direct impact on women’s sport without once mentioning … women?

When will men (3.97 billion, 50.42% of the world population) deciding what’s best for women (3.905 billion, 49.58% of the world population) get it: fairness in many sports, swimming a prime example, is about biological sex not gender choice?

FINA, conscious of the International Olympic Committee’s new position, announced last November, is engaged in discussions with experts with a view to framing a new rule on transgender beyond the current TUE arrangements.

Fresh from the first Olympics in history that delivered event parity in the pool between women and men, the global regulator tells SOS it is talking to experts about new rules in the wake of the red flag sent flying over the U.S. College pool. Those talks may yet lead to FINA being the first organisation led mainly by men that names women’s sport in terms of what it has always been: a category of sport as big as the men’s category with a right to be autonomous and safeguarded by rules designed to be fair and inclusive to biological women.

So far, men, all the way back to the GDR era and the woes therein, have not been the best of companions of women when it comes to speaking up on behalf of their teammates in swimming.

As such, it was good to hear Michael Phelps air his views on the transgender debate raging in the pool because that foreseen by observers like me and written about several years ago finally got real when a swimmer called William Thomas decided to become Lia Thomas and went from a man outside the best 800 in the world to U.S. College Season No 1 in the U.S. and a potential global top tenner among women.

Thomas did so with the full acceptance and permission of the NCAA and in that sense was playing by the rules. As you might expect, she and her coach Mike Schnur at Penn in the Ivy League, spoke in support of those rules. The trouble was clear, however: those rules were an ass.

Phelps, whose comeback potential raised questions that Hilary Mantel’s Henry VIII might once have contemplated, features in our main image as parallel-dimension alter-ego Pikey Melps posing a question to Finnius Rexus, over from the planet Amphibia with his eye on an easy prize. When men are threatened, other men will make a fairly swift ruling. For them to do so when women are the only ones being threatened in sport takes much longer, it seems.

The G.O.A.T is not a decision-maker but he is an influencer and in an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour raised the transgender issue in swimming with him, he likened it to his experience with doping in the sport, saying that he did not think he had competed in a “clean field” in his “entire career.”

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

He might have reached for the better analogy: the GDR era and the androgenisation of girls with steroids to grant them a distinct edge on their fellow female rivals in the pool. And he might have reached for the reason why allowing a transgender woman who are up from boy to man into women’s swimming might well be described as worse than doping in that testosterone and the strength it brings are only a part of the picture: boys to men grow up with distinct irreversible advantages inherent in the male make-up, including differences in capacity of cardiovascular system, bones and ligaments, not only muscles.

Still, Phelps’ focus was based on his own experience and made a very valid point, one he expressed in these words:

“I think this leads back to the organising committees again. Because it has to be a level playing field. That’s something that we all need. Because that’s what sports are. For me, I don’t know where this is going to go. I don’t know what’s going to happen … we all should feel comfortable with who we are in our own skin [but] sports should all be played on an even playing field.”

“I don’t know what it looks like in the future. It’s hard. It’s very complicated and this is my sport, this has been my sport my whole entire career, and honestly the one thing I would love is everybody being able to compete on an even playing field.”

Michael Phelps – made to win among men, otherworldly G.O.A.T … but might struggle against aliens -photo by Patrick B. Kraemer

His view is given against a backdrop in which the transgender lobby has pointed to Phelps’ physique and qualities helpful to performance in the pool and concluded that ‘sport is unfair anyway’, as justification for their argument that trans rights extend to allowing a boy to man identifying as a woman to enter a category of sport based on sex not gender for a variety of sound reasons, which I point to further down and in the links to relevant resources.

‘Look’, they cry, ‘Phelps has long arms, wide shoulders, thin hips and he recovers faster from racing than nearly everyone we ever knew’, and so on. Well, yes, those are certainly among reasons why he can beat me and all those blokes behind me and almost all those blokes in his career who could also beat me over 200 ‘fly, an event in which my name is on a Scottish trophy alongside that of Ian Black.

Ian’s best times when he won titles European and Commonwealth were slower than those I would come to swim – but he was a much better swimmer than me relative to his day, a champion in international waters a few years before I was even born.

Bottom line: Phelps and Black are blokes and, like just about all other men I know, I’m happy with the spectrum of differences and capabilities within the category that we have all belonged to since birth. It is a category based on biological sex, not gender, because sex, not gender, conveys game-changing advantages in sport.

If anyone argues with that, consider this: I would have given Petra Schneider a tough challenge over 400IM in her era and mine but then both she and those she trounced for Olympic gold at Moscow 1980, where Sharron Davies was closest to her some 10sec back, weren’t blokes. Faster than Davies in some events, at least, I was. A better swimmer I was certainly not.

Now, of course, to be fair under prevailing rules in swimming, I’d have had to take a year out and have reduced my testosterone levels to take on Petra and Sharron in our parallel universe. There was no chance of that ever happening but seeing the theory through, Petra would have pulverised me. I would have struggled with Sharron, too, in all likelihood, but who knows, Olympic bronze? Place in a final? Not bad for a bloke travelling at a pace, pre-testosterone reduction, a little shy of a short-course length off the pace of the last man home in the Olympic final at the Games where Petra raced in a league of her own.

A league of her own was what fairness would have demanded, too. As we know, she had a distinct and ultimately poisonous advantage over other women: she was doped – and harmed – by a system that to this day remains unpunished nor even officially acknowledged and denounced for the Sporting Crime of the 20th Century, by Olympic sports authorities. She was also a girl, a woman and did not have the advantages of maleness that stretch well beyond testosterone.

Which takes us to the second and third tragedies in the NCAA statement and a decision that leaves Fair Play trailing well behind the pitiful priority of “punting, all the better to get us off the hook”:

The 2nd tragedy: the NCAA has opted to to follow USA Swimming’s testosterone-chasing policy, which follows FINA’s TUE approach to the matter, currently very much under review, but the college authority does so at a time when USA Swimming version of inclusion is to allow transgender women to invade space in women’s sport in certain circumstances rather than a version of inclusion in which it works to create space for transgender athletes in a way that does not impact women’s sport.

What point “The Last Gold” and all the message therein if almost half a century after Montreal 1976 became a monument to the nature of key categorisation in sport: biological sex counts; biological sex assisted in ways that attempt to infuse women with male qualities that enhance sports performance represents cheating; biological sex rendered a disadvantage by having to compete against athletes who are from boys to men and have irreversible male qualities is fraud if you happen to be a biological woman.

After the NCAA statement, USA Swimming announced that it will allow ‘non-elite’ athletes to compete in a way that is ‘consistent with their gender identity’, while it formulating a new policy for elite athletes, a process best left to coincide with FINA’s pending rule changes. The USA Swimming position forgets the obvious: today’s non-elites are tomorrow’s elites, so will the rule book seriously aim to build a position in which a 14-year-old boy who identifies as a girl can swim in local events as a female who does so well that by 15 finds themselves worthy of ‘elite’ (where does the border of that definition lie?) status and gets told, welcome, but you’re no longer eligible to compete among females?

In truth, it can be and is all rather more simple that political correctness would suggest.

The debate has moved on to a higher intellectual plain, where we listen to expert knowledge that confirms the significant differences in physiology and development between boys to men and and girls to women that play out in game-changing ways in sport (resources article to follow).

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

By game changing, I’m talking about this: William Thomas was outside the world’s best 800 men in middle distance swimming in his last season racing among men at college a couple of years back as he left his teens behind and welcomed his 20s. At 22, as Lia Thomas, the same athlete is the fastest 200-500-yard swimmer in the American college pool this season and, setting aside the uncertainties of conversion to long-course metres, is travelling at a speed that would imply national-team places are a possibility ahead. Extrapolate further when dealing with the World No 1 swim nation and it is a small stroke to understanding that Thomas is likely to be World top 10-20 speed among women.

I use ‘among’ because – and no matter how much it annoys the hell out of the transgender lobby – while in life generally, Lia has a right to identify as she wishes and has a right to have that respected, Lia is not and can never be a biological woman – and that counts massively in sport (hence, ‘outside top 800 aged 20 among men; hurtling into top 10 at helm of American college pace at 22 among women’). How then to safeguard women’s sport and have sport be inclusive to transgender athletes?

Sex Matters & Why Punting Is The New Game In Swimming

The 3rd tragedy: For the past 30 years, the NCAA has rejected one of the biggest changes in Olympic sport: the end of the amateur era, often not in practice because most swimmers can count themselves lucky if for their efforts they get double what they earned the year before, for a sum total of … nothing.

As an era opened up in which swimmers could and did start to earn prize money, accept endorsements, get paid for appearances and any work at schools, clinics and so forth as they spread the swimming word and inspired the next wave, the NCAA stuck steadfastly to ‘no money, no commercial gain’ etc. That’s changed to a certain extent of late, but only after decades of deliberating.

Now, confronted with the widely publicised issues that have dominated the college swim season so far because of a failure to see that sex, not gender, matters most in swimming, the NCAA has opted for ‘whatever gets us off the hook’ all round.

What the NCAA has effectively decided is to leave everything pretty much as they had its but add in the extra requirement of testosterone proof that is a part of the USA Swimming rule that follows IOC medical guidance that has now been superseded. The USA Swimming rule states:

Rules in focus – Photo by Patrick B. Kraemer

“Trans female athletes must demonstrate a total testosterone level in serum below 10 nmol/L for at least 12 consecutive months prior to competition and must remain below this threshold throughout the period of desired eligibility to compete in the female category in any event.”

In order to take her new rattling form in college racing in 2021 forward into the NCAAs, Thomas would need to show the paperwork confirming the above, dated and signed by a doctor. Whether the swimmer has such documents remains to be seen. If she does, the NCAA women’s season will face the same pressures every time the question mark of women’s sport takes to the blocks: is it fair to demote sex below gender in swimming?

The 4th Tragedy: lack of foresight and connectivity to the world. The only organisation that has not punted to the authority of another on the transgender, in part because it can’t, is FINA.

The two men in charge of the global aquatics regulator and leading a reform process, president Husain Al-Musallam and executive director Brent Nowicki, have confirmed to SOS that the transgender issue is being discussed with experts and a decision on a new approach and draft rule is within sight.

A decision could be taken in time for the World Championships in Fukuoka in May, though emergency powers would have to be enacted to get any new rule on the books by then: fresh legislation usually takes a vote of Congress (general or extraordinary) and only comes into force no sooner than two months after the vote has taken place. It is possible for the executive to expedite the process.

Meanwhile, the NCAA, being at the heart of institutions of learning with fine access to library loads of expert literature explaining the physiological differences between men and women, why sex matters and how they play out in sport, could have opted to expedite its own future arrangements with a view to being inclusive AND safeguarding women’s sport by understanding that testosterone is not the Holy Grail of understanding and fairness in sport.

generic women swimmers dive
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

If women’s sport is to avoid the nightmare of the kind of injustices we witnessed during the GDR era, in a realm and in a world in which rogues will doubtless be out there monitoring weakness in rules that might be manipulated or easily sailed passed for gain, a new open category is required for transgender athletes, to ensure inclusivity and make sport attractive to the transgender community. And to deliver fairness to the two sex categories that have long recognised why that key division matters in sport. Precisely how that is achieved and where the competition would be best placed remains an open question.

What ought no longer to be a question hanging over the future of women’s sport like a dark and ominous cloud is this: “Should women have to compete against athletes identifying as women who, regardless of testosterone reduction, bring with them to the blocks significant male advantages in the sphere of performance sport?”

In their statement, at a time when no adequate rules are in place to safeguard women’s sport, NCAA leaders did not help women to answer that question. Indeed, they did not even use their name: women.

Is that so hard?

Women, born and bred and with every right to say so and engage in sport with the expectation of Fair Play delivered by rules set by people fit to govern sport because they’ve understood why sex is the rock, gender the choice that needs accommodating with the nature of sports in mind.

Coming soon: resources that show why sex, not gender, must remain as the measure that matters when it comes to categories in sport: men and women.

Share this post