Sports officials waffle on transgender swimmers
Lia Thomas case highlights the long-term effects of testosterone on athletes
Swimmer Lia Thomas placed 462nd in the nation in the men’s 200-yard freestyle during the 2018-19 season for the University of Pennsylvania. After three seasons on the men’s team, Thomas, previously known as Will, switched to the Penn women’s swim program after taking testosterone-suppressing drugs for one year, in accordance with NCAA rules for transgender athletes.
Now Thomas, 22, is ranked first in the women’s 200-yard free category. Despite testosterone suppression, there’s a mere 2.6 percent gap between Thomas’ best times in the men’s and women’s categories.
Athletic governing bodies, including the NCAA, USA Swimming, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC), have wavered over how to handle male athletes like Thomas who identify as the opposite sex. Critics say Thomas’ record-breaking performances underscore why policies relying on testosterone levels fail to address the biological advantages men have over women in sports. In competitive swimming, men can outpace women by up to 12 percent depending on the event, according to comparison data compiled by the World Open Water Swimming Association.
The NCAA in January rescinded its one-year testosterone suppression requirement. It will allow individual sports governing bodies to determine rules for male athletes seeking to compete as women. The IOC similarly removed its testosterone stipulation in November, putting the onus on sports bodies to regulate their own competitions.
On Feb. 1, USA Swimming announced a more stringent policy requiring male athletes to suppress testosterone levels for three years. USA Swimming also established a decision-making panel with three medical experts who review eligibility criteria, including evidence that a male athlete’s prior physical development, mitigated by medical intervention, does not give him a competitive advantage over females.
The NCAA said Thursday it would not adopt USA Swimming guidelines “at this time” because of the “unfair and potentially detrimental impacts on schools and student-athletes intending to compete” in the NCAA championships in March. That decision will allow Thomas to compete at the championships. Meanwhile, the Ivy League said it will also allow Thomas to compete in the conference championships on Feb. 16-19 at Harvard University.
Ross Tucker, a sports scientist and an adviser for World Rugby and UK Sport on their transgender policies, said athletic bodies from the IOC to the NCAA continue to “juggle and accommodate inclusion at the expense of fairness.”
Tucker believes the USA Swimming guidelines are well-intentioned and prevent athletes such as Thomas from switching over to women’s teams one year after competing with men. But its assumptions about testosterone are not supported by evidence, he said. He also questioned how USA Swimming will weigh evidence on male competitive advantage: “The Lia Thomas case is straightforward—whether the panel views it that way remains to be seen.”
Tucker told WORLD he is aware of 13 studies that have tracked outcomes among men who identify as women taking testosterone-suppressing drugs: “Those studies, without exception, show that you cannot remove the advantages of testosterone from years prior.” Those advantages show up in men’s in skeletal structure, heart and lung capacity, increased muscle mass and strength, and lower body fat, Tucker said. This explains the large differences between men and women in strength, mass, speed, power, and endurance capacity. One 2020 study found that men retain a 10 to 50 percent advantage over women after puberty.
Citing multiple studies, World Rugby in October 2020 became the first international sports governing body to prohibit males from competing on women’s teams unless they transitioned before puberty.
Now, as pressure mounts on the NCAA over Thomas, a growing chorus of elite athletes and coaches are calling for fairness in women’s sports. They include Hall of Fame swimming coach Dave Salo, 11-time NCAA champion swimmer Jeri Shanteau, and former Olympic medalist swimmers Nancy Hogshead-Makar, Sharron Davies, and Michael Phelps.
Sixteen of Thomas’ female teammates at Penn wrote a Feb. 3 letter to school and Ivy League officials to support sidelining Thomas from the NCAA championships. The women, who wrote anonymously, noted that they were told to stay quiet about Thomas or risk losing their spot on the team and future job opportunities.
“To be sidelined or beaten by someone competing with the strength, height, and lung capacity advantages that can only come with male puberty has been exceedingly difficult,” they wrote. “[Thomas’] wins, records, and honors should not come at our expense.”
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