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Picture of a swimmer used for editorial purposes.

Hyperscrunitized and sensationalized, transgender athletes have long faced discrimination while simply trying to compete. The latest of these measures, first implemented on June 20, effectively bars transgender women from competing in women’s swimming events. On the preceding Sunday, FINA, the organization that administers international and Olympic swimming competitions, voted in favor of a policy that prevents any woman who transitions after the age of 12 from competing. Many have criticized the policy for being unreasonable, unscientific, and even dangerous.

FINA and the International Olympic Committee have refused to refer to the new policy as a ban, instead, evasively calling it a “gender inclusion policy.” There is nothing inclusive about this policy, which excludes transgender women from ever competing at the most elite levels. Although the policy technically allows those who transition before the age of 12 to compete, no medical interventions occur before puberty, barring the vast majority from competing. For instance, the World Professional Association for Transgender Health recommends that those receiving gender transition hormone therapy be at least 14.

Excluding transgender athletes will do nothing to enhance equality or fairness in sports. If anything, when the Olympic Committee spends precious time and money passing anti-trans policies, they are actively detracting time and attention away from more pressing issues that affect female athletes.

For starters, no openly transgender athlete has ever won an Olympic medal in any individual sport, let alone in swimming (although Quinn, a Canadian transgender athlete, won gold in women’s soccer at the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics). Cisgender women are by no means being “outcompeted” by transgender women.

Meanwhile, real barriers to female success in sporting have gone unrectified by regulatory bodies. Investing in female coaches and equal pay for women have both gone undiscussed. No measures to protect athletes from sexual assault and abuse have ever been passed, even after the U.S. Olympic Committee’s complicity in the Larry Nassar case was revealed. If FINA and the IOC really want to increase inclusivity and protect female athletes, there are far larger threats to tackle than the “threat” of unfair competition from transgender athletes.

Existing regulations, such as those requiring athletes to undergo hormone therapy, are largely effective at promoting fairness. When people take hormone blockers, they lose height as well as muscle mass, according to a study in the Journal of Bone Metabolism. Additionally, because hormones like testosterone are already highly regulated at elite levels, any advantages are massively minimized. Advantages like bigger lungs and hands that are criticized by proponents of the FINA ban are not unique to transgender athletes. In fact, 28-time Olympic medalist Michael Phelps was notably lauded for his unusually large lungs. But when transgender athletes achieve success, their bodies detract from rather than amplify their success in the eyes of the media. When University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas won the 2022 NCAA 500-yard freestyle title, media attention focused not on celebrating Thomas, but rather vilifying her for supposedly taking the title away from “more deserving” cisgender women.

Thomas wasn’t the villain the media made her out to be — she had transitioned not to gain a competitive advantage, but rather to feel like herself. Thomas had always been an elite distance swimmer, but it is no surprise that she found the greatest success after she transitioned — athletes perform best when they feel comfortable and secure in their own bodies. Vilifying transgender athletes for performing well creates an impossible binary: either athletes never succeed at the highest levels, or their success becomes a catalyst for their exclusion.

More broadly, banning transgender athletes in the name of “protecting women’s sports” demonizes transness as a threat to cisgender women, paving the way for more governmental and regulatory scrutiny of transgender bodies. Already, other sports are implementing similar bans, and even recreational and youth levels are taking up similar policies. FINA and the International Olympic Committee are not insignificant actors. They are influential players with the capability to set powerful (and dangerous) precedents in sporting as a whole.

Painting transgender athletes as a threat massively increases the already rampant stigmatization they face — 22 percent of trans women in school left due to harassment, according to the U.S. Trans Survey. Aside from policing transgender women, these policies will harm all women.

Already, athletes like runner Caster Semenya have been discredited and barred from competing for having naturally elevated testosterone levels. Invasive sex testing, especially at recreational and youth levels, poses a far larger threat to girls than the supposed threat from transgender athletes — girls will have to worry about their hands being perceived as too large, their shoulders too large, and legs too muscular. Sports are an integral part of most children’s childhoods, and no child should have to choose between competing in a sport they love and feeling comfortable in their own body.

Currently attending school in Washington, D.C., Irene Zhao mostly writes content exploring the global impact of foreign policy. Outside of writing, Irene competes on her school's debate team and enjoys reading about world affairs.