FINA, the governing body of international swimming and water sports, largely bans transgender women from competing in “elite” events

June 20, 2022 • 10:45 am

Those of us who have questioned the fairness to biological women of allowing transgender women to compete against cisgender women in sports have been tarred with the adjective “transphobe”.  That’s palpably unfair, but such slurs are often used to shut down debate, as they have been in this case.

I wonder, then, what trans activists will call this new decision of FINA, the body governing international competition in water sports like swimming, water polo, and diving. (“FINA” stands for Fédération Internationale de Natation, or “the international swimming foundation”.)

The organization, advised by a board that included a “science group”, an “athlete group,” and a “legal and human rights group”, including transgender swimmers, has decided largely against allowing transgender women to compete internationally against biological women. (The policy passed with 71% of a vote from 152 members of FINA.) You can see FINA’s eligibility standards here, and read a summary of the conclusions by clicking on the NYT or BBC screenshots below.


From the BBC

The scientific basis of the regulations, which I’ll summarize in a second, came from this bit of the FINA report, which rests on a conclusion that’s pretty firm, and one we’ve discussed before (bolding is mine):

According to the Science Group, if gender-affirming male-to-female transition consistent with the medical standard of care is initiated after the onset of puberty, it will blunt some, but not all, of the effects of testosterone on body structure, muscle function, and other determinants of performance, but there will be persistent legacy effects that will give male-to-female transgender athletes (transgender women) a relative performance advantage over biological females. A biological female athlete cannot overcome that advantage through training or nutrition. Nor can they take additional testosterone to obtain the same advantage, because testosterone is a prohibited substance under the World Anti-Doping Code.

The policy, with the main points below, applies to all international (“elite”) competitions, but is likely to be adopted by other swimming (or athletic) organizations, which until now have had a confusing mixture of eligibility criteria based on levels of circulating testosterone over various periods. (USA Swimming, which regulates American college meets, recently changed its policy, which is still based on testosterone suppression and circulating hormone levels.)

  • Trangender females can compete in “elite” events only if they have either not gone through male puberty or only part of it. As the BBC notes,

“The 34-page policy document says that male-to-female transgender athletes can compete in the women’s category – but only “provided they have not experienced any part of male puberty beyond Tanner Stage 2 [which marks the start of physical development], or before age 12, whichever is later”.

The “Tanner Stages” of puberty, of which there are five, define Stage 2 for women as follows:

Stage 2 marks the beginning of physical development. Hormones begin to send signals throughout the body.


Puberty usually starts between ages 9 and 11. Visible changes include:

In males, puberty usually starts around age 11. The testicles and skin around the testicles (scrotum) begin to get bigger.

Puberty usually starts around age 11. Changes include:

    • Testicles and skin around the testicles (scrotum) begin to get bigger.
    • Early stages of pubic hair form on the base of the penis.

If you’ve gone past Tanner stage 2 by the age of 12, you appear to be ineligible. This would rule out transsexual swimmer Lia Thomas—who went through full male puberty before deciding that her gender was female—from competing in the “women’s” category. In fact, it rules out anybody who’s gone through full male puberty from competing. But the statement about age 12 is a bit ambiguous, and any readers who want to explain it are welcome.

A 46, XY disorders of sexual development (DSD) is a condition in which an individual with one X chromosome and one Y chromosome in each cell, the pattern normally found in males, have genitalia that is not clearly male or female. Infants with this condition tend to have penoscrotal hypospadias, abnormal development of the testes, and reduced to no sperm production. Some individuals with 46, XY DSD have fully to underdeveloped female reproductive organs (e.g., uterus and fallopian tubes), while others do not. People with with 46, XY DSD may be raised as males or females.

The FINA rules for these individuals are that they must compete against biological males. From the FINA report:

All male athletes, including athletes with 46 XY DSD, are eligible to compete in FINA competitions and to set FINA World Records in the men’s category, regardless of their legal gender, gender identity, or gender expression.

  • The rules for female to male transgender athletes are these, which allows them to compete against biological males (from the FINA report):

Female-to-male transgender athletes (transgender men) are eligible to compete in FINA competitions and to set FINA World Records in the men’s category, except that: i. For the disciplines of Water Polo and High Diving, the athlete must provide to FINA an assumption of risk form (in the form set out in Appendix One to this Policy) signed and dated by the athlete or, if the athlete is a minor, by their legal proxy.

The risk form is in the FINA rules; this frees FINA from any responsibility for injury to transsexual males. Presumably Water Polo and High Diving are riskier for those born as biological females. This is the reason why the World Rugby barred all transgender women from playing women’s rugby: they worried that the strength and size advantages of transgender women would be dangerous to biological women in this heavy contact sport.

  • Finally, FINA is working on establishing an “open” category for those who can’t or don’t wish to compete in the “men’s” or “women’s” category. From the FINA guidelines:

Athletes who do not meet the applicable criteria for the men’s category or the women’s category may compete in any open events that FINA may develop in the future. FINA will begin work following the final promulgation of this Policy to determine the feasibility of establishing an open category in Aquatics sport disciplines, in which an athlete who meets the eligibility criteria for that event would be able to compete without regard to their sex, their legal gender, or their gender identity.

My take is that, given the science we know so far about the strength, size, and physiological advantages conferred on men during their puberty, and the evidence that these advantages last several years (and perhaps forever), these rules are fair.  What’s good about them is that they were informed by science, and can thus be modified in light of further scientific findings.

The fact is that although we have pretty good evidence that going through male puberty confers very long lasting athletic advantages, the studies investigating this are few.  All I can say is that the data on puberty itself is better than the data relating testosterone titer to athletic performance, for which we have little evidence, and evidence that’s conflicting and more controversial.

Reading the NYT and BBC article together, I got the distinct impression that the NYT tried to include a lot more criticism of these rules than did the BBC. I may be wrong, but it seems that the NYT went out of their way in a news article to level criticism of the FINA decision. But read both for yourself, for given my animus against the NYT I may be mistaken.

But if you want to see the rules in extenso, without any outside takes from non-FINA people, read the report for yourself. The first 18 pages of the 24-page report will give you the gist.

h/t: Jez, Enrico

43 thoughts on “FINA, the governing body of international swimming and water sports, largely bans transgender women from competing in “elite” events

  1. in related news FIFA appears to be going the other direction.

    The ruling body’s draft framework has removed its testosterone threshold for transgender women and proposed that footballers should be allowed to compete as their self-identified gender.

    1. This is just ridiculous, the people who come up with and advance these ideas have obviously never played/competed to a high level. Football (or soccer), when played competitively, is very physical in nature. I used to play competitively (unfortunately I’m late 40s now and my body isn’t willing), and have lost count of the times I have been elbowed, clashed heads, had my legs kicked from under me, or been thrown to the floor by stronger players. The most dangerous situations have been when I’ve jumped to win a header against a bigger player and their greater mass and momentum has knocked me flying, breaking ribs and causing concussion.

      I was by no means skinny and small – 5′ 10″ and 175 lbs – but I had tons of injuries, and all due to physical contact with opposing players. I had a broken nose (twice); broken jaw, orbit and cheekbone which required titanium plates to fix (two surgeries); broken ribs; both shoulders dislocated; then following a reckless tackle by a big defender, a ruptured left medial collateral ligament and meniscal tears in both knees (three surgeries).

      And football wasn’t even my main competitive sport! I’d played it a lot when younger, but only took it up again when I had to retire (due to injury) from elite competition in another sport. I still got bashed and knocked about all over the place. I can’t see any sensible reason for allowing biological men to compete with women, it’s an absurd and dangerous idea, and has nothing to do with equality or fairness.

      1. I thought that “working on a national or international sport managing body” was one of the regular destinations for competitors whose bodies can no longer manage the sport ; the other common destination being “coaching”.
        Regardless, if this means the death of football/ soccer, then I for one wouldn’t shed a single tear. It’s a thuggish game and it’s fans behaviour emulate on-pitch behaviour, as you say, and frequently an utter disgrace.

  2. No enough.

    “Transgender females can compete in “elite” events only if they have either not gone through male puberty or only part of it.”

    Why the HELL did they stop there? Those boys are still men and will be men for their life, no matter what insanity they do to their bodies and hormones. All it takes is one nuanced advantage to win a race by .01 seconds, and you can’t claim a male with puberty blocked doesn’t have such an advantage.

    This was an opportunity to say “females only” and go by sex. [yes, i know, there are a tiny tiny cohort of physically blurred/combined. Don’t destroy the world for that.]

    What is “part” of puberty?
    Does he still have male reproductive organs?
    Has every trace of possibly unknown hormonal advantage been eradicated?

  3. An excellent decision by FINA, and not before time. Amusingly, trans rights critics of the new policy keep describing it as “unscientific” but offer no evidence for that assertion – or, indeed, any explanation of why they are suddenly interested in the science given that they still maintain both that biological sex is irrelevant and that humans are not sexually dimorphic.

    1. If that is their belief, then what does “transexual” really mean? Why would you get surgery and hormones to make you look very close to being a member of a sex which is not really distinct from your birth sex? And why would we even WANT men’s versus women’s competitions?

      1. And why would we even WANT men’s versus women’s competitions?

        To fuel confirmation bias?

    2. Anne Lieberman, Director of Policy and Programs at Athlete Ally (a nonprofit LGBTQ athletic advocacy group) states: “FINA’s new eligibility criteria for transgender athletes and athletes with intersex variations is deeply discriminatory, harmful, unscientific and not in line with the 2021 International Olympic Committee framework on Fairness, Inclusion and Non-Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity and Sex Variations,”

      1. The existence of male and female categories in sport is surely by definition discriminatory. The discrimination between men and women has a sound and reasonable purpose i.e. to ensure safe, fair and meaningful competition. If you really want to have non discriminatory competition then you have to have entirely open categories. No-one is excluded from competing that way but female competitors could forget about ever challenging for elite status.

  4. “Male-to-female.” “Transgender females.” Terms like these simply add more confusion to their professed distinction between sex (male/female) and “gender” (both man/woman & masculine/feminine.)

    They set the situation up for the advantage of Trans Rights Activists who demand full inclusion. How can anyone coherently argue for separating sports (or anything else) on the basis of sex if transwomen are constantly referred to as “female?” Shouldn’t that mean they belong on a female-only team?

    We don’t even have the vocabulary to state the rules clearly. The FINA ruling is indeed welcome, but those terms which first separate, then blur, a distinction between sex and gender just look like trouble down the road. It would be like Christians calling their prayers to God “secular prayers” and church/state separation advocates celebrating a victory where “secular prayer” is removed from public schools because public schools should remain secular.

    1. Suggest you stop calling them transwomen in the first place. They are transsexual guys who want to look like women. They aren’t women, “trans” or otherwise. That would really help a lot in concentrating thinking. Certainly for purposes of sport, prisons, and violence shelters they are men, not women. And although this a private matter, people with dicks can’t be lesbians as far as the lesbian women they hit on are concerned. And they can’t be straight women as far as straight men are concerned, either.

      1. I’m afraid that ship has sailed. Trans guys are females who are transitioning/have transitioned to men. If you don’t stick with the established convention, you’ll just confuse everybody.

  5. I see it as a fair decision by FINA. Over time, there will most likely be adjustments to the rules based on further knowledge and experience.

  6. I’d been thinking about the trans women issue, and broadly agree with this decision, which seems to make biological sense. However, reading this it occurred to me that trans men, who nobody seems to have an issue with competing in mens sports since they would not bring any unfair advantages (indeed in most sports the opposite) might still be excluded since, as noted, exogenous testosterone which is essential for a female to male transition is a banned substance in most sports.

    1. there is an externality … the presence of a woman (trans man) in the men’s locker room. Etcetera. WAY etcetera. Once and for all, it ought to be based on sex only. Period!

    2. Yes. I’ve wondered why there hasn’t been more emphasis on how most governing sports organizations try to enforce rules against various exogenous agents, e.g., testosterone and other anabolic steroids, EPO, blood doping, etc.,which seem to me to be equivalent to the effects of endogenous hormones, regardless of how long it’s been since they were “suppressed.”

      If a female (biologic and gender) were to take testosterone and get caught, she’d be immediately suspended. But somehow the transphiles say it’s ok for a trans woman to have essentially taken it for years during puberty.

    3. Correct. Neither XX nor XY athletes can compete anywhere against anyone if they are taking testosterone. Some have continued to compete as women while psychologically or even surgically transitioning before they start taking testosterone. One college swimmer, a contemporary of Lia Thomas, had had her breasts amputated but deferred starting testosterone until after her swimming career finished, so as not to be disqualified for doping.

      1. Wait a tick–Lia thomas was born a man and transitioned to being a woman. How could she have her breasts amputated? And she wouldn’t be taking testosterone if she were transitioning to being of the female gender.

        1. I apologize for the imprecision. I ought to have said, “Some female (XX) college swimmers have continued to compete as women . . . before they start taking testosterone, which is perfectly within the rules. One such, who had had her breasts amputated, was a contemporary of Lia Thomas.“ Because I always refer to Thomas as he/him, I knew in my own mind that he couldn’t be the antecedent for “her” but I realize this is not universal practice. (I mentioned Thomas just to provide a time reference.)

  7. I was puzzled by the following phrase: “…not gone through male puberty or only part of it”. Is going through only part of puberty comparable to going through only part of death? I recall a character in a Monty Python sketch who claimed the latter experience. Come to think of it, much of contemporary discussion makes me think of Monty Python sketches.

    1. Death is a state. Puberty is a process.

      You can’t go through part of death: you are either dead or you are not. I guess you could go through part of dying, though because dying is a process.

  8. Great outcome and as PCC says, informed by science. I like the unambiguity of this eligibility statement with a few carveouts for rare genetic exceptions that “All athletes must certify their chromosomal sex with their national swimming federation in order to be eligible for FINA competitions.” I like the fairness to women emphasis. I like the obvious and incontrovertible scientific fact that women and men ARE different in important ways which is implicit in the policy that women-to-men transgender athletes can compete without restriction. I’ll further make a prediction that because every male Olympic record exceeds every female Olympic record in history (caveats to differences in like events that use heavier equipment for the men, e.g. the discus and events decoupled from raw athleticism) that it’s highly unlikely that trans men will qualify for the men’s Olympic events and they will never win an event.

    A Reuters article today reported one reaction from the LGBTQIA community: “The U.S based campaign group Athlete Ally said the policy is “deeply discriminatory, harmful, unscientific” and out of line with the stance of the International Olympic Committee.”

    I’ll summarize these critiques:
    – discriminatory: no, even including a pilot program to create a new open category.
    – harmful: Athlete Ally must specify how and to whom
    – unscientific: that’s a lie. Read it. Very anchored to science.

    They go further as Director of Policy and Programs at Athlete Ally, Anne Lieberman, goes on to say “The eligibility criteria for the women’s category as it is laid out in the policy police the bodies of all women, and will not be enforceable without seriously violating the privacy and human rights of any athlete looking to compete in the women’s category.”

    How then is drug testing Olympic athletes not a similar violation of an athlete’s privacy and/or human rights which they all consent to to compete? Even that testing for performance enhancing drugs (like steroids) is only done to ensure fair competition.

    I’ll grant that implementation of this policy in many sports across the globe in sports beneath the level of the Olympics may be practically difficult to do. Nevertheless, there has been lots of woolly thinking and politicization of the trans athlete issue and this policy is probably as good as it gets.

    1. Of course it’s discriminatory. Elite sports is discriminatory by definition. Women’s sport is discriminatory by definition. Discrimination isn’t always bad.

      Harmful? Yes it’s harmful, if by “harm” you mean shattered dreams. But the question is do you shatter the dreams of women or trans women. I’d go with the latter and when they say “you are harming me by not allowing me to compete in women’s sport” we go with the same answer they would give to the women against whom they would have been competing and beating, which is “suck it up”.

      The open category will not satisfy the trans activists, because they want to be treated as women. It’s not about the right to compete, it’s about the right to be treated as a woman for all practical purposes. The open category is the opposite of that.

  9. The BBC Radio 4 Today programme this morning had an interview with an American trans woman about the FINA decision. She flatly refused to accept that natal males who had passed through puberty before transitioning had any significant advantages at all. She was surly, illogical and contradictory throughout: a very poor advocate for the trans activist position.

    And she was introduced as a participant in mixed martial arts. I would have thought that MMA was one of the least suitable sports to pitch trans women against natal women (but what do I know). Sadly, the interviewer didn’t think to challenge her on this issue.

  10. As an ex-amateur sportist, I wonder a little. Generally as an amateur squash player one tries to seek out stronger opponents or a similar level. As I got older I did not mind playing weaker opponents, it was a a way of giving back, so to speak.

    I played for fitness and the camaraderie and social aspects. Playing football (soccer for the uninitiated) … in our recreational league, we had have three women on the pitch at anyone time. The trans issue never came up, but I suspect if there were trans women on the pitch, the players would adjust their physicality of play appropriate to the ability of the trans woman.

    With this elite stuff, one wonders is the sport for recognition and reward? It does not seem to be for being the best at the sporting endeavour that you can be.

    1. If you are doing recreational sport, Rom, you may be missing the point of what FINA is doing to keep elite swimming fair. You may be happy to play fitness football where the league requires three woman from each team to be on the pitch. Sounds fun and rewarding. But tell me, does any team ever play with four or more women? If so, does the other team reciprocate out of good will by playing four or more also, or does it stand on the rule of three and press its advantage? If you don’t care who wins, fine, but then why keep score? Maybe you don’t, and that’s OK, too.

      But if one side fielded a XY-trans as one of their women, would the women on the other side who had to defend against him say that was fair? What if he was actually pretty good and even your male players had trouble tackling him? Maybe they wouldn’t mind if no one was keeping score. Or would there be some grumbling eventually? You can make whatever rules suit you. But that’s not what FINA is about.

      1. Oh I don’t think so. I understand FINA fine, I think. What I may have difficulty is understanding the concept of fair in a universe dominated by cause and effect and reconciling it with our alleged free will.

        Any abilities [sporting or otherwise] I have, have been dealt to me by genetics, environment and society. The way I play those abilities is a product of chemistry and physics.

  11. “The fact is that although we have pretty good evidence that going through male puberty confers very long lasting athletic advantages, the studies investigating this are few.”

    Considering how often this topic is discussed and has been discussed for several years now, the relative dearth of scientific studies speaks to a huge silencing effect in the scientific community. Surely, this topic would have an enormous amount of studies available if scientists weren’t concerned that their jobs and reputations would be jeopardized by studying the issue and reaching the “wrong” conclusion. And perhaps activists would say that even the idea of studying the subject alone is offensive regardless of the conclusion, as it suggests that there ever could be a difference between trans people and people who identify with their biological sex.

  12. Jerry invited explanatory comments on the age cut-off of 12 years incorporated into the FINA rules. That section on eligibility of male->female trans athletes to complete as women appears on pp. 7-8 of their report which Jerry linked. The quoted statement is indeed ambiguous (poor translation?) but para. ii makes it clear that a boy who enters puberty early can defer puberty suppression until his twelfth birthday even if he has progressed past Tanner Stage 2 by that time.

    No rationale is given for this chronological age over-ride of pubertal stage and the FINA report cites no references.. By current medical guidelines (irrespective of competition prospects), GHRH antagonists can be given to children contemplating transition as soon as Tanner 2 features appear, with no minimum age, in order to delay or eventually abolish the male-female differentiation that would otherwise occur as puberty progresses. Indeed they are given to much younger children to suppress the condition of precocious puberty. I can see that a boy aged 11.5 might just not be ready to consider taking hormones and it is humane to allow him and his parents to defer the decision till he’s 12.

    (If a boy showed no signs of puberty at 12, FINA says he didn’t need to have started suppression until Tanner Stage 2 appeared, which I think is uncontroversial….at least by the standards of this whole controversy.)

    Does a boy allowed six to twelve months of “free” puberty before suppression must begin at age 12 not gain some permanent athletic advantage that will come in handy later if he wants to swim as a woman? We don’t know.

    How many boys (and potential future female competitors) would fall under this age exemption?
    A 2019 report from the Danish National Birth Cohort, Timing of puberty in boys and girls: A population‐based study, found that about a third of boys had reached Tanner 2 by age 11, and 70% by age 12. Voice-breaking had occurred in just 20% of 12-year-olds, about the same proportion who had reached Tanner 3. Fewer than 5% of 12-year-olds had reached Tanner 4 in any domain. So perhaps not much is really happening inside most boys before their 12th birthdays even if there is some pubic hair appearing in the early bloomers. The study did not have access to growth charts or ticks marked along household door frames to determine when growth spurts began. The study also confirmed numerous reports that the timing of puberty is getting earlier in every generation in boys as well as in girls.

  13. Jerry, the detail regarding ’46 XY DSD’ requires a little more clarification.
    You refer to a syndrome, but not sure that’s the right terminology for the umbrella category – it’s not used in the pages you link to.
    There are different ’46 XY DSD’ conditions, but only a very few of them are of relevance here, the sub-set that can correctly be called male-intersex.
    By male-intersex, I’m using the definition: born biologically male, with testes, but with female-typical external-genitalia, therefore possibly raised as a girl either by mis-diagnosis or by choice of parents.
    The two main male-intersex conditions are 5ARD and CAIS.

    5ARD (5-alpha reductase deficiency) is a genetic mutation that prevents production of the enzyme 5AR which is required to convert T into DHT – DHT is an androgenising-hormone much more potent than T.
    During gestation, DHT is required to masculinise external-genitalia – hence without sufficient DHT, genitalia may be ambiguous or female-typical.
    Importantly, T is still produced at male-typical levels, and the individual will still go through ‘full’ puberty i.e. develop full male sports-advantages.

    With CAIS (complete androgen insensitivity syndrome) as the name implies, the body cannot respond to androgens, therefore XY/testes, but develop female-typical genitalia/phenotype. Importantly, puberty does not involve any of the male-typical advantages i.e. the body does not respond to T, does not ‘build’ male physiology.

    So, the World Athletics rules/regulations on male-DSDs, includes 5ARD in the list of conditions of concern, but excludes CAIS i.e. 5ARD athletes have male-advantage, CAIS athletes do not.

    More info in my tweet here:


  14. It shouldn’t be an “elite” ban, it should be a total ban. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad to see this. I’m shocked, however, as I didn’t think they had the balls.

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