2022 FINA Aquatics World Championships
With two nights of Swimming races left before Diving starts on Sunday, the first week of the World Championships in Budapest have already seen a lot of excitement. We’ve seen familiar stars flourish and new ones emerge; we’ve seen two new World Records. In the background, however, the FINA Congress met to take what could be a critical decision in the future of gender and sport.
The Aquatics Worlds consist of championships for Swimming, Diving, Water Polo, and Artistic Swimming (a.k.a Synchronised Swimming). Beginning on 18 June, the first week thus far has seen medal action in Swimming and Artistic Swimming, and preliminary rounds of Water Polo. Artistic Swimming made headlines last night when American swimmer Anita Alvarez fainted in the pool after her performance and had to be rescued by her Coach (thankfully, she’s alright), but there have been actual medal events too. China has won 3 of the 7 events thus far, Japan 2, with Ukraine and Italy taking 1 each.
Despite the absence of stars Ariarne Titmus and Emma McKeon, the Swimming competition has produced some very exciting racing. USA have dominated with stars like Katie Ledecky and Caeleb Dressel excelling, though the latter withdrew halfway through for medical reasons. We’ve seen a range of other stars emerge. Italian Thomas Ceccon set a new World Record in the 100m Backstroke. Hungarian hometown hero Kristof Milak set Budapest alight by shaving 4 tenths off his own World Record in the 200m Butterfly. Youngsters Summer McIntosh of Canada and Romanian David Popovici have also made big splashes by medalling in their events and setting new World Junior Records. 17-year-old Popovici won the Men’s 100m and 200m Freestyle races, posting the 5th fastest 200m swim of all time, becoming the first person in 10 years to go under 1 minute 44 seconds. McIntosh, who’s just 15, won the 200m Butterfly with a Junior Record, won Silver in the 400 Freestyle, and set another Junior Record on her way to Bronze in the women’s 4x200m Freestyle Relay with the Canadian team.
Outside the Pool
Alongside the exciting drama of the pool, there was also some drama outside it as FINA (the governing body of Aquatic Sports) held a session of its Extraordinary General Congress alongside the Championships (Extraordinary is part of their name, not an adjective I’m using to describe them). The aim was to come to a decision on a policy to decide the eligibility of trans women to compete in elite Women’s swimming competitions. A FINA working group had been studying the issue for months and formulated a recommended policy, that was voted in at this session.
The policy states that trans women will not be eligible to compete in elite Women’s swimming competitions, unless they completed their transition from male to female before the age of 12. They will, however, set up another group to study the feasibility of creating an ‘Open Category,’ where trans women could compete without restriction, so as not to exclude them from Elite Swimming entirely.
The justification behind the decision is that going through male puberty creates physiological differences in the body that persist even after hormone suppression post-transition from male to female, so trans women athletes would have lasting advantages even after transitioning and having testosterone levels within the normal female range. This was supported by scientists and medical experts who study gender differences in athletic performance. As such, they argued that allowing trans women to compete in the Women’s category would threaten the competitive fairness of women’s sport. So, where inclusivity and fairness are conflicting, they must prioritise fairness in the interest of the sport.
While this seems unfair for trans athletes as they get excluded from competition, doing the opposite and allowing trans women to compete may be unfair for the women they compete against. I don’t know if there is a right decision, and what it would be, so I’m in no position to judge the policy FINA has adopted. I just think it’s important to know this decision has been taken.
I can see strengths and weaknesses in the arguments offered, and I may have more to say on the underlying justification at a later time. For now, though, lacking expertise, I will reserve judgement on the arguments as well. The only factor I don’t entirely understand is the timing of the decision.
The decision has been lauded by many as a good step to protect women’s sport and preserve its competitive fairness. While this policy might do that, I don’t think competitive fairness in women’s sport is under imminent threat. There aren’t any prominent trans swimmers dominating the world stage. In 5 years, if all the best female swimmers are trans women, and we decide we have an issue with that and then impose this policy, fine, that’s understandable. But that isn’t the case right now.
You may say, hey, they’re anticipating the issue and nipping it in the bud beforehand, ahead of schedule. Well, not in this case. In swimming, being ahead of schedule is called a false start, and it gets you disqualified. Now, not to be harsh, it’s good they’re being proactive and taking a stand, it’s just that in this case there may be more to gain by waiting to apply a new policy. The issue with taking this decision right now is that the claim that trans women would have an advantage is still speculation. Medically informed speculation, but speculation nonetheless, because we haven’t seen trans swimmers in competition. So far, we’ve seen 1 American collegiate swimmer who won the NCAA Division I Championship this year, but that is not a sample, it’s an example. It is not enough to call evidence. By allowing trans women to compete, we may actually see enough of them in the next few years to be able to evaluate how much of an advantage they have, if any.
Sure, that might cause a few other swimmers to miss out on medals they may have otherwise won, but that’s a small short-term cost to ensure we make a more educated decision for the long-term. And that’s assuming there’ll be a few trans swimmers who dominate women’s competition in the next few years, but that may not even be the case. I know of maybe 2 trans swimmers. The need to ‘protect’ women’s sport from them is not immediately obvious to me, and it seems harsh to make this decision that could make an already marginalised group feel excluded, when it doesn’t seem necessary. It’s normally good to be proactive, it’s just that in this case, it’s probably better to not make this decision until we absolutely have to.
Again, FINA’s job is to ensure competition is fair, and they’re just trying to do that. It’s good they’re being proactive, and the proposed ‘Open Category’, while probably not a satisfactory solution, at least represents an effort to be inclusive. In any case, the working group could help learn a lot about how best to make sport both fair and inclusive, especially for trans athletes. I’m sure this will be an evolving issue, but I just wanted to highlight this decision as it could be an important one.
Back in the Pool
Anyways, in the meantime, there’s still a lot of exciting Swimming to watch. Today and tomorrow are the last days in the Swimming pool, at least for the racers and performers. The last 3 Golds in Artistic Swimming are to be decided, along with the last few events of the Swimming competition. We get our last look at Katie Ledecky at these Worlds tonight in the 800 Freestyle, as well as the finals of the Men’s 100m Butterfly, where Kristof Milak could electrify once again. Keep an eye out for the exciting sprint events of the 50m Freestyle (Men and Women) and the Women’s 50m Butterfly, which take place between today and tomorrow. We also get another chance to see Summer McIntosh in action tomorrow in the 400m Medley. Lastly, the most exciting Relays are still left, with the Mixed 4x100m Freestyle Relay tonight, and both the Men’s and Women’s 4x100m Medley Relays tomorrow. That’s just this weekend, before Open Water Swimming, Water Polo Finals and Diving round off the World Championships next week.