July 26, 2023 - 7:00am

World Aquatics has just announced plans to set up an open category for elite swimmers, possibly as early as this year. This welcome and progressive development fosters both inclusion and the integrity of women’s swimming.

Last year FINA — as the organisation was then known — barred transgender swimmers from competing in women’s elite races and setting women’s world records. If, that is, they had gone through male puberty. That would certainly have disqualified Lia Thomas, a college swimmer at the University of Pennsylvania. In 2021, Thomas provoked widespread and justifiable outrage after making the switch from male to female competition, leaving women to compete for second place.

But it should be noted that Thomas was not banned from swimming. FINA was clear about that in its 2022 policy: “male-to-female transgender athletes (transgender women) remain eligible for, and are welcome to compete in, the men’s category whether or not they are suppressing their endogenous androgens.”

The new open category should remove any confusion, genuine or contrived. World Aquatics President Husain Al-Musallam explained that “nobody should be excluded from our competitions.” Open competition is just that, so there should be no barrier for trans women or people of either sex who identify as non-binary. A separate female category then provides fair competition for women.

Unfortunately, Al-Musallam did not go into detail regarding eligibility for the female category. Last year’s FINA policy included male swimmers “if they can establish to FINA’s comfortable satisfaction that they have not experienced any part of male puberty beyond Tanner Stage 2 or before age 12, whichever is later.”

In my view, that was a grave error. Firstly, sex differences do not start at puberty; and secondly, it puts pre-pubescent boys at potential risk of harm from repressive regimes that care more about winning medals than the lives of their athletes. 

Swim England’s new “open and female” policy is much better. From September, “only athletes who have declared a birth sex of female will compete in the ‘female’ category.” This will apply for all events licensed by Swim England, where times are submitted to official rankings or talent pathway competitions. Pressure needs to be placed on the world governing body to get on board with that language.

While “open and female” categories protect women’s sport, they do leave men without a competition to call their own. That said, male swimmers are unlikely to give up any records or medals in swimming, certainly at the elite level governed by World Aquatics. It’s not inconceivable that a trans woman or a non-binary swimmer — of the male sex — could win races in the open category. But whatever labels they might claim, they cannot identify out of their sex.

Debbie Hayton is a teacher and a transgender campaigner.